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Mother's Day, May 12,
It was Joe Jackson's third war and,
at 45 years of age, the Air Force Lieutenant Colonel could
feel the exhaustion of the long and emotionally
charged day. None-the-less, he pushed his weariness
aside long enough to grab a piece of paper and pen to
scribble out a brief Mother's Day letter to his wife back
It had been a day of tragedy, a day
of triumph, and a day of extreme valor by soldiers on the
ground, pilots in the air, and a 3-man combat control team
left alone and surrounded by enemy soldiers when the base
camp at Kham Duc was evacuated. For Joe, the day was
supposed to have been a boring and routine "milk
run" that included the traditional bi-annual flight
check. Then the unexpected happened. As he
remembered the surprising turn of the day's events he
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 all about it.
Mortars continued to
crash around the airstrip as Major John Gallager and his two combat
controllers moved towards the base camp. An enemy 51-caliber
machinegun drummed across the asphalt amid the distinctive sounds of
numerous AK-47 rifles firing in a cacophony of lethal death.
Moving slowly, the three men kept their rifles leveled at the waist
as they moved deeper into the rubble of the well fortified Kham Duc
perimeter. Kham Duc was under full attack, had been for two
days, and Gallager and his men had returned to finish their job of
evacuating American personnel as well as South Vietnamese soldiers
Mort Freedman glanced nervously about, gripping his rifle so hard
that the muscles of his arms were sore. Sergeant Jim Lundie
glanced back at the airstrip, now damaged almost beyond use.
Mid-way down the 6,000 foot strip sat the wreckage of an Air Force
C-130, and just beyond that was the remains of a downed O-2
aircraft. Nearer to their position was the still burning
wreckage of an American helicopter. Evidence of the enemy's
complete control of the surround area was visible in all
terribly wrong as the men moved further into the base camp to
complete their mission of evacuating its 1,500 friendlies.
Amid the crash of mortars, the crackle of burning fortifications,
and the whine of enemy rounds, it was the SILENCE that unnerved the
three men. No M-14 rifles spoke back at the hidden enemy, no
American artillery roared to repulse the ever advancing North
Vietnamese, and no American voices shouted out to direct the three
Air Force combat controllers to cover. Freedman ran for the
battalion command bunker. IT WAS EMPTY! Slowly
realization dawned....the evacuation of Kham Duc was complete... the
camp was deserted and would soon be swarming with victorious
communist soldiers. Across the bowl-shaped valley the three
men could see the enemy advancing, moving quickly towards Kham
Duc. Already they had reached the end of the airstrip.
God!" he shouted to his comrades. They've gotta get
us out of here. We're trapped!" The three Americans
turned and ran, as fast and furiously as their legs would allow
them. Their flight was without reason, without conscious
thought. There was NOWHERE to run. The valley was filled
with thousands of enemy soldiers, and the only American presence was
the three combat controllers now trapped within the burning
corpse of a once-proud Special Forces base camp on the far western
border of South Vietnam.
Special Forces (Green Berets) moved into Kham Duc in
1963. Located in an almost uninhabited, far western region of
what would become I Corps, the small village sat in a valley
surrounded by 2,000 foot high hills.
a few miles from the Laotian border, the camp provided an excellent
staging area for Special Forces and LRRP (long range reconnaissance
patrols) into Laos. As the war escalated, Kham Duc also became
an important training site for South Vietnamese CIDG (Civilian
Irregular Defense Group) personnel. The military compound was
built only a short distance from the village, allowing family
members of South Vietnamese CIDG soldiers to live nearby. In
the five years leading up to a fateful Mother's Day in 1968, tons of
material were routinely flown into the camp by US Air Force C-130 Hercules
and C-123 aircraft. To accommodate supply aircraft, a
6,000-foot runway was erected between the camp and the
Tet Offensive of 1968 placed a new importance upon the strategic
location at Kham Duc. On February 6 - 7 the Special Forces camp at Lang
Vei fell to the Communists. During the same period 5,000 US
Marines held out against 20,000 NVA during the 77-day siege at Khe
Sahn, just 100 miles to the north of Kham Duc. By the end of April,
1968 it was the last remaining border camp in Military Region I.
