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McChord Airmen build resiliency

Air Force pilot, Medal of Honor-awardee shares miracle accounts on Wingman Day

Northwest Guardian

Published: 01:29PM December 12th, 2013
McChord Airmen build resiliency

Julie Smith/Northwest Guardian

A master sergeant hands out items to other Airmen during Wingman Day Dec. 6 at Hangar 3 on McChord Field.

Airmen from McChord Field took part Dec. 6 in Wingman Day, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Air Force stand-down day designed to build resilient Airmen through briefings, team-building exercises and physical activity.

By 8 a.m., hundreds of Airmen were gathered in Hangar 3 near the McChord Field flight line to hear welcome messages from 62nd Airlift Wing Commander Col. David Kumashiro and 627th Air Base Group Commander Col. Anthony Davit. The group took a break after opening remarks to speak with representatives from several JBLM agencies who had information tables set up at the event.

The theme of the day was “Team McChord Heroes and Heritage,” punctuated by the featured guest speaker, retired Lt. Col. Joe Jackson, a former Air Force pilot who earned a Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Kham Duc during the Vietnam War. A boulevard on McChord Field is named in honor of Jackson.

The 90-year-old Air Force veteran said he entered military service to learn a profession and began working as an airplane mechanic after enlisting in the Army Air Corps in March 1941. On a routine training flight, he was asked to fill in for a sick flight engineer. During the flight, the right engine caught fire, and Jackson told the pilot how to fly the plane to put the fire out. The maneuver worked, and gave Jackson the confidence he needed to enter Aviation Cadet Training. He became a military pilot in April 1943.

Jackson spent most of World War II as a gunnery instructor and during the Korean War, flew 107 missions as an F-84 fighter pilot. At the age of 45, he volunteered for a tour in Vietnam and served as a C-123 transport plane squadron commander.

The Battle of Kham Duc took place May 10 to 12, 1968, when an airfield in South Vietnam was overrun by North Vietnamese forces. The 1,500 defenders included South Vietnamese fighters, their families, American Soldiers and Airmen. Everyone at the airfield was ordered to evacuate, but North Vietnamese forces had taken control of the high ground and were firing on support aircraft trying to assist in the evacuation. They were successful in downing several planes, some full of service members and Vietnamese civilians.

Jackson’s was the last plane sent in to rescue a three-man Air Force combat control team, the only survivors still left on the ground. As he made a steep descent, he could see the Airmen hiding in a ditch next to the runway. He was able to stop his plane close to the men, but as they ran for the aircraft, North Vietnamese fighters fired a 122 mm rocket toward the plane. Jackson said he saw the rocket skid down the runway and break apart just in front of the plane’s nose. Miraculously, it didn’t explode.

As Jackson’s plane took off, he could see small arms fire directed at the plane from both sides of the runway. He later landed safely at a friendly airfield, and as he inspected the outside of the aircraft, he realized there wasn’t a single bullet hole in the airplane.

“That was the second miracle that day,” Jackson said.

The only known photograph of any Medal of Honor action was taken of the Kham Duc airfield as Jackson’s plane sits on the runway. In the photo, the combat controllers can be seen running to the plane.

Downed aircraft are also seen in the picture.

Two hundred fifty-nine lives were lost during the battle.

Kumishiro believed Jackson’s story provided inspiration to Team McChord Airmen and illustrated the strong heritage of military service.

“It’s not just about now, it’s about the past and tomorrow,” Kumishiro said. “If we can help develop that pride, privilege and trust in our organization, it really mitigates the challenges we face.”

After lunch, the event continued with unit activities led by resiliency representatives. Later, Team McChord participated in 3-mile resiliency run to cap off the day’s activities.