On May 12,
1968, a C-123 Provider assigned to the 311th Air Commando
Squadron and piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Jackson
took off from Danang Air Base in South Vietnam. The mission
was to fly north toward the DMZ and back down the coast toward
Chu Lai, stopping enroute to resupply several outposts. The
mission went well when the crew received an unexpected message
to return to home base.
miles to the southwest of Danang, near the Laotian border, a
massive airlift operation was underway at Kham Duc. A steady
stream of C-123s and C-130s shuttled into the isolated Special
Forces camp to evacuate 1,000 friendly troops. Out numbered,
they had been under siege by communist forces for three days.
Back on the ground at Danang, Colonel Jackson and his crew
were briefed on the emergency rescue operation. They were
airborne again in less than an hour, heading southwest toward
Kham Due. As they flew inland the C-123 entered a holding
pattern south of the camp.
was hectic as an airborne command post controlled the flow of
cargo planes into the short airstrip that lay unprotected on
the valley floor. Forward air controllers directed
fighter-bombers against the Vietcong positions surrounding the
runway.' As Colonel Jackson's aircraft moved closer to the
camp, smoke and flames from exploding ammunition dumps and
tracers from enemy weapons were clearly visible.
chatter confirmed that the last survivors had been rescued and
the command post directed the fighters destroy the camp and
the enemy with it. But something was wrong. An animated voice
on the radio warned that three US airmen had been left behind.
contact the three combat controllers failed and the command
post asked the C-123 ahead of Colonel Jackson to land and try
to pick them up. As the Provider touched down it came under
heavy fire and seeing no chance to locate the three airmen,
the pilot jammed the throttles full forward and prepared for
takeoff. Just before liftoff the crew spotted the three
controllers crouching in a ditch bordering the runway but it
was too late to stop. The C-123 lifted off through a volley of
bullets. Low on fuel, it headed for home base.
Joe Jackson had
an answer for the question even before it was asked. Would he?
There wasn't any question about it. There wasn't any decision
to make. Of course he and his crew would attempt the rescue.
called on his previous fighter-pilot experience and decided to
try a new tactic. He knew the Vietcong gunners would expect
him to follow the same flight path as the other cargo
airplanes. What if he could take an elevator approach straight
down into the valley?
feet high and rapidly approaching the landing area, Colonel
Jackson pointed the C-123's nose down in a steep dive. Taken
by surprise, the enemy reacted in time to open fire as the
diving Provider neared the airstrip. Breaking the descent just
above the tree tops he settled down on the debris-littered
runway and skidded to a stop. The three combat controllers
scrambled from the ditch and were pulled onboard.
In the meantime
a 122 millimeter rocket shell came to rest within 25 feet of
the aircraft's nose. Luck was still on their side as the
deadly projectile didn't explode.
taxied around the shell and rammed the throttles to the
firewall. They hadn't been out of that spot for ten seconds
when mortars began raining down. Just ahead tracers
illuminated a murderous crossfire and there was no turning
back. Slowly picking up speed, despite intense fire from the
far end of the runway, the airplane broke ground as Kham Due
fell behind them.
gallantry and his profound concern for his fellowmen,
Lieutenant Colonel Jackson received the Congressional Medal of
Honor from President Lyndon Johnson on January 16, 1969.
Colonel Jackson was the Airlift/Tanker Association's
"Hall of Fame" inductee for 1997.