The distinction brought Kham Duc an amplified role in the eyes of
military strategists....FOR BOTH SIDES!
the siege at Khe Sahn ended and US Marines still controlling the
base camp, the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) moved their massive force
south...towards Kham Duc. Slipping into the hills that
surrounded the bowl-shaped valley in which the Special Forces camp
and its airstrip were located, by the end of the first week of May
the enemy was poised for attack. The 1st VC Regiment, 2nd NVA
Division was well supplied and vastly outnumbered the defenders of
the base camp. The stage had been set for a repeat of the
horrible battle at Lang Vei.
war planners at MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) ordered
the immediate reinforcement of Kham Duc. Before reinforcements
could be sent, in the early morning
hours of Friday, May 10th, the Communist soldiers began their
first enemy mortars began to rain down on the American outpost a
little before 3 A.M. The attack was bolstered by scattered
machinegun and heavy recoilless rifle fire, as the invaders from the
North used the cover of the surrounding hills to drop deadly fire on
the American and South Vietnamese defenders. Forty-five
minutes after the attack began at, enemy soldiers simultaneously
neighboring outpost at Ngok Tavak.
Tavak was located just five miles down-river from Kham Duc, and was
defended by a 113-man Strike Force Company led by 8 Special Forces
and 3 Australian advisors. These were bolstered by two 105
artillery guns manned by 33 Marines from Battery D, 2nd Battalion,
12th Marines. It wouldn't be enough!
was little comfort in the arrival the previous day of a CIDG platoon
from Kham Duc that had pulled into Ngok Tavak for respite.
Assigned to the outer perimeter defense, when the NVA began their
frontal attack on Kham Duc, the CIDG platoon rushed towards
the Marine compound with shouts of, "Don't shoot. We are
friendly." Suddenly several members of the CIDG platoon
began hurling grenades into the gun positions of the Marines,
shooting any Americans they encountered in the early morning
darkness. The NVA had successfully infiltrated the ranks of
5 A.M. the outpost at Ngok Tavik was littered with the bodies of
dead and wounded Americans and South Vietnamese. As the enemy
entered the east side of the perimeter, Spooky gunships were
called in to strafe the innermost reaches of the camp to repel the
invaders, despite the fact that wounded defenders were scattered
among the invading NVA. It was the only hope of surviving to
sunrise the Australian advisers led a valiant CIDG counterattack,
pushing the NVA back into the hills and recovering the captured
Marine howitzers. Only nine rounds remained and, with the
knowledge that the outpost was on the brink of capture, when these
were fired the surviving Americans destroyed the big guns. It
had been a desperate battle, but the courageous defense had bought
some badly needed time.
the day dawned, a 45-man Mobile Strike Force arrived by helicopter,
and the seriously wounded were evacuated. One helicopter was
forced down when hit in the fuel line by enemy fire, another erupted
into a ball of flaming wreckage when hit by a rocket. As the
last helicopter left Ngok Tavik, two South Vietnamese and one
American soldier grasped the skids. Unable to maintain their
hold, all three fell to their deaths moments later.
fire continued to pound Ngok Tavik, and the defenders requested
permission to abandon the outpost. "Hold on," came
their orders. "Reinforcements are on the way."
Son Nhut Air Base
near Saigon, South Vietnam
Air Force T/Sgt. Mort
Freedman hung up the barracks phone and yelled over to his partner,
"Come on Jim, we've got a mission." Sgt. Jim Lundie
smiled. A tour in Vietnam was usually days of boredom,
interrupted infrequently by moments of intense excitement, sometimes
coupled with an adrenaline rush of fear.
The two men made it a
point to first gas up their jeep. Though their mission lay far
to the north, their jeep would be going with them. In the back
of that jeep sat a $60,000 radio, the primary weapon of their trade.
Both men were Air Force combat controllers, elite members of a
special group of airmen with a distinguished history dating back to
the days of the Berlin Airlift.
Combat controllers had
a reputation...and a good one. Trained as radio operators,
they were also parachute and scuba qualified, and had practiced
hand-to-hand combat to an art. It was their job to be among
the first into a drop zone, to organize and direct the aircraft
arriving with the first waves of supplies...or assault troops.
