For God's Sake, Stay out of Kham Duc! It Belongs to Charlie!

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Kham Duc CIDG Camp, May 12, 1968 - Taken by Sam Kerro,

Although very little has been written about it, the events of May 12, 1968 at the remote Vietnamese camp at Kham Duc are
among the most heroic of the Vietnam War, in fact of any war. In fact, the actions taken that day by eight C-130 and three C-123 crews are undoubtedly the most heroic action in US Air Force history - bar none. On that day, a handful of US Air Force C-130 and US Army and Marine helicopter crewmembers literally laid their lives on the line to evacute the defenders of the Civilian Irregular Defense Corps camp at Kham Duc, an outpost just inside the South Vietnamese border with Laos. 

Located in the northwest of South Vietnam just ten miles from Laos, for years the camp at Kham Duc had served as a base for intelligence gathering operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in the spring of 1968 the communists decided the time had come to take it out. By early May Allied intelligence sources realized that a large number of North Vietnamese were gathering in the mountains around the camp. On May 10 the camp was reinforced with members of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade who were flown in from their base at Chu Lai in Operation GOLDEN VALLEY. The following day an outlying camp at Ngoc Tavak was attacked; apparently some of the CIDG troops in the camp turned their guns on their American allies. Ngoc Tavack soon fell and the defenders were evacuated by helicopter to Kham Duc. That evening General William C. Westmoreland determined that Kham Duc was indefensible and, wishing to avoid the headlines of Amercian troops being overrun, decided to evacuate it, beginning at dawn the next morning.

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Burning wreckage of CH47.
(Note - there is some queston as to when this photograph was taken. A CH47 was shot down at Kham Duc in 1970 and this may be of it.)
The original plan called for a helicopter evacuation over a three day period, but when intense ground fire brought down the first helicopter into the camp, all evacuation plans were put on hold. Over the next few hours there was a lot of waffling - there was going to be an evacuation, then there wasn't, then there was. At one point a message was sent to the Air Force personnel at the camp, who consisted of Maj. Jack Gallagher from the 773rd Tactical Airlift Squadron at Clark AB, Philippines who was airlift mission commander, two combat controllers from the 8th Aerial Port Squadron at Tan Son Nhut, TSgt Morton Freedman and Sgt. James Lundie, and Capt. Willard Johnson, who was an Air Force liasion officer with the Americal Division from Chu Lai, that the use of fixed-wing aircraft for evacuation had been cancelled and that they should plan to exfiltrate through the communist positions along with the Army, Marine and CIDG personnel who made up the camp's defenders. During the morning a C-130A flown by Lt. Col. Daryl D. Cole and his 21st Tactical Airlift Squadron crew landed at the camp with a load of cargo, apparently not knowing that it was to be evacuated. A flood of Vietnamese civilians rushed  aboard the airplane, so many that the loadmaster was unable to off-load the cargo. The airplane was shot full of holes and a tire was flattened, but Cole attempted a takeoff with the passengers and the load of cargo still onboard. The overburdened airplane would not fly, so they returned to the ramp, where the Vietnamese lept off and jumped into ditches along the side of the runway. Cole's crew worked feverishly to cut away the remains of the tire with a bayonet and a blow torch. While they were working, a C-123 flown by Major Ray D. Shelton came in and picked up a load of Vietnamese and US Army engineers. Cole loaded all remaining Air Force personnel at the camp on to his badly-damaged C-130 and managed to take-off, and flew to Cam Ranh Bay. When they got there, the members of the 3-man airlift control team who were aboard were told that they should have stayed in the camp. They were put on another C-130 and sent back.



The Camp at Kham Duc
(An Army troop who was at Kham Duc sent this to me.)

