Roy Exum: Thank You, Bill Zinkeler

Monday, September 21, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is one story in the Bible that I try to never forget. It’s the one where the Lord Jesus healed 10 lepers but only one came back with thanks. Man, forget those other nine … I strive to be the one who comes back. After all God has done in my life … I may fail again and again. I may be ‘a back-slider,’ and a disappointment to the Kingdom, but, brother, not thanking God every night for my blessings will never become a problem … no, sir-ee, skippy!

Yet it is true. In the book of Luke, chapter 17, verses 14-19, we read: “And when He saw them, He said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.

“And Jesus answering said, Were there not 10 cleansed? But where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And He said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.” (KJV)

In Sunday’s Nashville Tennessean, a featured story was a letter from a retired federal judge who is now “the one who came back.” It seems a query from his son caused Federal Judge George C. Paine II of Nashville to comb back through his aged records and track down the crew chief on a war-torn helicopter who one afternoon in Viet Nam saved the judge’s life.

It's a heckuva story. ‘The OD Green Machine’ – with no weapons aboard – landed in a hailstorm of gunfire 50 years ago to evacuate Paine and five more of his badly-wounded men who had triggered a booby-trap bomb and rush them to a field hospital.

The judge quickly marveled that almost all of the brave men aboard were from the South but the one he wanted to thank was the crew chief, a dandy guy who I called ‘Zinc’ when we were mates at Chattanooga’s City High School. (You are right! Zinc (Zn) has the atomic weight of 30 on the Periodic Table of Common Elements.)

Bill Zinkeler was actually a year ahead of me and in my brother’s class. There were a bunch of guys who went to Viet Nam that year. My brother left for the Marines the day after he graduated, and guys from my class were swept up in the draft, too. The Viet Nam “conflict” was wrong by all measures, but Bill Zinkeler was a genuine hero using the exact same standards.

When Bill came back home, he went through UTC on the GI Bill, then pinning on a Chattanooga Police Department shield that he wore with the same merit for 30 years before retiring as the captain over homicides. He was immediately hired by Sheriff Jim Hammond on his command staff before he retired again several years ago.

Totaled up, Bill Zinkeler’s “O.D. Green Machine” flew over 900 trips into the battle zones. No one can possibly conceive how many fellow soldiers died in his arms or – far more importantly -- how many more were kept alive by ‘Zinc’ and his crew.

Imagine, 900 trips and now, 50 years later, one has come back to say thank you. I only hope he can envision that as thousands read the Judge’s letter, there were thank yous galore from us who will never forget. Never. And while it’s fresh, thank you, Judge Paine, for your service as well.

* * *


- - -

The Dust-Off crew chief and I were finally able to meet five decades after he rescued me in Vietnam. COVID-19 made the reunion unconventional.

- - -

Written by The Honorable George C. Paine, II, who was the Chief Federal Judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Middle District of Tennessee. He retired from the court in 2011.
(Note: This story appeared as an Op-ed in the Sunday editions of The Nashville Tennessean on Sept. 20, 2020.)

Several months ago, my son asked me to send him a 1970 article that referred to my medical evacuation in Vietnam. The article was focused on the 247th Medical Detachment, Helicopter Ambulance, called a Dust Off, operating along the South China Sea.

It took some searching, but I found and sent it. I realized, rereading it, that the five personnel mentioned — pilots and crew — were all from the South. The crew chief who mentioned my extraction was from Chattanooga, two hours down the road.

My son, who was in San Francisco, thought I should contact him and two days later he had located the crew chief, Bill Zinkeler, and had emailed him. Bill said in 50 years he had never met anyone he had combat airlifted out of the field.

Over almost 900 missions, that amounted to thousands of people: Americans, Vietnamese, Koreans, Australians, and others. I was stunned by this and sent Bill a message saying I wanted to thank him for pulling me out of the boonies so long ago and was remiss for waiting 50 years to do so.

On Aug. 13, 1970, as an infantry platoon leader, I had led a small group of 10 to 12 soldiers to check out a thatched hut that had recently been used by enemy soldiers in the scrub jungle between Phan Thiet and Phan Rang. As we entered the dwelling area, a booby trap was triggered and six of us were wounded.

