KHAM DUC
May 12, 1968
Although very little has been written about it, the events of May 12, 1968 are among the most heroic of the Vietnam War, in fact of any war. On that day, a handful of American US Air Force C-130 and US Army and Marine helicopter crewmembers literally laid their lives on the line to evacute the defenders of the Civilian Irregular Defense Corps camp at Kham Duc, an outpost just inside the South Vietnamese border with Laos.

For years, the camp at Kham Duc had served as a base for intelligence gathering operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in the spring of 1968 the Communists decided the time had come to take it out. By early May Allied intelligence sources realized that a large number of North Vietnamese were gathering in the mountains around the camp. On May 10 the camp was reinforced with members of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade who were flown in from their base at Chu Lai. The following day an outlying camp at Ngoc Tavok was attacked; apparently some of the Vietnamese troops in the camp turned their guns on their American allies. That evening General William C. Westmoreland determined that the camp was indefensible and, wishing to avoid the headlines of a camp being overrun, decided to evacuate the camp, beginning at dawn the next morning.

The original plan called for a helicopter evacuation, but when intense ground fire brought down the first helicopter into the camp, all evacuation plans were put on hold. Over the next few hours there was a lot of waffling - there was going to be an evacuation, then there wasn't, then there was. During the morning a C-130A flown by Lt. Col. Daryl D. Cole and his 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron crew landed at the camp with a load of cargo, apparently not knowing that it was to be evacuated. A flood of Vietnamese civilians rushed  aboard the airplane, so many that the loadmaster was unable to off-load the cargo. The airplane was shot full of holes and a tire was flattened, but Cole attempted a takeoff. The overburdened airplane would not fly, so they returned to the ramp, where the Vietnamese leaped off and into ditches. Cole's crew worked feverishly to cut away the remains of the tire with a bayonet and a blow torch. While they were working, a C-123 flown by Major Ray D. Shelton came in and picked up a load of Vietnamese and US Army engineers. Cole loaded all remaining Air Force personnel at the camp on to his badly-damagedC-130 and managed to take-off, and flew to Cam Ranh Bay. There the members of the 3-man airlift control team who were aboard were told that they should have stayed in the camp. They were put on another C-130 and sent back.

During the morning, a battle had raged around the airfield. Several airplanes and helicopters had been shot down, including an Air Force Foward Air Controller, who managed to crash-land his shot-up O-2 on the runway. In the early afternoon General Westmoreland notified Seventh Air Force to commence a C-130 evacuation. The first airplane to land was aq C-130B flown by a crew from the 774th TAS, commanded by Major Bernard Bucher. Major Bucher landed and loaded his airplane with more than 200 Vietnamese, mostly civilians. As his airplane lifted off, it flew through the apex of fire from two .50-caliber machine guns, trembled, then crashed into a ravine and exploded. A C-130E flown by Lt. Colonel Bill Boyd landed behind Bucher. Boyd took off in the opposite direction and, in spite of more than 100 hits, managed to make it to safety. The third C-130 was an A-model from the 21st TAS, commanded by Lt. Colonel John Delmore. The airplane was hit repeatedly by automatic weapons fire that ripped out the top of the cockpit and shot away the engine controls. Delmor had no choice but to feather the engines - he crash-landed the shot-up C-130 and managed to steer it clear of the runway. Meanwhile, airstrikes had been directed at the guns that brought down Bucher's airplane and other strikes laid down protective fire alongside the runway. The fourth C-130 crew got in and out safely, and was followed by three others.

While the C-130s were landing, Army and Marine helicopter pilots took advantage of the distraction - the Communists were concentrating their fire on the larger transports - and got in to make pickups of their own. Within a few minutes, some 500 of the camps defenders were evacuated, although the bulk of the Vietnamese were left to attempt to exfiltrate through the enemy forces. But as the last C-130 came out of the camp with the staff of the US Army Special Forces team, another C-130 was landing with the three members of the airlift control team who had been brought out earlier.

The camp had been evacuated, or had been declared so by the Special Forces team, at a cost of two C-130s and several other aircraft and helicopters, seven in all. What happened next is the event for which Kham Duc is most remembered, although in reality it was but a footnote to the day's events. The eighth C-130 flew into the camp and off-loaded the three men, Major John Gallagher, a C-130 pilot from the 463rd Tactical Airlift Wing, and Sergeants Mort Freedman and James Lundie, both combat controllers with the 8th Aerial Port. The three men ran off the ramp of the C-130 and into the camp; the pilot, Lt. Col. Jay Van Cleef, waited several minutes then when no one came aboard his airplane, took off again. As he was climbing out he heard someone report that the evacuation was complete. No it wasn't! Van Cleef protested into his radio that three airmen were still on the ground. Those present later reported that there was a dead silence in the airways afterwards.

The next airplane in the quay to go into the camp was a C-123 flown by Lt. Col. Alfred Jeanotte. He landed but took off again when no one ran to the airplane. His crew spotted the three men hiding in a ditch, but they were too low on fuel to make another landing. It fell to the next C-123, flown by Lt. Col. Joe M. Jackson and Major Jesse Campbell, a Stan/Eval pilot from the 315th Air Commando Wing, to make the pickup. For the effort, Colonel Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor.


 

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