This Day in History: Joe M. Jackson & his Medal of Honor in Vietnam
On this day in 1923, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born in Georgia. Air Force Lt. Colonel Joe M. Jackson wasn’t supposed to be operating a C-123 cargo plane like it was a fighter jet, diving in to make quick rescues.
Yet that’s exactly what he did.
Jackson began his military service in the Army Air Corps as an airplane mechanic, but he worked his way up into being a pilot. He was a gunnery instructor during World War II and a USAF fighter pilot during the Korean War. By the time he left for Vietnam, he’d been serving for nearly three decades.
Perhaps the best was yet to come?
On May 12, 1968, Jackson was completing a resupply mission when he was notified that Special Forces at Kham Duc were under attack. A few rescue attempts had been made. The first plane’s engines had been shot out. The second plane was shot down. A third plane had retrieved some survivors, but had unintentionally left a USAF Combat Control Team behind. Those three men had been helping to evacuate the camp. Now they were the only ones left.
“[Hostile forces] were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons, and recoilless rifle fire,” according to Jackson’s Medal citation. “The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were continuously exploding and littering the runway with debris.”
Jackson decided to go in. He might not survive, but he was the only chance that those boys had.
He took his C-123 into a steep dive from 9,000 feet. It was a big plane, and Jackson didn’t know if his plane would tolerate the maneuver. Enemy forces wouldn’t be expecting such an approach, though. If he could pull it off, it would give Jackson the advantage of surprise.
“I was afraid I’d reach the ‘blowup’ speed,” he later said, “where the flaps, which were in the full-down position for this dive, would be blown back to the neutral position. If that happened, we’d pick up additional speed and not be able to stop the descent.”
Amazingly, he pulled it off. He brought his plane out of that nose dive just in time, avoiding debris on the runway and landing right next to the stranded men.
“As they’re getting on board,” Jackson later recounted, “I’m looking back and the co-pilot called out: ‘Oh, my God, look at that!’ And a 122mm rocket had been fired directly toward the airplane, and it skidded down the runway and broke in half and stopped right immediately in front of the nose wheel of the airplane. I mean, really, really close. It didn’t go off. So, again, I was the luckiest guy in the world, I guess.”
Jackson took off again, avoiding fire as he went. He’d been on the ground for less than a minute.
“There were two miracles there that afternoon. One is that you were able to get in and get out safely. And the other one is there was not a single bullet hole in your airplane,” Jackson later said, smiling.
Jackson would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his action less than a year later. “You know, people have asked me,” Jackson later said, “‘Why did you do such a thing? My answer is, ‘It was the right thing to do. And I was the most logical person to do it.’”
Colonel Jackson passed away two months ago. He was 95 years old. RIP, sir.
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (Jim Willbanks ed. (2011)
Edward F. Murphy, Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes (rev. ed. 2005)
Larry Smith, Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words (2003)
Medal of Honor citation (Joe M. Jackson; Vietnam)
Medal of Honor oral histories (Joe Jackson; Vietnam)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (2d ed. 2006)