What follows an explosion like this is a period of chaos and uncertainty as one tries to deal with the situation from a tactical and medical standpoint. Once I regained consciousness, I had to set up a defensive perimeter, direct the medic, contact my company to come assist us, ask them to send a reaction force, and call for a Dust Off.

We loved the helicopter pilots and crews who we relied on for transportation, supplies of food and ammunition, gunship protection and removing us from the field if wounded. They were truly heroic, and the most courageous and inspiring were the unarmed Dust-Off guys – their helicopters and they had no weaponry.

They would fly in to help those of us “on the ground” under the most dangerous situations with seemingly no thought of their own safety. We always knew we could call on them night or day, even in the monsoon rains, and they’d be there for us.

Aug. 13 was no exception. Within 20 minutes a “bird’ was “on station” and preparing to land. Six of us were quickly loaded in the chopper and it took off. For me it was an odd and helpless feeling. I was in extreme pain and was leaving my platoon in possible immediate danger without an officer. Further I was trying to comfort and console the soldiers who had been airlifted with me.

In spite of this, I had another thought while on my stretcher. We had a heavy load with six wounded men, and it was taking us forever to get into the air. It seemed like we spent an enormous time flying low over the terrain trying to gain altitude.

So, I’m thinking, “This is great, I might possibly survive the booby trap only to be shot down in a helicopter flying way too low for my comfort.” It was actually comic relief to think of the absurdity of my thoughts.

In a previous war, we might not have survived

During the flight to the base camp, called LZ Betty, for triage that would be done by the only doctor there, I remember talking with this then-unknown crew chief to get information from him. I have never forgotten how impressed I was with his concern, kindness, and care for all of us, while in his own chaos he was handling his duties of looking after us.

He was coordinating with the pilots who couldn’t see behind them, and was in contact with the base camp, getting it prepared for a bird load of wounded. The doctor and the soldiers at the base camp would prepare for us based on his assessment.

At LZ Betty we were quickly removed from the helicopter and examined, and two of us were soon on our way to an evacuation surgical unit at Cam Ranh Bay. Remarkably, we had been picked up in the field within 20 minutes, examined within 30 minutes, delivered to a surgical unit within an hour and put on the operating table soon after.

In the Korean War and wars previous to it, we would have stood a real likelihood of not surviving.
COVID-19 meant we couldn't meet in person, but here's how we connected …

I never forgot the crew chief and, when reconnected, I was delighted to hear of his successful life after the Army. Bill had returned to college and gotten his degree, spent 30 years with the Chattanooga Police Department, retired as a captain of the Investigative Services Division, and spent another 15 years as manager of the Civil Warrants Division for the Sheriff’s Office.

We have spoken by telephone and he answered questions that I had pondered over the decades. How did they get to me so quickly? Who flew me to Cam Ranh Bay? What was the difference in a Medevac and Dust off? (The latter didn’t have machine guns and operated under the Geneva Convention.) I didn’t even know I had gone to an Air Force hospital rather than an Army one. We had a great telephonic reunion, swapped tales and have since exchanged photographs.

However, what I was really looking forward to was getting together with Bill and his wife for lunch Aug. 13 at their house in Chattanooga on the 50th anniversary of his kindness towards me. Further, my wife and two sons who have lived with my Vietnam experience for four decades were eagerly anticipating the visit.

Unfortunately, Bill who has pulmonary issues was told by his primary physician that our reunion was too risky in this time of COVID-19 and it would have to be put off. We did, finally, see each other, but on a screen. We had a Zoom meeting Aug. 13 – exactly 50 years to the day after he cared for me and five others in a rescue the likes of which he carried out multiple times daily for soldiers and civilians, too.

It wasn’t the reunion I had envisioned, but this was a wonderful substitute. We intend to get together in the flesh once the plague is over.

* * *

Above all, remember this: One came back. Glory.

* * *


“So, live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

“Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

“When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.

“When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” –  Tecumseh, Chief of the Shawnee (March 1768-Oct. 5, 1813)

Bill Zinkeler
Bill Zinkeler

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