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Pilot recalls death-defying mission in Vietnam | Medal of Honor recipient to share story in Federal Way

Joe Jackson received the Medal of Honor for his role in Vietnam. Jackson will be the keynote speaker at a celebration for veterans Nov. 13 in Federal Way.  - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Joe Jackson received the Medal of Honor for his role in Vietnam. Jackson will be the keynote speaker at a celebration for veterans Nov. 13 in Federal Way.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

It was about 20 years ago that, after being gently pestered by his minister, Joe Jackson began publicly telling the story of how he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Now, he estimates he tells the story to some civic organization or another just about every month.

It used to be that he didn’t talk about it. About how during the Vietnam War on Mother’s Day 1968, he landed a rather large C-123 plane on a scrubby and damaged runway besieged by thousands of Viet Cong soldiers. He rescued three Air Force special forces troops and flew them and his crew to safety, just in time to miss a big thunderstorm. And not one bullet or missile or grenade made a scratch on that plane.

“I guess it provides some excitement. I guess everybody likes to hear a war story,” said Jackson, 87.

And it is a good war story. Jackson’s entire 33-year military career, and later for Boeing, is a good story, too. From rural Georgia to bombed out post-World War II Europe, to a smattering of air bases across the country, to the top of the atmosphere flying U-2 spy planes, and to war rooms during huge national crisis, Joe Jackson is a living piece of American history in a league with Sully Sullenberger and Chuck Yeager.

He lives with his wife, Rose, in Kent, inside the Federal Way School District, in a brown house up a hill at the end of a long driveway. It’s immaculate inside, and one whole wall of the living room is a window that looks out onto a suburban valley.

Military beginnings

Jackson was born in Heard County, Ga., and grew up in Newnan, about 1.5 hours southwest of Atlanta. His father was a school teacher and his six brothers took care of the family farm, growing cotton, corn, cantaloupe and watermelon. Mom’s full-time job was canning and preserving food from the family garden.

As a child, Jackson wanted to be an airplane mechanic. After he couldn't find a job as a young man, he joined the Army Air Corps, and by 1943, he was commissioned as a pilot. He instructed gunners how to shoot.

In 1946, he was sent to Nordholz, Germany, on the North Sea, and later was stationed in Fritzlar as part of the U.S. occupation. He flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, and saw the aftermath of a world war.

“If you could have marched the whole population of the world through Europe, there would never be another war,” he said.

In November 1950, he went back to the battlefield to serve in the Korean War. He flew the F-84, a relatively new air warfare machine, but inferior to the Russian MiG-15. He remembers Korea as “cold and miserable,” with buildings made of bricks and sticks. He returned there 20 years ago and found a completely modern country, the opposite of what he had seen in the 1950s.

“But it was still cold,” he said.

Jackson was in a few fights, memorably one where he and three other F-84s were descended on by 16 MiGs. They all escaped, but he never shot down one of those lightning quick Russian jets.

Later, he would strike a more direct blow against communist Russia. In 1956, he began flying the U-2 spy plane, using it to collect air samples above the U.S., trying to capture leftover particles from Russian nuclear tests. At this time he was flying out of Groom Lake, better known as Area 51. He never saw anything extraterrestrial.

After Groom Lake, stationed in Del Rio, Texas, he was in charge of drawing up reconnaissance flight plans. He drew up a couple over Cuba, which were, at the time, rejected. Later, as the Cuban Missile Crisis approached, the Pentagon decided to use those plans. The result was those famous photos of Russian missile sites on the island.

“We came so close to a nuclear war that people in the U.S. just don’t know how close we came to a full blown nuclear war,” he said. “War was 15 minutes away when (Russian Premier Nikita) Krushchev decided to back down.”

He was stationed at an air base in Florida during the crisis, but could not tell his wife back in Nebraska how close nuclear war was — how he was witnessing nuclear bombs being prepared for launch. He told her that if she saw anything strange happening to drive their son and daughter to Minden, Neb., halfway between nowhere and nothing of strategic importance.

“She started trying to give me the third degree, but I couldn’t tell her,” he said.

