President Lyndon Johnson presents the Medal of Honor to Jackson at a White House ceremony Jan. 16, 1969. Others in the action were awarded an Air Force Cross, Silver Stars, and the Mackay Trophy. File photo.
Retired Col. Joe M. Jackson, a 33-year Air Force veteran who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, and who received the Medal of Honor for action during the latter conflict, died Jan. 12, at the age of 95.
Jackson was born in Newnan, Ga., and enlisted in the Army at the age of 18, becoming a crew chief on B-25 Mitchell bombers. He applied to become an aviation cadet and won his wings, receiving his commission and becoming a fighter pilot in P-40 Thunderbolt and P-63 King Cobras, serving as a gunnery instructor. Toward the end of WWII, he transitioned to the B-24 Liberator.
He returned to combat during the Korean War, amassing 107 combat missions in the F-84 Thunderstreak fighter-bomber with the 524th Fighter Squadron. After the war, he was among the first Air Force pilots to fly the super-secret U-2 spy plane, supervised detachments of the aircraft worldwide, and developed a campaign of aerial reconnaissance over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackson got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science in the early 1960s, at night school.
He went to Vietnam in 1967, flying the C-123 Provider with a Special Operations Squadron, building up to 298 combat missions.
On May 12, 1968, he volunteered to attempt the rescue of three airmen; a C-130 navigator and two combat controllers that had been left behind at Kham Duc, an airfield near the Laos border being used by Army Special Forces. It was about to fall to North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong, and was taking heavy ground fire from mortars, rockets, .50 cal. machine guns, and small arms fire.
The evacuation of troops from the airfield was largely complete, but the operation would claim seven aircraft lost to enemy fire, including a CH-47 wrecked halfway down the runway.
A previous C-123 attempting the rescue had nearly been shot down, as well. It had to leave because of low fuel, but was able to spot the three airmen needing evacuation. Jackson made an extremely steep approach to the field, evading heavy fire from the edge of the airfield, avoiding the wrecked helicopter and an unexploded rocket on the runway. He slowed to pick up the three men, escaping the field and returning to base without suffering any hits on his aircraft.
For his heroism in pressing the rescue despite tremendous enemy fire, his skill in landing the aircraft and taking it off under difficult conditions, and rescuing the three troops, Jackson was decorated by President Lyndon Johnson on Jan. 16, 1969—nearly 50 years to the day before his death. The other members of Jackson’s crew also were decorated by Johnson.
After Vietnam, Jackson worked as a planner in the Pentagon, and taught strategic studies at the Air War College. He retired in 1971.
In addition to the Medal of Honor, Jackson also received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, and three air medals among his decorations. He was credited with a number of aeronautical innovations. These included developing formulaic methods for returning to base in bad weather, landing jets under conditions of low visibility and low ceilings, organizing large movements of aircraft across oceans, and a bomb-tossing technique used in the delivery of nuclear weapons.
In 1997, Jackson was inducted into the Tanker/Airlift Association’s Hall of Fame.
More on Jackson’s Medal of Honor can be found in “Rescue at Kham Duc,” by John T. Correll, in the October 2005 issue of Air Force Magazine.