Merrick veteran reconnects with his savior

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It was supposed to be a simple troop and supply transport. Jim Carlina, a young military soldier at the time, was in a helicopter hauling several tons of water to a landing zone in war-torn Vietnam. The mission went awry when engine fires caused a crash landing. Carlina would never forget the dizzying, life-changing experiences that followed.

“The last thing on my mind was, ‘Who’s on the ground?’” Carlina, now 70, recounted in his North Merrick home. The week before Veterans Day, he reflected on his service and experience in that landing zone — a tale that was incomplete for more than 50 years, until he reconnected with the soldier that was instrumental in saving his life.

Carlina was drafted into the Army on June 4, 1968, at age 19. The Brooklyn native was sent to nearby Fort Hamilton for training. “I felt an obligation to do it,” he said. “Back then, you just knew it was your duty.”

The crash occurred on Nov. 26, 1968, at Landing Zone Dot, or LZ Dot, near the Cambodian border — a place foreign to Carlina and his fellow artillerymen. Its location, in the middle of an Agent Orange-scarred forest, meant it could only be reached via helicopter.

There were four crewmembers, including the pilot, transporting the passengers. Carlina didn’t know what to expect. “I just remember the look” from inside the chopper, he said. “Quiet, somber, except for the vibrations of the rotor blades.”

Then, unknown to Carlina, the chopper’s left engine caught fire. He heard popping noises as the crew rushed to release the load. He recalled the pilot struggling to maintain control of the aircraft. After the right engine ignited, the helicopter began swaying uncontrollably, hitting the barren trees below.

A tree stump pierced the bottom of the chopper on impact, hitting the ceiling just to Carlina’s right. Then the helicopter rolled on its side, its blades ripping and smacking against the trees.

The crew on the ground helped the uninjured passengers out of the downed vehicle and ushered the survivors away from the wreckage. “These guys were really good, professional,” Carlina said.

Disoriented and dazed, however, the Carlina lost his sense of direction and wandered off. “I don’t know why I did this,” he said, "but that was the scariest moment of my life." Carlina got lost in the woods, unable to see the helicopter or other troops. He kept thinking, “Am I going to hit a landmine? Will I be captured? Am I going to be killed?”

He estimated that he was alone for roughly 15 minutes. He resisted calling out for help — enemy soldiers could be anywhere.

Then, a loud pop shot up from underneath his foot. “Within a nanosecond, I knew it was not a mine” but a trip flare, he said. “I thought, ‘I’m alive.’” The bright light alerted friendly South Vietnamese soldiers to Carlina’s location, and they took him to the landing zone.

At LZ Dot, Carlina became familiar with the sounds of war. Rocket-propelled grenades constantly whooshed overhead, followed by booming explosions. Only a couple of weeks after his new placement, the landing zone was attacked at 5:30 a.m.

“I was hit, and I didn’t know it,” he recalled. An explosion sent him flying and fragments from a 22 milimeter rocket injured him. After he realized he was hit, his comrades started a medical evacuation, or medevac, and strapped him in to a gurney.

As he was loaded onto the chopper, Carlina saw a face he would never forget. The man was blond and wore a black cap. Though not part of the helicopter’s crew, he helped load Carlina on board.

The man’s face lingered in Carlina’s mind for more than 50 years, he said. He didn’t know his name, but he never stopped searching for him.

This March, his quest garnered a result. An internet article shared a first-hand account of the fighting at LZ Dot. Carlina wrote its author, Curtis Davis, and then talked with him on the phone. Davis revealed just how instrumental he was in Carlina’s safety.

Davis, a corporal and pathfinder during the war, was the main line of communication between the ground team and the malfunctioning helicopter. Carlina could not hear the radio, but Davis gave the pilot crucial information — including warnings about the ignited engines and where to drop the load. When the helicopter was grounded and Carlina wandered off, Davis established a perimeter of troops around the crash. Because of Davis, the troops were nearby and alerted to the flare Carlina set off. After LZ Dot was attacked, Davis was the man who radioed for the medevac and, with other members of Carlina's artillery battery, loaded Carlina onto the airlift.

“What I find amazing is that he was the man on the ground while I saw [the crash] from the inside,” Carlina said. While at LZ Dot, “I didn’t know Curtis — I didn’t even pay attention to his job.”

“I was restricted to a smaller world,” he added. “I didn’t have a lot of the story for 51 years.”

After Carlina’s evacuation, he was sent to various military base hospitals in Vietnam before continuing a year of service until January 6, 1970. He was discharged in 1974, three years before moving to Merrick with his wife. He has two children, one who attended Sanford H. Calhoun High School and one who attended Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville.

In his home, Carlina’s Purple Heart and other awards are hung in one corner, a constant reminder of his time at war — the memories drum up both sadness and pride.

“It’s always on my mind,” Carlina said, “but regardless of what people say about the war, I don’t regret it. I’m proud of it.”

Note: Curtis Davis, who retired from the military as a captain, could not be reached before press time.