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It must be the water

McChord Field honors MOH recipient

A major street on McChord Field honors Medal of Honor recipient Col. Joe Jackson. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

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Three Air Force combat controllers had been left behind.

In May 1968, two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments attacked the Army's Special Forces camp at Kham Duc in South Vietnam.

The base had a 6,000-foot asphalt runway; wooded hills surrounded the area.

In early May, the NVA occupied the hills and began to fire down on the camp and on approaching aircraft.

As the mortar, artillery and recoilless rifle fire intensified, Gen. William Westmoreland, commander, U.S.  forces, decided to evacuate approximately 1,000 American and South Vietnamese soldiers -- some of whom had family members with them -- from Kham Duc.

Army and Marine helicopters and fixed-wing Air Force aircraft were deployed.

On the morning of May 12, Lt. Col. Joe Jackson, commander of a C-123 detachment at Da Nang, departed for a semiannual check flight.

Born in Newnan, Georgia, Jackson enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 as America entered World War II.

He became a crew chief on B-25 bombers and later earned a commission and his wings.  

He flew P-40 and P-63 fighter aircraft.  Toward the end of the war, he piloted B-24 bombers.

Jackson remained in the newly formed Air Force (1947) and returned to flying fighters. He flew 107 combat missions during the Korean War.

After that war and serving as a war planner in Europe, he received orders to go to Vietnam.

He entered his third war assigned to fly the C-123K, a transport aircraft.

On the afternoon of May 12, Jackson and his crew became part of the history of the Battle of Kham Duc. By the time they arrived, the enemy had destroyed much of the base.

Initially, it appeared that Jackson and his aircraft would not be needed; at 4:30 p.m., the ground commander had reported that all friendly forces had been evacuated. He had also requested that air strikes demolish the base and equipment left behind.

"Negative, negative.  I left three members of the combat control team off," came a voice from the last aircraft to depart Kham Duc.

Three Air Force combat control team members were still on the ground in a ditch by the runway.

The first rescue attempt failed.

Kham Duc remained under heavy ground and mortar attack.  Near the runway, manned enemy gun emplacements had been established.  The camp was in flames; exploding ammunition dumps rained debris on the runway, and the useable length of the runway had been reduced to 2,200 feet.

Jackson went in next.

Deciding not to land in the conventional manner, he determined to make an assault landing. He took the C-123 down in a dive it was not designed to make.  Leveling off about 50 feet above the ground and 1,500 feet from the runway, he touched down at the very end of the airstrip and hit the brakes.

The maneuver caught the enemy gunners by surprise.

As Jackson turned the aircraft around, a 122-mm rocket headed toward them, hit the ground but did not detonate.

The three combat controllers sprinted to the plane and scrambled on.

With the words, "Let's get the hell out of here," Jackson applied full power and took off using about 1,000 feet of runway.

Seconds later, a mortar shell detonated where Jackson's C-123 had been. Landing at Da Nang, the crew checked for bullet holes.  There were none.

In January 1969, President Lyndon Johnson presented Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Joe Jackson and Marine Capt. Stephen Pless with their Medals of Honor.

When learning that both men were from the same town, Johnson said, "There must be something in the water down in Newnan."

In Jackson's honor is Col. Joe Jackson Boulevard on McChord Field.

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