Because they were considered an elite element of the US Air Force,
much like Special Forces are an elite element of the US Army, combat
controllers were authorized to wear a blue beret.
Major John Gallagher
joined the two controllers and the jeep was loaded on a C-130
transport. MACV had ordered reinforcement of the Special
Forces camp at Kham Duc, and it would be the job of these three men
to organize and direct the arrival of Air Force transports bringing
in massive supplies, heavy weapons, and a reinforced battalion of
soldiers from the 196th Infantry (Americal). For the
beleaguered defenders at Kham Duc and Ngok
Tavik, the cavalry was on the way.
the defenders at Ngok Tavik could hold out no longer.
Ammunition was running out, other supplies were almost expended, the
soldiers were demoralized and exhausted, and few believed there was
any prospect of reinforcement. As noon approached the
survivors of the attack at Ngok Tavik piled up all the weapons and
equipment they could not carry and destroyed them. A rocket
was fired to destroy the helicopter downed earlier with enemy rounds
to the fuel line, and Ngok Tavik was abandoned to the enemy.
As the Americans withdrew they were forced to leave their dead
behind. Missing also from their ranks was Thomas Perry, a
medic who had flown in that morning to treat the wounded. The
Marines quickly assembled an 11-man search team to find him, while
the rest of the American, Australian and South Vietnamese defenders
began escape and evasion in the dense jungle now crawling with North
Vietnamese soldiers. Five hours later most of the latter group
was pulled from the jungle by American helicopters, half-way back to
Kham Duc. Neither Perry nor any of the 11 Marines on the
search team was ever heard from again, and remain Missing in Action.
the C-130 from Tan Son Nhut began its approach to the airstrip at
Kham Duc, the combat control team was preparing to unload.
They'd been to Kham Duc before and found it a pleasant and somewhat
peaceful place. The airstrip was one of the best; an Army
Engineer unit based at Kham Duc had devoted considerable time and
effort to its construction and maintenance. This had all the
makings of an easy mission...land, unload, then direct the arrival
of several incoming aircraft bringing soldiers and
supplies. A "walk-in-the-park".
of an easy mission quickly vanished with the less than perfect
landing. The well maintained air strip at Kham Duc was no
more. As the cargo door opened for the three men to unload
their jeep and trailer, they began to hear the loud explosions of
incoming rockets and mortars that blew gaping holes in the
runway. Quickly they backed their equipment out of the cargo
plane, mindful of the incoming rounds that fell around them.
Within minutes a round struck, and destroyed, their trailer.
Leaving its tangled wreckage where it lay, Lundie and Freedman drove
the all-important jeep across the runway and into the protection of
a small drainage ditch. Then, as the rounds continued to fall,
they began setting up their antenna to organize the incoming
less than ten yards away from their position, an enemy mortar
exploded. The ditch sheltered the men, but when Freedman
peered over the edge he noticed a wounded soldier. Rushing to
his aid, he found the man had been struck by shrapnel in three
places, including a head wound. Freedman helped the wounded
man to the ditch, then began applying first aid. "How's
my head?" the frightened soldier asked.
fine," Freedman reassured him. Though bleeding profusely,
the wound wasn't serious. Suddenly another enemy round struck
nearby, sending a shard of metal to strike the wounded man in the
head again. Blood flowed everywhere as the stricken man said,
"Oh my God, it's not fine NOW!" Freedman finished
bandaging the man up, then helped him to shelter. Despite the
four wounds, the man would survive.
