Medal of Honor recipient Joseph M. Jackson kept the award in a shirt drawer in order to remind himself of his values as an American.
“Regardless, you always do the right thing,” he said in a 2013 Air Force Times interview.
A retired Air Force colonel and veteran of World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, he passed away last Saturday. He was 95.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society said he died in Washington State and that funeral services are pending.
“His actions contribute to a legacy of valor and our heritage of service before self,” stated Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein.
The Legacy Begins
A native of Newnan, Georgia, Jackson was an experienced pilot when he deployed to Vietnam in 1967.
He had enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and he moved through the ranks to earn his commission and his wings in 1943. He then became a gunnery instructor at Eglin Field, Florida.
Remaining in the service after the war’s end, he flew P-47 fighters over occupied Germany. Following that, he flew 107 combat missions in the F-84 fighter during the Korean War.
After service there, he was the co-developer of the “toss bomb” technique wherein a pilot pulls his fighter plane upward at the moment of the bomb’s release to increase the forward velocity of the bomb.
Jackson received orders to Vietnam in August, 1967. He flew 298 missions in the C-123, a transport plane.
One of those missions stands out.
Flying a routine resupply mission on May 12, 1968, he was called to help in the evacuation of a special forces base at Kham Duc.
Under attack by a large number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, the base’s runway was littered with debris from mortar fire and the explosions of stored ammunition.
“They were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons, and recoilless rifle fire,” Jackson’s Medal of Honor citation reads.
Told to orbit south of the camp, other aircraft landed on the damaged airstrip to complete the evacuation of personnel.
Once completed, American air strikes were to reduce the abandoned base and equipment to rubble.
“Negative, negative!” yelled a C-130 pilot; there were three Air Force combat controllers still on the ground.
Another C-123 attempted a rescue but did not locate the airmen.
“I was looking out the window, and I knew exactly where they were,” Jackson said later.
“We called and said, ‘Roger, we’re going in.’”
Doing the Right Thing
Using his experience as a fighter pilot, Jackson began a steep 9000-foot descent. Dropping like a rock, the maneuver caught the enemy by surprise as he landed the aircraft on 2,200 feet of what was left of the runway.
Coming to a screeching stop, the three airmen jumped into the plane.
Moments later, a 122-millimeter rocket shell landed – but did not detonate – in front of the plane’s nose wheel.
“It didn’t go off,” recalled Jackson. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I guess.”
He taxied around the shell and applied full throttle – as machine gun and small arms fire came at him – using about 1,000 feet of airstrip to lift off.
Moments later a mortar shell landed where the aircraft had been.
“Not a single round pierced the airframe,” Jackson recalled.
President Lyndon Johnson presented Jackson with the Medal of Honor during a White House ceremony on January 16, 1969.
Col. Joe Jackson Boulevard at McChord Field is named in his honor.
The Medal of Honor altered his life, Jackson recalled, as it gave him the responsibility of representing all who have served in the military.
“It represents the thousands of Americans who have served their country,” he said. “You have to make them proud of what you have done and what they have done, and that’s a tough job.”
Requiescat in pace.