Valor Friday

| March 29, 2019

miracle kham duc

Mason’s back. This time he brings us Colonel Joe Jackson, a mustang and a three war veteran. Even without the valor he showed in Viet Nam, he had a remarkable career. He passed of natural causes at the age of 92. Enough intro, here’s the story..


On January 12, 2019 we lost a true American hero. A mustang officer and survivor of three wars, Colonel Joe Jackson was one of only two living Air Force Medal of Honor recipients at the time of his death.

Born in 1923 in Newnan, Georgia, Jackson was fascinated by airplanes as a youth. Days after his 18th birthday, he enlisted into the Army Air Corps in March 1941 hoping to become an airplane mechanic.

As the US entered the Second World War, Jackson received training as a crew chief and served aboard a B-25 Mitchell bomber. During a training flight on which the flight engineer was out sick, Jackson filled in for the missing man. During the flight an engine caught fire. The pilot didn’t know how to put it out and asked for Jackson’s help. Back then the pilot relied on the flight engineer to do most of the engine-related work. The pilot would typically only have throttle control, and on some airframes the engineer even ran those. Jackson’s quick thinking and knowledge of the aircraft resulted in him saving the plane and the crew. It was then that Jackson decided to become a pilot himself.

Jackson then went through Aviation Cadet Training as a staff sergeant and was commissioned in 1943. He was assigned as a gunnery instructor flying g P-40 Warhawks and P-63 Kingcobras. He remained in this assignment for the rest of the war.

Jackson remained in the Army Air Forces after WWII and into the Air Force becoming its own branch. He returned to flying fighters in the late 40’s. During the Korean War, as a major assigned to the 524th Fighter Squadron, he flew 107 combat missions in the F-84 Thunderjet mostly in the strike fighter/light bomber role. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during the war.

Through the 50’s, Jackson continued his service. He became one of the first pilots to fly the new U-2 spy plane. He also developed techniques for navigating and landing jet aircraft in poor weather, mass ferrying transoceanic flights, and a bomb-throwing method for fighter aircraft to deploy nuclear weaponry. He even took part in the planning and execution of the aerial reconnaissance over Cuba during the Missile Crisis in 1962.

After serving as a staff officer in Europe, Jackson volunteered for Vietnam and was sent there as a lieutenant colonel with the 311th Air Commando Squadron. Flying the C-123 Provider cargo aircraft, Colonel Jackson ultimately flew 298 combat missions (total of more than 400 combat missions for those keeping score!) over Southeast Asia. The 311th was assigned to work with special operations units and provided communications cover, air evacuations, and search and rescue ops for downed aircraft.

During the Tet Offensive in 1968 is where Jackson would become a legend in both the aviation and special operations communities, communities that don’t often overlap.

After the NVA 2nd Division was pushed back from their attempts to capture Da Nang, they took to the mountains and regrouped for their secondary target, Kham Duc. Military intelligence noticed enemy activity around Kham Duc, but their intentions were not clear. Westmoreland ordered the area reinforced and the airstrip upgraded for sustained use by cargo aircraft.

On the morning of 11 May, the NVA 2nd Division had the Kham Duc outposts surrounded and succeeded in pushing all of the American forces back to the base itself. The fighting outside the base was so intense that many observation posts called in air and artillery strikes directly on their positions as they were overrun. A flight of 24 B-52 bombers dropped several hundred tons of bombs on suspected enemy positions and was unsuccessful in stopping the attack. It was then that Westmoreland ordered the base fully evacuated. Over the next day the majority of the roughly 1,600 men and civilians stationed there were evacuated by air. The largest airlift since the Berlin Airlift.

In the early morning hours of 12 May, a Huey and an O-2 Skymaster observation plane had already been shot down as they covered the airstrip. All ground forces were pushed back to the airfield to await evac and were in close contact with the enemy. A CH-47 Chinook arrived but was brought down by anti-aircraft fire and crashed and blocked the runway. After that was cleared (I’ll assume there was no FOD walk), Air Force planes were able to land. The first plane, a C-130, touched down and was immediately taken under heavy enemy fire, flattening a tire and damaging the plane. They tried to take off, but were unable to. The situation was so dire that they cut off the flat tire with a bayonet and some help from engineers with a torch before a second takeoff attempt succeeded. Numerous flights came and went, all taking enemy fire. One C-130 full of South Vietnamese civilians, after being riddled with ground fire, crashed less than a mile from the end of the runway killing all aboard.

