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Colonel Joe M. Jackson
Medal of Honor
1990's -- Col. Joe M. Jackson, Medal of Honor recipient for actions in the Vietnam War, U.S. Air Force photo
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A life-long patriot, Joe M. Jackson flew for his country in three wars, earning the Medal of Honor in 1968 for a heroic rescue of a combat control team pinned to an exploding special forces camp called Kham Duc, South Vietnam.

Jackson was born in Newnan, Ga., in March 1923. He was an avid model airplane enthusiast as a youth. After graduation from high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and, when the United States entered World War II, he became a crew chief on a B-25 Mitchell. After an in-flight engine fire during an antisubmarine patrol over the North Atlantic, he decided he wanted pilot wings. He soon earned them as an aviation cadet. As a lieutenant, he flew the P-40 Warhawk and the P-63 Kingcobra. As allied forces moved nearer to Japan, he was transitioning to bombers, flying the B-24 Liberator when the war ended.

He returned to fighters, piloting the P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, F-82 Twin Mustang and the F-84 Thunderjet. In late 1950 he flew the F-84 in two pioneering mass ferry flights across the Atlantic to Europe. Four days after returning from the second crossing, Jackson deployed to Korea and flew the Thunderjet on 107 combat missions.

After the Korean War, he served at the Second Air Force headquarters where he co-developed a bomb-tossing technique for use by B-47 Stratojet bombers. Strategic Air Command adopted his technique for later use. In 1956, Jackson became one of the first Air Force pilots to fly the U-2 "Dragonlady" and commanded several reconnaissance detachments around the world. At SAC headquarters in 1960, he planned and directed aerial reconnaissance above Cuba. His work played a key role during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When the Vietnam War began, Jackson found himself piloting a C-123 Provider on 298 combat sorties in his third war. In May 1968, the special forces camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam was tucked away in the central highlands, 16 kilometers from the Laotian border. After the fall of Camp Lang Vei during the Tet offensive in February, Kham Duc was the only observation camp remaining in I Corps, the northernmost military district in South Vietnam. When Kham Duc came under heavy mortar attack on May 10, Army Gen. William Westmorland ordered it evacuated.

On May 12, 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 more than 150 Vietnamese civilians. Finally, a C-130 was able to land and takeoff with some passengers.

At 3 p.m. that afternoon, a C-123 took off from Da Nang, bound for Kham Duc. Jackson was at the controls, along with Maj. Jesse Campbell, Tech. Sgt. Edward Trejo and Staff Sgt. Manson Grubbs, his crew. As he circled at 9,000 feet in a holding pattern, the scene below was one of increasing devastation as the Viet Cong moved closer to the camp's 4,000-foot airstrip.

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 exploding and littering the runway with debris. In addition, eight aircraft had been destroyed by the intense fire and one remained on the runway, reducing its usable length to only about 2,200 feet. To further complicate the landing, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. As the last C-130 was about to takeoff with the last of the men on the ground aboard, the airborne commander ordered jet fighters circling overhead to descend and destroy the camp. It looked as if Jackson's aircraft wasn't going to be needed in the rescue attempt. But then the radio crackled, informing them that the three-man combat control team, in charge of directing the evacuation, was still on the ground. As they searched the camp for anyone who had been left behind, the realized they were the only ones left.

One C-123 attempted to land, but enemy fire intensified and the C-123 was forced to accelerate for take off without finding the men. Jackson and his crew began their dive from 9,000 feet at a rate of almost 4,000 feet per minute. 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 jammed on the brakes and skidded halfway down the runway. As it turned to be able to take off the way it came in, the three men jumped from a culvert next to the runway and leaped into the open cargo door in the rear. At that moment, from the edge of the runway came a 122 mm rocket, fired from just outside the perimeter. The men watched as the shell skidded along the asphalt, broke in half and stopped only 10 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.

On Jan. 16, 1969, in one of his last acts before leaving the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to Jackson. But Jackson's Air Force career was still not over. He served in the Pentagon and on the Air War College faculty before retiring with nearly 33 years on active duty. Jackson was inducted into both the Airlift-Tanker Hall of Fame and the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. The main road through his hometown is now named the "Joe M. Jackson Highway."

Sources compiled from the Air Force News Agency and The Airlift-Tanker Hall of Fame




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