Sgt. Lundie raced back to the wreckage of the trailer to rescue a
small generator needed to power their equipment. As he
struggled to free the equipment, he broke his hand. A Special
Forces medic checked it out and advised Lundie to catch the next
flight out to Cam Ranh for proper treatment. Lundie
refused. There were important flights to guide into the
airstrip at Kham Duc.
then they came, a seemingly endless flight of Air Force cargo planes
carrying the needed supplies, weapons, and soldiers of the
196th. The enemy gave no respite, mortars exploding on the
runway as soldiers quickly unloaded and moved to shelter. Two
forklift operators assigned to unload equipment were hit by enemy
fire. Quickly others moved them out of danger and took their
place in the driver's seat to continue the operation. On an
airstrip that flowed with fire, blood, fear and desperation...valor
seemed to abound.
combat controllers performed their job quickly and efficiently,
guiding aircraft in, then expeditiously sending them back into the
air and away from the enemy guns. But the enemy had found the
location of their radio, and during the afternoon three mortars
landed in a pattern around the jeep. "Looks like they've
got us bracketed," Friedman yelled. "Let's move this
jeep." It was a fortunate decision. Moments after
the jeep had been driven ten yards further down the ditch, a fourth
mortar exploded...centered on the wheel marks of the position
the jeep had occupied.
all, the combat controllers successfully brought in 11 sorties of
C-130 transports. The newly arrived soldiers of the 196th
began setting up the reinforced defense of Kham Duc, with small
elements posted in the hills to report enemy movements. As
darkness fell, Gallagher, Lundie and Freedman could take
satisfaction in a job well done.
Kham Duc, South Vietnam
A fog moved in to hang
low in the valley as morning dawned. More flights would be
arriving soon, and the combat controllers prepared for another
busy day. Lundie's hand had swollen to twice its normal size
and the injury was quite painful. With work to be done, the
airman steeled himself against the pain and joined Freedman in
guiding in another endless series of flights...C-130s, C-123s, and
C-7s bringing additional relief to Kham Duc. By mid
afternoon the task was completed.
The hail of mortars
had continued, but now Kham Duc was defended by nearly 1,500
troops, nearly two-thirds of them American soldiers. The
seven American outposts in the hills were well placed, and Airlift
Control Center advised its three men on the ground that the worst
was over. They were to stand by throughout the night in case
they were needed for resupply on Sunday morning, but for the most
part, their job was done. But as the shadows of darkness
fell over the valley, the combat controllers weren't so
sure. The mortar attacks had increased in severity throughout
the afternoon and all sensed that something BIG was about to
In the darkness the
American outposts in the hills surrounding Kham Duc began reporting
massive enemy movements, then attack. One by one they
reported that they were under assault, as the mortar barrage on
Kham Duc increased new levels of intensity. Direct hits on
two of the camps 105 howitzers killed four gunners and wounded 16
others. Then the outpost radio reports became less and less
frequent. Eventually, they became totally silent.
Systematically, the NVA had targeted and destroyed each and every
position in the hills. The reinforcement at Kham Duc had
been too little, too late. Military planners weighed the
incoming information against the intelligence that had been
gathered. By midnight they determined that Kham Duc could
not hold and sent a stunning message to the camp the Air Force had
just spent two days building up...."Evacuate at
welcomed by many of the weary soldiers at Kham Duc, the order
established for those who would carry it out, a mission without
precedent. Never before in history had a force the size of
that now positioned at Kham Duc, been evacuated from under the
guns of an enemy. There was no model for planners to copy,
no procedure for those on the grounds to employ. The only
guideline available to Major Gallagher and his men was the
priority list from ALCC: the engineers would leave first,
then the Vietnamese and their families (living in the village
across the airstrip), then the Special Forces who weren't too
happy about leaving an unfinished job behind them. The last
men out would be the Air Force combat controllers.
At 3:00 A.M. they
came. As rockets, mortars and recoilless rifle fire turned Kham
Duc into a raging inferno, hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers
left their sanctuary in the hills to swarm the airfield.
Valiantly the men of the 196th fought back, trying to hold out
against incredible odds. In the darkness there was only
confusion, terror, and death. Even the weather aligned
itself against the Americans, making supportive air strikes ineffective
or impossible. With uncommon valor, ordinary soldiers put
their fear behind them to achieve beyond their human limitations,
fighting to survive the darkness and welcome the dawn of a new
12, 1968....MOTHER'S DAY!
Dawn brought a full
array of the United States Army, the United States Marines, and
the United States Air Force. Originally MACV had planned to
remove all friendlies from Kham Duc in Army and Marine Corps CH-47
Chinooks. As the lumbering, dual-prop helicopters dropped
through the fog that now shrouded the early morning at Kham Duc,
they enemy turned their fire on the choppers with a vengeance.