It was into this morass of encroaching NVA and VC with an ordered retreat that Lieutenant Colonel Jackson and his flight crew would find themselves. During the hectic ordeal, a stranded Air Force Combat Control Team (CCT) has been sent out and was missing.

A C-123 went down, landed, and attempted to find the men. Coming under heavy fire, the pilot was unable to find them and powered up to take off. The three man CCT was hunkered down along the runway and were only able to pop out, waving their arms, as the aircraft roared down the runway at full power for takeoff. Believing that they had missed the last plane out of town, the men ran back to the ditch along the runway and sought cover. The pilot of that C-123 banked hard and saw the three men were headed to the ditch. He wanted to retrieve them, but was low on fuel. At least he had seen them.

The airmen on the ground, down to emergency radios and armed only with M-16s and .38 revolvers, were convinced that no one would come for them. They believed it was impossible to land at Kham Duc. Enemy troops were setting up machine guns so close they could watch them, including under the wing of a downed C-130 along the flightline. Their radios didn’t have power enough to reach the aircraft flying overhead. They said later, “[I] never felt so lonely in all my life.”

Hearing that there were Americans left on the ground at Kham Duc, Jackson dove his C-123 from 9,000 feet to land at the field, despite American forces having lost eight aircraft already. He had seen, even from 9,000 feet up, the tracer fire directed at the other aircraft. He knew how close the enemy were and what risks he was flying into. He descended so fast that he pegged the Provider’s variometer.

Along the runway, the fuel stores had been set ablaze and the ammo dumps were continuously exploding, casting debris on the runway. As if not bad enough, the weather was rapidly deteriorating and so further aircover from the strike fighters in the vicinity was only going to give them one pass.

He set down in the first 100ft of a runway shortened to only 2,200 feet by the battle. Jackson was unable to reverse the props to slow down (as this required cutting the plane’s two jets, which would have to be restarted for takeoff) and so stood on the brakes, skidding halfway down the runway. The plane, now literally the only target for the NVA division and VC regiment, came under intense fire sweeping through the camp.

After they got the plane on the ground, an enemy rocket landed near the nose of the aircraft, not exploding. Jackson’s skill and/or luck brought them down right in front of the CCT men, providing them a short run and a bit of cover. The CCT ran out from their cover and jumped on Jackson’s plane into the open cargo door. Taxing around debris and unexploded ordnance, Jackson took off under intense ground fire, succeeding in rescuing the stranded airmen.

For this action, Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor. There is a photo here, taken from the air of the Kham Duc airfield, with Jackson’s plane loading just before take off (top center, the wrecks of various other aircraft, including a C-130, are visible). This was the only known photo of a Medal of Honor action in progress until the Battle of Roberts Ridge (where TSgt John Chapmain and MCPO Slabinski earned their medals, which was captured by drone footage). Jackson’s co-pilot, Major Jesse Campbell, received the Air Force Cross, the rest of the crew got Silver Stars.

Kham Duc airfield
Air Force
The only photo ever to capture actions leading to a Medal of Honor; Lieutenant Colonel Joe M. Jackson’s C-123 (top of photograph) prepares to evacuate the last three men (on runway, right) from Khâm ??c, on 12 May 1968.[10]

After making it safely back to Da Nang, Jackson checked his aircraft for damage and found that it miraculously had not received a single bullet strike.

Jackson received the MoH from President Johnson on 16 Jan, 1969. Also receiving a MoH that day was another son of Newnan, Georgia Major Stephen Pless (USMC). An aviator, Pless also received his award for a daring rescue. LBJ remarked, “There must be something in the water down in Newnan.” In 1978, the Georgia National Guard named an armory in the city in honor of these two men.

After his third war, Jackson served until 1973, retiring as a Colonel after 32 years of service. He then worked for Boeing, settling in Washington with his wife and two children. He died of apparently natural causes at the age of 95.


