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50 states, 50 heroes: C-123 rescue

Born on March 14, 1923, in Newnan, Georgia, Joe Madison Jackson enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 with the hopes of becoming an airplane mechanic. But while serving as a flight engineer aboard a B-25, an engine fire during a training flight, during which he instructed the pilot on what to do, inspired him to go to flight school and become a pilot. After becoming a fighter pilot, he spent the rest of World War II as a gunnery instructor.

During the Korean War, then-Major Jackson of the newly created U.S. Air Force distinguished himself as an F-84 Thunderjet fighter-bomber pilot with the 524th Fighter Squadron, flying 107 combat missions.

After service in Korea, Jackson was selected as one of the first U-2 reconnaissance aircraft pilots during the Cold War.  During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he helped plan and direct aerial reconnaissance over Cuba.

In 1968, Lt. Col. Jackson volunteered for a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was assigned to the 311th Air Commando Squadron and flew C-123 Provider transports. As part of their duty, the men of the 311th provided communications and conducted search and rescue missions for downed aircraft.

On May 12, 1968, Jackson was recalled from a routine resupply mission. Back at the base, he was informed that a U.S. Special Forces camp at Kham Duc, South Vietnam, near Laos, had been overrun by roughly 5,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Three members of the Air Force’s Combat Control Team who had just finished overseeing the evacuation of South Vietnamese forces were trapped on the ground. Further complicating the situation, the intense enemy fire had driven off a C-123 that attempted to rescue them. Despite the dangers and the high probability the mission would fail, Jackson volunteered to rescue them.

When he arrived at Kham Duc, the camp was in flames and the airstrip was covered with debris, including several destroyed aircraft; only 2,200 feet of the airstrip was usable. Adding to the danger was North Vietnamese tracer fire near the airstrip and exploding ammunition dumps. Although he was flying a transport, Jackson was forced to land it the way he would a fighter jet: hitting the ground at a speed of 5,000 feet per minute and jamming on the brakes until he stopped. Enemy forces fired small arms, mortars and automatic weapons at the plane and at the three combat control team members, who came out of the ditch they were hiding in to scramble to the plane. Jackson’s crew got them into the plane and Jackson attempted to get airborne from the shortened runway. As he did, an enemy soldier fired a 122-millimeter rocket at the nose of the plane, but the rocket broke up before hitting the aircraft and failed to explode. Jackson was then successfully able to get airborne under heavy enemy fire and fly to safety.

On Jan. 16, 1969, Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Johnson during a ceremony at the White House. Johnson awarded four medals that day, including one to Newnan, Georgia, native Major Stephen Pless of the Marine Corps. With two recipients from Newnan awarded the medal on the same day, Johnson commented, “There must be something in the water down there.”

Jackson retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973. Aside from the Medal of Honor, he received the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals, among other awards. He was inducted into the Airlift/Tanker Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.

Later in life, he lived in Washington State, where he died on Jan. 12, 2019, at age 95. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

A section of Georgia State Route 34 in Coweta County, Georgia, is named in his honor.