The American outposts in the hills having ALL fallen to the enemy,
they had been quickly converted to anti-aircraft positions to
thwart any rescue attempt. At 8:20 A.M. MACV notified
General Burl McLaughlin, Commander of the 834th Air Division, that
the fate of Kham Duc was now in hands of the 7th Air Force.
Air Force observers
and fighters did their best to see through the heavy fog to fly
missions in support of Kham Duc. Early on Sunday morning,
one F4 was badly shot up by the NVA anti-aircraft positions.
The pilot struggled against the controls, somehow managing to pull
out of the valley and return safely. An A1 was not so
fortunate. Hit by enemy fire, it crashed near the embattled
Flights of B-52
bombers began a series of bombing runs across the hills that
swarmed with a determined enemy. Meanwhile, as C-130s from
the Air Force were en route to evacuate the camp, Army and Marine
Chinooks continued their attempts to rescue the trapped American
and South Vietnamese. In the course of the morning only a
few of them managed to get in an out of Kham Duc. Then one
of the Chinooks was hit by enemy fire and crashed on the
runway. The bulky, burning wreckage blocked the landing
area, reducing the once mile-long strip to a landing distance of
only 2,000 feet. It was no longer a landing strip of
sufficient distance to safely land a C-130.
engineers of Company A, 70th Engineer Battalion set about the task
of reassembling one of their two large bulldozers. Earlier
these had been dismantled for destruction to keep them from
falling into enemy hands. Now, with time running out, they
feverishly worked to undo their damage. Shortly after noon
they had the dozer running and, under direct enemy fire on the
open air strip, they used that dozer to push the wreckage of the
CH-47 to the side of the runway. As quickly as the wreckage
was moved, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daryl Cole began an
approach in his C-130, reversing his props and coming to a halt
only feet from the wrecked CH-47. He was immediately swamped
by a mob of frightened civilians, the wives and children of the
CIDG soldiers at Kham Duc. Loaded beyond capacity, he
then began his take-off. Suddenly enemy mortars bracketed
the escaping transport plane, and shrapnel ripped into its side...flattening
one of the two left-side tires and opening large holes in the wing
that quickly spewed out fuel. Quickly his crew unloaded the
civilians and moved them to some semblance of cover from the
continuing enemy fire. That task accomplished, they began
cutting away the ruptured rubber of the flat tire.
While LTC Cole's
crew went about their task, Major Ray Shelton managed to taxi his
C-123 down the runway, come to a halt long enough to fill it with
passengers, and then safely take off. Nearly a dozen mortars
fell near his transport plane while he was on the ground, but he
held his gritted his teeth against the onslaught to finishe his mission. It was near
noon now, and the only personnel rescued from Kham Duc were those
aboard Shelton's aircraft, and a few successfully rescued earlier
that morning by 15 helicopters. Of the 1,500 inhabitants,
only 145 had been lifted from the inferno.
Then came the most
devastating announcement of all....prepare to escape and
evade....there WOULD BE NO MORE RESCUE PLANES. Major
Shelton's crew had finally managed to strip away the rubber of the
flat tire on the remaining C-130 at Kham Duc and, despite the flow
of fuel from the holes in the left wing, he was preparing to take
off. "Head for that aircraft," Major Gallagher
ordered his two combat controllers. The rescue mission was
over...there would be no more incoming flights for his men to
direct...and he had orders of his own not to risk losing two very
good men without good reason.
"Sir, I feel
like a rat leaving a sinking ship," Freedman protested.
"Let me stay here. I'm trained for E & E.
I'll make it ok, sir...these guys might need me for
"I know how you
feel," the Major replied, "but I'm the one giving the
orders around here. This isn't our job. Our job's
finished. Now, let's go." And with that the three
airmen raced to the C-130 warming up to depart Kham Duc.
Flying out with volatile fuel streaming from the wings and with
only three main-gear tires, maybe their chances of survival would
have been better had they stayed in Kham Duc. Incredibly,
Colonel Cole managed to nurse his crippled transport safely back
to Cam Ranh. (Colonel Cole and his valiant crew later
received the MacKay Trophy for "the most meritorious flight
of the year" by Air Force aircraft.)
