It took him 40 years, but he never gave up hope. A fellow Vietnam veteran says: ‘He let the families know their sons did not die alone and they’d never be forgotten.’
Jim Zwit never forgot the hot, sticky smell of Vietnam. And he never forgot the eight Army buddies he lost there in an ambush in 1971.
He made it his life’s mission to track down each of their families, spread across the United States. And that was in an age before finding people was made easier by the likes of Google, email and social media.
It took him 40 years, but he finally found the last of them.
“He let the families know their sons did not die alone and they’d never be forgotten,” said Pat Condran, a fellow vet who plans to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of the April 15, 1971, firefight that forever changed the lives of those who survived.
Mr. Zwit, 70, a former Chicago cop who later ran his own investigations agency, died last month at his home in La Grange Park of bladder cancer, though his doctors think his wartime exposure to the chemical Agent Orange contributed to his health problems, according to his wife Grace.
Young Jim grew up on the Southwest Side and went to St. Bede the Venerable grade school and Bogan High School.
He was a student at what was then called the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle when he decided to enlist in the Army.
He served in the 501st Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. In Vietnam, whenever he met another kid from Chicago, he had one question: “Cubs or Sox?”
He was all Sox all the way.
In an interview for Honor Flight Chicago, Mr. Zwit said he and fellow GI Robert C. Hein bonded over their love of motorcycles. They dreamed of riding the Pacific Coast Highway when they returned home.
“He made a pact with me, don’t ask me why,” Mr. Zwit said, that “ ‘If something happens to one of us,’ he goes, ‘the other guy has to go back and see the family to explain what happened.’ ’’
In 1971, Mr. Zwit and 77 other members of D Company were assigned to retrieve a soldier’s body from the A Shau Valley.
“Our motto is: You never leave a man behind,” he said in another interview, with the Veterans History Project.
Mr. Zwit said he and his comrades didn’t realize they were surrounded by 1,500 North Vietnamese regular Army troops who shadowed them for two days without their knowledge.
“They watched us land. They followed us for two days — and our command knew this,” Mr. Zwit told the Veterans History Project.
On April 15, 1971, “All hell broke loose,” he said in the Honor Flight Chicago interview.
Eight men were killed and 13 wounded in an ambush — more than a quarter of his company.
Mr. Zwit was badly injured by shrapnel.
But Hein dragged his 20-year-old friend to safety, propped him against a tree and kept fetching water for him.
“He’d crawl back every so often, canteen of water, canteen of water, canteen of water,” Mr. Zwit said. But then: “There was a point where he didn’t come back.”
Hein had taken a direct hit. He died instantly.
Mr. Zwit always wondered whether his friend died because he was trying to get him a drink.
“Something I have to live with,” he said later. “I think about it to this day.”
He was choppered to safety in a rescue so perilous that the helicopter had to zoom off with Mr. Zwit clipped to a cable, swinging through the foliage.
“I was kissing every tree that was in front of me,” he told the Veterans History Project.
Mr. Zwit suffered massive injuries. Much later, he found medical records that spelled out just how badly he was hurt. They said: “Doctors do not believe he will live.”
He underwent 12 hours of surgery and was given 25 units of blood. He lost 70% of his liver, part of his stomach, his gallbladder, a kidney and four ribs. It took him 20 months to recover.
“He was beat up pretty good,” his wife said.
Mr. Zwit told an interviewer, “I knew when I got better, I knew where I was gonna go.”
And so he set out to find Hein’s mother. That would take him 17 years.
Mr. Zwit’s backpack and address book had been destroyed the night of the attack. Hein had told him he was from Sacramento, so he called the Sacramento Bee, but the newspaper couldn’t find a death notice for him.
In the late 1970s, when a friend visited Sacramento, Mr. Zwit said he told him, “Go to a phone booth, and rip out all the pages with ‘Hein.’
“I called every one. Nothing.”
Then, in 1988, he spotted a story in a military magazine about a new Vietnam veterans’ memorial in Sacramento and wrote a letter to Sacramento newscaster Stan Atkinson, who was helping with the tribute. Atkinson alerted Mike Kelley, a 101st Airborne vet who was on the memorial committee. Kelley worked in the assessor’s office but had no luck finding Hein’s family through records there.
By coincidence, though, Kelley heard another volunteer, Doug Durham, say that Condran — Durham’s brother-in-law — was coming there from his home in Fairbanks, Alaska, to march in the parade for his fellow Company D member — Bob Hein.
It turned out that Hein was from Sacramento County, not the city. And his relatives were in a town Mr. Zwit hadn’t checked — Rio Linda, California.
It was “a series of miracles,’’ Mr. Zwit told WTTW-Channel 11.
Hein had made the same pact with Condran about getting in touch with one another’s relatives if either of them was killed.
Condran, who’d already met the Heins, gave Mr. Zwit the phone number for his mother, Catherine Hein-Markley.
“It was the hardest call of my life. I called her the next day,” Mr. Zwit said in the Honor Flight Chicago interview. Soon, “She was like another mom to me.”
He went to Sacramento and met Hein’s mother. And he and Condran both marched in her son’s place in the parade to dedicate the California Vietnam Memorial.
Hearing about how her son had helped Mr. Zwit that night, Hein’s mother told a reporter, “I’m real proud of my son, and it is as if just a part of Bob has come back now through Jim.”
“Meeting the first mother, the first parent of one of those eight guys that died that night, it was unbelievable,” Mr. Zwit told WTTW. “It was the most satisfying thing. . . From that day on, I said, you know, I’m going to keep trying to find the other seven families.”
Hein’s sister Toni Doucet said the meeting helped heal his relatives and that, like Condran before him, “Jim became part of the family.”
He and Condran made Hein come alive to the nieces and nephews who never met him. They explained the details in the Instamatic photos that soldiers took of each other when things were quiet.
Mr. Zwit stayed in touch with Hein’s mother. “She got 13 years with him” before she died, Doucet said. “Phone calls, emails, cards, letters.”
After returning home from Vietnam and joining the Chicago Police Department, where he worked for about a dozen years, Mr. Zwit started an investigative and process-serving agency.
He used his detective skills and the Internet to continue his research, locating relatives of six more of his buddies killed in Vietnam. But he was stymied finding the family of William J. Ward, who was from Greene County, North Carolina.
That is until he went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on April 15, 2011 — the 40th anniversary of the firefight. He noticed a woman kneel to study the bottom of panel 4W, where his friends’ names were.
“He asked me, ‘Ma’am, can I ask you who you came to see?’ ” Lois Daniels said. “And I said, ‘William Ward.’ He got all choked up, and he said, ‘William Ward — I’ve been looking for you all these years.’ We just cried together.”
Daniels is married to Emanuel Daniels, a cousin of Ward.
“I put my arm around her, and I said, ‘I’ve been looking for your family for 40 years,”’ Mr. Zwit recalled in a speech at a 2018 veterans’ memorial ceremony in Anthem, Arizona.
She didn’t know it was the anniversary of the firefight. An educator from Hampton, Virginia, Daniels had decided to visit the memorial with her grandchildren while on spring break.
“I just call it a true miracle,” she said.
Mr. Zwit connected by phone with Ward’s family and got photos from Vietnam and news clippings to Ward’s mother Mary Lena Ward.
He regularly spoke at schools about his military service.
Mr. Zwit was buried this month at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. In addition to his wife Grace, survivors include his daughter Jennifer Hennessy, sons Jeffrey, Vincent and Christian and four grandchildren.
“He lived every day to the fullest,” his wife said, “because he was so grateful he survived Vietnam.”