After the crisis, the U.S. maintained a policy of stopping communism. The policy led to a war in an ancient, politically divided Southeast Asian country.

Vietnam mission

In August, 1967, Jackson was deployed to Vietnam.

Kham Duc is a tiny town southwest of Da Nang, near the border with Laos. Jackson said that Vietnamese Communist party leader Ho Chi Minh hunted tigers there.

On May 12, 1968, Jackson was in orbit 9,000 feet above Kham Duc in his C-123 plane. Below him, the tiny town was being torn apart. A force of 6,000 enemy troops had descended on it and were trying to capture U.S. and South Vietnamese forces that were camped out there to use as leverage as the U.S. entered peace talks with the North Vietnamese.

The airfield was on fire with all forms of munitions. Eight U.S. planes were shot down that day. At around 4 p.m., a plane picked up a contingent of friendlies who were thought to be the last of the personnel on the ground. But there were still three Air Force Combat Control Team members trapped on the ground.

The three men — Maj. John Gallagher, Tech Sgt. Mort Freedman and Sgt. Jim Lundie — were hiding out, and could not be located. One pilot flew down to the airfield to signal the men to come out. The men ran toward the runway and dove in a ditch by its side. The plane that buzzed the airfield could not pick them because it was low on gas, but the pilot radioed their position to the other planes.

Then, a call went out for a volunteer. From his position, Jackson knew exactly where the three were. So, he volunteered.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said. “I knew exactly where they were.”

Jackson swooped his plane — hardly lithe, big enough to carry 60 men and maybe a light tank — down to the airfield. He landed on the runway, which was shortened because of a downed U.S. plane. He stepped hard on the brakes. He could not engage the landing brake for fear that if he was killed, his crew would not be able to release it and take off in time.

It was less than a minute between landing and when the special forces team boarded the plane. A short time to wait, but an eternity in such chaos. What was he thinking?

“What goes through your mind when you’re scared?” he said.

Bullets zipped by the plane, their magnesium tracers burning white hot and showing their deadly path. From in front of the plane a 6-foot-long rocket shot toward them looking like a horizontal stovepipe spitting fire; the propulsion only lasts a few seconds, then it’s just a free flying metal cylinder with a three-foot warhead. It came to a rest on front of the plane, and did not explode. Jackson doesn’t even wonder why; all that matters is that it didn’t.

As soon as the men were aboard, Jackson took off, turning the plane around to avoid the unexploded rocket, and went up into the sky back to Da Nang. The rescued men were grateful, and pondered Jackson’s temerity.

When Jackson got back to Da Nang, he wrote Rose a short note: “I had an extremely exciting mission today. I can’t describe it to you in a letter but one of these days I’ll tell you about it. Happy Mother’s Day.”

The next day, he got up and went back to work. He was back home in the U.S. by August of that year.

Medal of Honor

Jackson was notified one month after Kham Duc that Gen. William Westmoreland had submitted his name to be nominated for the Medal of Honor. Seven months later, Jackson was standing at attention in the East Room of the White House as President Lyndon Johnson gave him the medal.

“He’s big,” Jackson said of the president’s stature.

Jackson stayed in the Air Force until 1973, when he went to teach at the Air War College. After that, he left the military and went to work for Boeing as a training manager. One last adventure of note: Jackson lived in Tehran, Iran, for three years in the 1970s, setting up a training instruction program there.

On Saturday, Jackson will tell his story again at Federal Way’s Veterans Day observance. The event starts at 1 p.m. at Todd Beamer High School (35999 16th Ave. S.). He stays in touch with Lundie and Freedman, but hasn’t heard from Gallagher. Sometimes, they send him a Mother's Day card.

To hear Jackson’s story, however modestly he tells it, is to experience a piece of living American history. He volunteers at a local food pantry, and keeps a model of a C-123 and a U-2 in his living room — the only outright displays of a long military career. He keeps the Medal of Honor out of sight, in a box.

“People say, ‘You’ve had so much excitement in your life.’ I never think of it that way. I just thought of it as my job. Things I was supposed to do.”

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