Unknown to the Major
Gallagher and his men, the message that there would be no
more rescue aircraft had been in error. Above the
fog-shrouded valley more than a dozen Air Force C-123 and
C-130s orbited, awaiting both opportunity and instructions
to land at Kham Duc. In a separate C-130 in the
dangerous skies that day was General McLaughlin...personally
monitoring the progress of the unprecedented
evacuation. As Colonel Cole struggled to keep his
battered C-130 airborne long enough to reach Cam Ranh, his
radio crackled with a message for Major Gallagher and his
men. "Back to Kham Duc." The combat
controllers finally smiled. They were going
back...back into the blazing inferno of Kham Duc...to finish
their job or die trying. There would be a brief
detour, Colonel Cole's plane would never make it back to
Kham Duc. So it was on to Cam Ranh to quickly board a
new aircraft, call sign Spare 808, and return to
rescue Kham Duc.
It was now shortly
after 3 in the afternoon, and the combat controllers were speeding
back to Kham Duc in Spare 808. Meanwhile, one of the
Forward Air Controllers (FAC) dipped below the fog in his Birddog
to check out the airstrip. After a pass through the valley
he notified Command and Control that he believed he could guide
the waiting transports into the valley for another
evacuation. At 3:25 P.M. Major Bernard Bucher followed the
directions of the FAC to successfully land his C-130 on the
airstrip. He was immediately mobbed by the civilian women
and children, but managed to load nearly 150 people in his cargo
hold. As he taxied down the runway and turned to take off
into the north, it provided the frightened and war-weary members
of the CIDG forces a tenuous moment of relief. At least
their families would safely leave Kham Duc. And then, in yet
another cruel twist of fate, enemy fire began to pound Bucher's
airplane. The stunned South Vietnamese soldiers watched in
horror as the aircraft began to shake violently out of control,
then turned and crashed in an eruption of smoke and fire in a
nearby ravine. There would be no survivors...a final
crushing blow to men who suddenly lost all will to survive, all
reason to fight on.
The disaster might
have halted further rescue efforts, but for the courage of the
other Air Force pilots. LTC William Boyd, Jr. turned the
nose of his own C-130 towards the air strip at Kham Duc. As
he approached a heavy concentration of enemy small-arms fire was
directed his way, forcing him to overfly the burning camp and
circle. The first aborted attempt could not deter him.
Returning in the face of enemy fire, he brought his transport to
the ground, quickly loaded 100 people in his cargo hold (again,
mostly civilians), and then braved the enemy fire that peppered the
shell of his airplane to taxi out of the valley of death.
LTC Boyd not only
rescued 100 doomed civilians, he demonstrated that, despite the
tragedy previously witnessed by all, Air Force transports COULD
land, load, and escape. LTC John Delmore followed suit,
turning the nose of his own C-130 towards the landing strip.
Spiraling down from directly overhead to land, enemy bullets
pounded the skin of his transport plane. So intense was the
fire that many were through-and-through, penetrating the floor and
continuing upwards to rip gaping holes in the aircraft's
ceiling. Smoke began to fill the cockpit and cargo hold as
the hydraulic-boosted controls were shot away. Out of
control, the aircraft slammed hard into the runway, the nose
buried in the dirt to the side. The shaken but living 5-man
crew scrambled out of the wreckage into the waiting arms of the
American soldiers still stranded at Kham Duc.
If indeed the
evacuation of Kham Duc was unprecedented in Air Force history, so
to was the valor displayed in the skies. On the ground the
pilot of an O-2 Skymaster who had been shot down earlier, stayed
on the radio to relay radio information back to Command and
Control. He stayed to the very end, one of the last
Americans to be evacuated. As fighters and bombers strafed
the hillsides and peppered them with napalm and heavy bombs,
additional C-130s landed on the airstrip. From the ill-fated
first landing by Major Bucher at 3:25 until 4:00 PM a total of 6
aircraft managed to land at Kham Duc. Four successfully left the
airstrip with a full load of soldiers and civilians who a half
hour before had been doomed to the enemy. As Lieutenant
Colonel James L. Wallace, the last of the six, departed Kham Duc,
a helicopter was arriving to remove the Special Forces
soldiers...the last to leave. It was 4:33 PM, the evacuation
was complete, and the last Special Forces camp on the northwestern
frontier had been destroyed and left to the advancing enemy.
