A long time search of information, including the digital collections of Northeast Alabama Community College, was instrumental in two Vietnam veterans reuniting. This is their story.
When Curtis Davis received a letter from Long Island, New York, he was puzzled. He didn’t know anyone from New York and didn’t recognize the name of the man who signed the letter, Jim Carlina. That was because when Curtis and Jim first crossed paths in 1968 in a landing zone in Vietnam near the Cambodian border known as “LZ Dot,” Jim had been just one of the many men that Curtis, as a Pathfinder, had assisted. Curtis’s job was to be the eyes and ears on the ground for the helicopter pilots so that the pilots could focus on maneuvering.
As the pilot of the CH-47 Chinook he was riding in calmly announced they may crash, Jim wondered if he would ever see his family again. Jim credits Curtis, along with the chopper’s crew, for getting the helicopter to the ground without serious injury of any soldiers. Curtis had been at LZ Dot for a while then and was familiar with the area.
Jim would later be injured at LZ Dot by an RPG blast and spend weeks in various hospitals. However, in this phase of the Vietnam War, even an injury as serious as Jim’s was unlikely to get a soldier sent home. Duty called. Jim was quickly sent back to LZ Dot, where he watched his wired-shut wound drain for the thirteen months he remained there.
The moment that sticks with Jim the most, even today, is not the RPG blast, but the helicopter crash. In fact, he didn’t even notice the RPG wound until another soldier mentioned it. By the time the RPG incident occurred, Jim was a soldier hardened by his experiences at LZ Dot, including the helicopter crash.
After the war Jim returned to New York and settled on Long Island. Curtis returned to Scottsboro and took courses at what is now Northeast Alabama Community College. Curtis worked for years as city planner for his home town of Scottsboro and eventually retired from that job. He still works part time in assisting the town of Hollywood in planning.
Jim’s letter to Curtis was the culmination of years of his own curiosity about that chopper crash in Vietnam. By the mid-1990s, with the popularity of the internet, Jim began to wonder if he might be able to contact other veterans who were at LZ Dot the day of the crash. Maybe he would find someone who was on the helicopter or witnessed the crash from the ground. Years removed and miles away, maybe someone could fill in some information he had forgotten, misinterpreted in the stress of the moment, or had never known. Over the years, he did locate some of the men on the helicopter with him and exchanged correspondence. He even got a personalized Wounded Veteran license plate that read “LZ Dot” in the hopes of sparking a conversation with someone who knew about the crash. One day, many years after he began searching, Jim googled LZ Dot and some other words (Jim forgets the exact search he performed now) and arrived at a Google Books page for They Wouldn’t Let Us Win: Jackson County, Alabama Veterans Relive the Vietnam War, written by Dr. Ronald Dykes and published by the Jackson County Historical Association in 2012. Dr. Dykes’ book is a compilation of the memoirs of fifteen Vietnam War veterans from Jackson County, Alabama. Jim’s search took him to the chapter in which Curtis Davis detailed his Vietnam War story, and there Jim found the story of the helicopter crash from the man on the ground that helped guide the damaged helicopter safely down.
In addition to the eBook, Jim has since found Dr. Dykes’ interviews of Curtis and other Vietnam veterans in the digital collections of Northeast Alabama Community College Learning Resources Center. In 2015, Dr. Dykes approached head librarian and division director Dr. Julia Everett and archivist Blake Wilhelm to gauge their interest in housing the cassettes on which he recorded the interviews for They Wouldn’t Let Us Win and three other books. They were happy to accept the donation and applied for a State and Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) grant to digitize the interviews and make them available on Alabama Mosaic, the repository that houses NACC’s digital collections. The grant was funded and the interviews, along with other digital collections from NACC, are available at www.alabamamosaic.org.
When Jim’s letter arrived, Curtis read it and was astonished at the unlikely connection that technology produced. In the letter, Jim thanked him for helping him all those decades ago and included his phone number. The thing that Jim sought most from Curtis, other than the opportunity to express his gratitude for saving his life, was more or less an affirmation of this pivotal event in his life. So much of who Jim is today began with the events surrounding that helicopter crash in the jungles of Vietnam all those years ago. A person builds layers of themselves through life experiences, and Jim couldn’t help but wonder if maybe his memory was altered by the distress he felt in the moment the crash happened. Curtis’s recounting of the event, as someone deeply involved but apart from the immediate stresses of being inside a crashing helicopter, validated Jim’s memory. It was as if Jim now knew that the things he had tethered himself to were sturdy.
Curtis was ecstatic about connecting with Jim as well. In the hopes of sharing his story, he put the letter in the pocket of his jacket and kept it on his person whenever he went out to dinner or to the store on the off chance that he might run into Dr. Dykes or another Vietnam War veteran. Eventually Curtis did run into Dr. Dykes, who was happy to have played his part in bringing Jim and Curtis together. In April 2019, Dr. Dykes mentioned the story to Blake Wilhelm, Northeast Alabama Community College Archivist. While Curtis had misplaced Jim’s phone number, the Scottsboro Electric Power Board was able to assist Curtis and Blake in locating Jim’s number so that the two could reconnect and their story could be told.
Wilhelm stated, “Beyond the incredible story of two veterans reuniting, Jim and Curtis’ story also speaks to the power and importance of digital history as well as the importance of funding the arts and humanities.”
For more information about the Northeast Alabama Community College Archives and Special Collections, go to https://www.nacc.edu/library/archives.
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