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Lt. Col. Jackson distinguished himself as pilot of a C-123 aircraft. Lt. Col. Jackson volunteered to attempt the rescue of a 3-man USAF Combat Control Team from the special forces camp at Kham Duc. Hostile forces had overrun the forward outpost and established gun positions on the airstrip. They were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons, and recoilless rifle fire. The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were continuously exploding and littering the runway with debris. In addition, 8 aircraft had been destroyed by the intense enemy fire and 1 aircraft remained on the runway reducing its usable length to only 2,200 feet. To further complicate the landing, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, thereby permitting only 1 air strike prior to his landing. Although fully aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of such an attempt. Lt. Col. Jackson elected to land his aircraft and attempt to rescue. Displaying superb airmanship and extraordinary heroism, he landed his aircraft near the point where the combat control team was reported to be hiding. While on the ground, his aircraft was the target of intense hostile fire. A rocket landed in front of the nose of the aircraft but failed to explode. Once the combat control team was aboard, Lt. Col. Jackson succeeded in getting airborne despite the hostile fire directed across the runway in front of his aircraft. Lt. Col. Jackson’s profound concern for his fellowmen, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself, and the Armed Forces of his country.

Kham Duc

Category: Air Force, Guest Post, The Warrior Code, Valor, We Remember

Comments (13)

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  1. Wilted Willy says:

    I don’t know how this guy ever got any sleep with the sound of those massive brass balls clanging all over the place! You Sir, are a true hero! Maybe some of our phony ponies should take notice on what a true hero really is all about!

  2. Comm Center Rat says:

    This is an incredibly well written and documented piece Mason. I’m almost ashamed to admit I never heard of Colonel Jackson until reading your article. I say ashamed because I was an Air Force brat and a mustang AF officer. When I served in the 80s-90s, most attention seemed focused on John Levitow, who as an Airman First Class was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969. Outstanding work and keep contributing to the Valor Friday column.

  3. Steve1371 says:

    It is always interesting to learn of what was happening in other parts of the war. Also, amazing to have a photo of this particular action. Pilots of various aircraft took great chances all over the country, especially chopper pilots in my opinion. Most were not recognised with decorations. Lt. Col. Jackson most certainly gave it his all and his best shot . I am glad he was recognized
    for this action. I am also thankful for his many years of service to our country.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    “This is an incredibly well written and documented piece Mason..”

    This is why we keep him on a short leash- don’t want anyone else to snag him up. Also, he gets the same pay as I do.

  5. 5th/77th FA says:

    Outstanding write up Mason! Keep these hits a’coming. Sister had shown me a blurb on Col Jackson that was posted back in Jan. Nothing like the details here.

    Didn’t know the C-123 had enough lift to haul cargo, pax, AND Col Jackson’s big brass ones.

    RIP Colonel Joe M. Jackson. Bet the other Warriors are lining up to buy your drinks in Valhalla.

  6. AnotherPat says:

    Mason, once again, Thank You for taking the time and recognizing another Hero, Colonel Joseph Jackson.

    Kudos to you for capturing and summarizing Jackson’s well-deserved MOH.

    Rest In Peace, Colonel Jackson. Salute.

  7. Ex-PH2 says:

    Holy crap.

  8. The Other Whitey says:

    “After making it safely back to Da Nang, Jackson checked his aircraft for damage and found that it miraculously had not received a single bullet strike.”

    The C-123 Provider is not a small aircraft. With the NVA being that close, there’s simply no way they could miss it that much. Statistically, they shouldn’t have survived the landing, much less taxiing out, making the pickup and lifting off again in a thin-skinned aluminum bullet-magnet that is the only thing drawing fire, and is drawing it from everywhere. This and the dud rocket seem to me to be pretty clear indicators of Divine intervention. COL Jackson and his crew were doing God’s work, flying into an impossible situation to rescue those left behind, surely aware that they couldn’t possibly make it out, that death was a 99% certainty with capture by the NVA making up the other 1%. They flew in anyway, with exceptional skill and incredible courage, proving that they would rather die trying than leave someone at the mercy of the communists (“Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friend,” John 15:13), and God shielded them from harm.

    Those medals are well-deserved, and that C-123 should have been preserved as a holy relic. I’ve taken some risks and had some close calls in my career, but I can’t fathom the magnitude of bravery it must take to look at a situation like this, know that you WILL die, and press on regardless.

  9. CDR_D says:

    Another amazing story about another exceptional person! Thanks.

  10. 26Limabeans says:

    Riveting read.

  11. Jason says:

    I met this wonderful gentleman a second time when he was visiting my town. Although his eyesight was failing, he was able to sign a book for me. He told me that he has signed his name so many times that he did not need to see to sign my book. Very nice and humble person.

  12. Mason says:

    Thanks for the kind words, guys. I’ll keep ’em coming. Thank God we’ve got an excess of brave men and women in this country.