Unaware of all that had transpired in the last hour, Lieutenant
Colonel Jay Van Cleef was on final approach. In seconds Spare
808 was on the runway, and Major Gallagher and his two combat
controllers were racing back into the inferno to complete their
mission. Van Cleef waited on the runway to extract more
Americans, but none appeared. Finally revving his
engines, he took off to the north while the radio crackled with
the exciting news that the evacuation of Kham Duc, improbable as
it had appeared, was now complete.
As the enemy began
to swarm the burning compound, General McLaughlin ordered his
fighters and bombers to level the camp, satisfied in the knowledge
that all friendly forces had been removed. Frantically Van
Cleef radioed back,
Still got THREE MEN ON THE GROUND!"
High overhead, a
frustrated Air Force commander swore.
How could this have happened!
the ground Major Gallager, Sergeant Freedman, and Sergeant Lundie were
in a race for their lives. Around them burning munitions continued
to explode. In the distance they could see the advancing NVA
soldiers. Already they had reached the air strip and had set up a
huge 51-caliber machinegun. The three Americans ran without
conscious thought, pushed by fear and desperation. Somehow,
without direction, they had returned to the airstrip to throw their
bodies into the shallow shelter of the same drainage ditch they had
occupied the previous two days. Before departing, the American
forces had destroyed all radios left behind. There was no way to
make contact, the three men were alone, abandoned to the enemy.
the Air Force pilots were stunned by the sad turn of events. Were
there indeed three Americans...brother airmen...alone on the ground and
surrounded by the enemy? "I'm going in for a look,"
radioed Lieutenant Colonel Al Jeanotte as he nosed his C-123 towards the
now almost totally destroyed airfield. Amazingly, he managed to
land his aircraft, sitting in the open as the enemy 51-caliber began to
add its staccato beat to the thunder of mortars dropping around the
exposed aircraft. From their position in the drainage ditch,
Freedman and Lundie began to rain fire from their own weapons back on
the enemy position. Still unaware of the ground crew's position, Jeanotte could
remain on the ground no longer. The combat controllers watched in
horror as the transports twin engines revved and their last hope
of rescue lifted off. And then, with the primary target gone, the
enemy turned its big guns on the stranded Americans. Lundie and
Freedman dropped back down in the ditch. The enemy was less than 200
know why he didn't pick us up?" Gallagher asked. "He
though we were VC." Freedman took note of his tiger-stripe
jungle uniform and groaned. That had to be the reason, the pilot
of the rescue craft mistook the Americans for enemy soldiers, and now
there would be no further rescue effort.
they get me, Jim," Freedman told his partner, you get the wallet
out of my pocket. I want my money sent home, I don't want THEM to
won't get us," Lundie replied, not as sure of this as he
sounded. The large machinegun had ceased firing on the 3 men, but
as they peered over the rim of their drainage ditch they could see
squads of enemy moving towards their position.
overhead LTC Jeanotte radioed Command and Control. As he lifted off the runway at Kham Duc he HAD seen the three Americans.
Then, in a voice of desperation, he announced that he did not have
enough fuel to make an attempt to land again. Someone else would
have to rescue the three trapped men.....but who?
the distance another C-123 flew through the skies of South
Vietnam. At the controls was Lieutenant Colonel Joe Madison
Jackson, a 45-year old former fighter pilot and veteran of service in
World War II and Korea. Today Jackson was flying a routine
delivery from Da Nang to an air strip near the DMZ. Since it was a
routine flight, Major Jesse Campbell had come along in the co-pilot's
seat to administer Colonel Jackson's bi-annual flight check.
Jackson was returning to Da Nang when he heard the frantic voice of
Colonel Jeanotte announce the fate of the three combat controllers
abandoned at Kham Duc. There were no second thoughts.
Colonel Jackson banked his transport plane towards Kham Duc as he turned
to his flight examiner and said: