"Joe Jackson put the C-123 into a steep dive toward the embattled airstrip, where three airmen had been left behind"
"This is the only known photo of a Medal of Honor action taken while it was under way. Joe Jackson had just put his C-123 down to pick up three combat control team airmen. Jackson braved close-in enemy fire from both sides of the runway and from the hills above Kham Duc. (USAF photo) "
Kham Duc was reinforced by airlift in the May 10-11 period, but the NVA occupied the surrounding hills, sweeping away the defensive machine gun outposts. The North Vietnamese could shoot down on the camp and on aircraft landing there.
As the attack intensified with heavy fire from artillery, mortars, and recoilless rifles, Military Assistance Command Vietnam changed its mind about reinforcing Kham Duc. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of US forces in South Vietnam, decided to evacuate the camp instead.
The US faced the need to bring out about 1,000 people, not only US troops but South Vietnamese soldiers and, in some cases, their family members. Army and Marine Corps helicopters would conduct about half of the evacuation, but fixed-wing Air Force airlifters would be needed as well.
A fierce battle had been raging at Kham Duc since daybreak. The first helicopter to arrive, an Army CH-47, was shot down about 7:30. Moments later, an Air Force A-1E was shot down outside the camp perimeter.
The NVA shot and killed the bulldozer driver who was trying to clear away the helicopter, which was blocking the runway. It was eventually pushed to the side, but the runway remained partially obstructed.
In all, seven aircraft—three helicopters, the A-1E, an O-2, and two C-130s—would be lost that day at Kham Duc.
The first C-130 in that morning was flown by Lt. Col. Daryl D. Cole. The crew had not yet heard about the evacuation and was delivering a full load of cargo. Cole drew ground fire as he approached and landed with extensive battle damage. A main landing gear tire was flat, and the wing fuel tanks had been punctured and were leaking. The crew could not unload because panicky Vietnamese civilians and irregular troops rushed aboard and refused to budge. The damaged airplane could not take off with all that weight. Cole taxied off the runway, and the crew hacked away as much of the bad tire as they could with a bayonet. When the aircraft drew mortar fire, the Vietnamese fled. One explosion came so close that it shattered a cockpit window. The fuel leak had thrown the aircraft out of balance, but despite the problems, Cole got it into the air and back to Cam Ranh Bay, where the crew counted 85 bullet and shrapnel holes.
At midmorning, Capt. Phillip Smo*ther**man, an O-2 forward air controller working tactical air strikes on enemy positions, was shot down over the base. He made a controlled crash and got his airplane off the runway. He found an abandoned Air Force radio and remained on the ground for five hours, translating the base’s needs for close air support to the ABCCC and the forward air controllers. He worked one strike that put ordnance just over 30 yards from his bunker. He left on the last C-130 that took passengers out.
Early in the afternoon, Maj. Bernard L. Bucher’s C-130 took off with 150 women and children, families of the Vietnamese irregulars, aboard. The aircraft was shot down as it cleared the field and crashed with no survivors.
The Combat Control Team
There was nobody at Kham Duc except the CCT and the enemy. Everybody else had been evacuated. To make matters worse, Freedman’s radio wouldn’t work, so they couldn’t notify anyone of their plight. The NVA had placed three .50-caliber machine guns along the runway. Freedman put one of them out of action, killing the gunners with his M-16.
Lundie had a rifle as well, and they had enough ammunition to fight for a while. “Sergeant Lundie had five clips and I had six,” Freedman said.
Several airplanes passed over the field, then a C-123 came in...
50 Seconds on the Ground
“It didn’t seem like there was any possible way for a plane to get in,” Lundie said. “The whole camp was burning and exploding. When I looked up and saw that C-123 coming in, it was like a miracle. I couldn’t believe it.”
The CCT was “in a ditch alongside the runway and they started running toward the runway when I was about halfway down on the landing roll,” Jackson said.
Two of the enemy machine gun positions along the ramp were still firing. One was under the wing of Delmore’s C-130, and the other was beside the wreckage of a UH-1 helicopter.
Gunners in the hills were shooting down at them. “I saw tracers coming out from under the airplane that had apparently struck the runway and were ricocheting off the runway, under the airplane,” Jackson said. The C-123 “only sits about two feet off the ground, so they were missing mighty close.”
Jackson figured the hillside gunners “just kinda underestimated the range. That made the bullets drop enough to just hit the runway underneath the airplane and then ricochet out the other side.”
As Jackson was turning the airplane around, Campbell exclaimed, “My God, look at that!”
A 122 mm rocket, apparently fired at zero elevation from the ridge to the north, was coming down the runway toward them. It struck the ground, bounced, and came to rest about 30 feet from the airplane, but it did not explode. It was a dud.
The CCT, having sprinted from the ditch, boarded the airplane quickly. “The loadmaster said, ‘All on board,’ and Campbell made a very astute observation like, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ ” Jackson said.
Jackson steered around the dud rocket and ran the throttles up. The jet engines reached 100 percent, and they were off. They used only about 1,000 feet of the runway for the takeoff roll.