The special forces camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam, was tucked away in the central highlands, sixteen kilometers from the Laotian border. After the fall of Camp Lang Vei during the Tet offensive in February 1968, Kham Duc was the only observation camp remaining in I Corps, the northernmost military district in South Vietnam and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. In the spring of 1968, intelligence reports indicated an enemy build-up in the area, and a nearby forward operating post was overrun on May 10. When Kham Duc came under heavy mortar attack on the tenth and eleventh, General Westmoreland ordered it evacuated the next day.
As the sun came up on the twelfth, Mother’s Day, a heavy fog hung over the camp, obscuring enemy movements in the surrounding hills. An Army CH-47 helicopter and two Air Force C-130s tried to land and takeoff with personnel, but were disabled by enemy fire. One C-130 burst into flames at the end of the runway, killing the crew and over 150 Vietnamese civilians. Finally, a C-130 was able to land and takeoff with passengers, but as it left, its pilot warned other aircraft: “For God’s sake stay out of Kham Duc. It belongs to Charlie.” At three that afternoon, an Air Force C-123 Provider took off from Da Nang, bound for Kham Duc. At the controls was Lieutenant Colonel Joe M. Jackson, a twenty-seven year veteran. Jackson and his three-man crew reached Kham Duc at about three-thirty, just as a plane was about to take off with the last of the men on the ground aboard. By now flames engulfed the camp, and enemy shells stilled rained down from the hills. As the last C-130 pilot to leave the ground announced that he had picked up the remaining personnel, the airborne commander ordered the fighters circling overhead to descend and destroy the camp. Just then the C-130 broke in. “Negative! Negative! Three men are still on the ground!” The combat control team, in charge of directing the evacuation, was still at the base, unaware the evacuation was complete. As they searched the camp for anyone who had been left behind, they realized that they were the only ones left.
Meanwhile above the camp, the airborne commander asked the next aircraft in line to try to land on the airstrip to pick up the men. As the C-123 landed on the debris-covered runway, enemy fire intensified and the C-123 was forced to accelerate for take off – too late to see the CCT jump from the ditch and try to signal. Several of the pilots overhead spotted the team. When the commander asked for a volunteer to go in for another try, Jackson and his copilot, Major Jesse Campbell, realized they were in the best position to land. While Campbell radioed, Jackson started the descent from 9,000 feet. The C-123 dove at a rate of almost 4,000 feet per minute and at 4,000 feet came under heavy fire that followed it down the runway. Jackson realized that if he reversed his propellers to stop the aircraft, he would shut off the two auxiliary engines he needed for a quick escape. Instead, he simply jammed on the brakes, and the C-123 skidded halfway down the 6,000 foot runway. Campbell spotted the three men in a ditch beside the runway, but debris prevented Jackson from taxing any closer to them. As the C-123 turned to take off the way it came in, the three men jumped from the culvert and ran for the plane, under fire from enemy gun positions farther down the runway. They jumped into the open cargo door at the rear. Just then Campbell shouted, “Look out!” From the edge of the runway came a 122mm rocket, fired from just outside the perimeter. The two watched as the shell skidded along the asphalt, broke in half, and stopped only ten meters from the plane. It did not explode. Jackson taxied around the shell and applied full power, taking off under heavy fire from the hills on either side. The plane had been on the ground at Kham Duc for less than a minute. For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Lieutenant Colonel Joe M. Jackson earned the Medal of Honor.
Categories: Hall of Fame Inductee