Local vets honor Navy Cross recipient Harry Zinser for his heroic deed 43 years ago

By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor
Former Navy aviator Jim Lloyd presents a Veterans' Award to Capt. Harry Zinser during ceremonies Wednesday at the Kings County Fairgrounds.
Former Navy aviator Jim Lloyd presents a Veterans' Award to Capt. Harry Zinser during ceremonies Wednesday at the Kings County Fairgrounds.

It was an especially heart-wrenching Veterans’ Day Wednesday at the Kings County Fairgrounds, where two men, who first met in the rice paddies of North Vietnam over 43 years ago, came together once again to remember one man’s act of valor, a truly heroic act that earned him the nation’s second highest award for valor: the Navy Cross.

Jim Lloyd, the aviator Harry Zinser (right) saved 43 years ago, is pictured with the Navy Captain.
Jim Lloyd, the aviator Harry Zinser (right) saved 43 years ago, is pictured with the Navy Captain.

Former Lt. Jim Lloyd and Capt. Harry Zinser have been friends ever since that fateful day on Aug. 6, 1972 when Lloyd, an A7 fighter pilot, flying off the USS Saratoga, was shot down deep in the heart of North Vietnam. They’ve seen each other many times over the years.

It was on that fateful night so long ago at 9 p.m. that Lloyd, flying off the deck of the Saratoga, an aircraft carrier that had lost nearly one-third of its fighters to enemy fire, found himself over the dark skies of Vietnam. Suddenly, in route to his destination, an enemy missile suddenly locked on to his plane and knocked off his jet’s wing. Lloyd ejected and parachuted into the infamous rice paddies of North Vietnam and was immediately surrounded by the enemy. Behind him he saw his fighter jet explode.

“It was in an area where no Americans were ever seen again,” recalled Lloyd, still slim and looking like one of America’s finest officers 43 years later.   “I immediately contacted my wingman and they set up SAR (Search and Rescue). I was hiding in a little clump of grass.”

Navy Recipients of the Navy Cross

The Navy Cross

The young naval officer remembered, as he remained hidden away in the grass, that North Vietnamese soldiers were at times barely 6-feet away from him. He managed to slip away, but in all the nervous excitement he left his all-important radios behind in the grass. He was forced to return to the scene – and the North Vietnamese – to retrieve them. He wouldn’t have been able to contact his rescuers without the all-important radios.

At one point Lloyd thought he had been caught, but the enemy soldiers departed, thinking perhaps that he was dead.

“I was either going to get killed, caught or rescued,” said Lloyd. He preferred rescue but he remembered he didn’t think his odds were that great. “I had no idea how they were going to get to me,” he said. “They’re goal (enemy) was to kill me and the crew that came to get me.”

When things appeared bleakest, in comes a Navy helicopter, piloted by Lt. Harry Zinser, searching for a glimpse of a light from Lloyd, who was obviously surrounded by the enemy. Unfortunately there were many lights on the ground, and with North Vietnamese bullets being sprayed at him, Zinser managed finally to identify a strobe light that Lloyd carried, and then settled his helicopter barely above the ground allowing Lloyd to jump in and fly to freedom.

Zinser was serving at the time with the Helicopter Combat Support Squadron aboard the Saratoga and he was the pilot in command of the combat rescue helicopter that led a five-hour search for Lloyd that night of Aug. 6 and morning of the 7th.  According to the citation Zinser received for the Navy Cross, Zinser, “in the face of intense enemy fire, commenced a low-level flight and turned on his landing lights in order to facilitate the search. Although the aircraft was repeatedly hit by enemy ground fire, he continued the search until the downed pilot was visually located. Lt. Zinser then carried out a skillful landing, picked up the downed airman and succeeded in flying his crippled aircraft at treetop level back to the safety of the Saratoga.”

It was nearly an impossible mission, one that many pilots may not have taken, but disregarding the danger to himself and his crew he saw it as his mission to save his fellow aviator.

For that action, Zinser was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award of valor, just below the Medal of Honor.

It was no accident the two men met again on Veterans Day. The Hanford Veterans of Foreign Wars Nisei Post 5869 at its Veterans Day Festival at the fairground, in recognition of Zinser’s valor on that day so long ago, named him the Kings County Veteran of the Decade and presented him with an award honoring his heroic service. And Lloyd was there to be a part of it.

Zinser wasn’t even aware that he was to receive an honor for his service. Friends and family kept the secret from him. “It’s just so great to live in a community that has so much support for its veterans,” said Zinser. “We just came from NAS Lemoore where they had the Aviator Memorial award there and what a tribute. It’s just great to be here in Lemoore and it’s a privilege to serve this community, the high school and just to be a veteran today and for  all of us to be here as veterans of the United States of America.”

Zinser, in addition to attaining the rank of captain, was Lemoore High School’s first NJ ROTC commander and guided the young cadets for about 18 years before retiring a few years ago. The Lemoore NJ ROTC is considered one of the finest units in the country, thanks in large part to Zinser’s leadership.

After his term in the Navy – following his near death and rescue, Lloyd returned to the Saratoga where he flew several more missions for the remainder of the war – he returned to the United States and earned a Master’s Degree, becoming a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

He currently resides with his wife Sue a little north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. They have two sons.

“I wish the whole United States was like this part of the country,” said Lloyd. “I’ve been very impressed about this part of the country and the support of the military. We don’t see that everywhere, and as far as Capt. Zinser, I do everything I can to support him, to recognize him, to be with him and we’ve all become good friends. He saved my life. I wouldn’t be here without him and a day doesn’t go by when I’m not reminding myself that I’d miss out on all of this. I’ve been around for 42 and half years since this (incident) and I wouldn’t be here without him.”

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