Just how the decision for the Air Force personnel to come out on Cole's airplane came about is unclear. There is one thing for certain - they could not have been aboard without Cole's permission and probably his encouragement.  Major Gallagher was the senior Air Force officer on the ground at the camp and was in command of airlift operations into the camp's 6,000-foot runway. Johnson was assigned to the 23rd Infantry as a liasion officer and was not under 834th Air Division control while Freedman and Lundie were enlisted men. The two combat controllers would claim later that they tried to get Maj. Gallagher to allow them to stay, but such an action really makes no sense in view of them having been told that no more fixed-wing landings would take place and that the camp was going to be abandoned. (Several articles have stated that the report was in error, but it was no error. Senior US officers for the region had decided that a fixed-wing evacuation was impossible and the USAF personnel were notified that they would have to exfiltrate. Enemy activity around the camp was too great for exfiltration and it was delayed. Later in the day, MACV decided to order 834th Air Division to evacuate the camp.) They have also indicated that they thought there might be airdrops - and the 834th Air Division Airlift Command Element (ALCE) at Da Nang had, in fact, set up some stand-by airdrop resupply missions - but as it turned out, no airdrop missions were flown, with one possible exception, and none were ever scheduled. Some accounts relate that a C-130 dropped ammunition into the camp at about 1030 that morning while Cole's crew was on the ground but there is some question as to whether not the drop actually took place. It is mentioned in I Corps Direct Air Support Center (DASC) after-action reports. Considering that Lt. Col. Cole and his crew came in with cargo, its doubtful that an airdrop would have been scheduled that early in the day. What appears to have been most likely is that Cole, Gallagher and Johnson saw the C-130 as the last chance to get the Air Force personnel out of the camp and Gallagher and Johnson took it. Under the evacuation plan drawn up by the Americal Division, Air Force personnel were supposed to be Number Six, leaving along with the Americal Division troops. As it turned out, they left in the third group to depart the camp. Lt. Col. Cole's loadmaster believes that the decision was made by the Airlift Command Center in Saigon and that it was a purely political act so 834th Air Division could claim its personnel were "the last to leave." (At it turned out, they were!) The combat controller motto is "First in, last out." One group had been brought out by helicopter while another, mostly US Army engineers, came out on Maj. Shelton's C-123. Even after they got the word to return to the camp, the crew that was assigned to take them back was greeted with confusion. The pilot, Lt. Col. Jay Van Cleef, was first told to go to Da Nang to load for an airdrop. There is a lag time of around four hours between the time Cole's airplane landed at Cam Ranh and the airlift control team was reinserted into what had become an abandoned camp.

The Airlift Mission Control Team was an outgrowth of World War II, when troop carrier pilots landed in gliders to control airborne and glider operations and were called combat controllers. The 1960s version of the combat controller was different from World War II, however.
They were non-rated (meaning they were not pilots or navigators) officers and enlisted men who were trained to jump in ahead of a large airborne force to set up beacons and panels to identify drop zones for troop carrier formations. In Vietnam, however, where there was only one US airborne operation and cargo drop missions were infrequent, combat control teams using the call sign TAIL PIPE accompanied an airlift mission commander who was a qualified tactical airlift pilot or navigator into forward airfields and provided communications links between the ground and the arriving transports and with 834th Air Division command elements. Airlift mission commanders were assigned to 834th Air Division on temporary duty from the out-of-country C-130 units beginning in late 1966 or early 1967. (C-130 wings were never assigned to Southeast Asia on a permanent basis - instead, they were provided on temporary duty from three wings based out of country on Okinawa, the Philippines and Taiwan with a single squadron in Japan.)The mission commander was responsible for monitoring airlift operations for safety and hostile action concerns and determining if they should continue. One of the mission commander's roles was to protect USAF assets, particularly the valuable C-130 transports, which Gen. Momyer and USAF Headquarters had identified as "instruments of national policy" and too valuable to risk if other options were available. The airlift mission at a forward field often included an aerial port mobility team made up of air freight personnel - and sometimes loadmasters - whose role was to offload cargo coming in on arriving transports. If there was a mobility team assigned to GOLDEN VALLEY, there has been no mention of them in accounts. However, the 5th Special Forces after-action report shows that 10 USAF personnel were assigned to the camp, all of whom were returned to government control, but only five can be accounted for in published accounts. It is possible that there was a USAF aerial port mobility team at the camp at some point (another possibility is that there was a tactical air control party.) As it turned out, the airlift mission control team played no role in the evacuation of Kham Duc - but they became the objects of a rescue attempt after it was over.
Throughout the day, a battle raged around the airfield. Several airplanes and helicopters were shot down, including an Air Force foward air controller (FAC), who managed to crash-land his shot-up O-2 on the runway. It was those losses that led to the cancellation of further fixed-wing landings. Before the day was out, a total of ten aircraft were lost, four fixed-wing - including two C-130s - and six helicopters. Before he left on Lt. Col. Cole's airplane, Captain Johnson, the Air Force ALO with the Americal Division, recognized that the situation at the camp had become untenable. Whenever he had the opportunity, he taped his thoughts on a small tape recorder. He could see the enemy sitting up gun positions on the hills around the camp and knew that unless they were destroyed, they would make landings at the camp by either airplanes or helicopters extremely hazardous. Several USAF forward air controllers worked over the camp throughout the day and one, Capt. Philip Smotherman, was shot down shortly after Capt. Johnson left on Lt. Col. Cole's airplane. In Lt. Col. Alan Gropman's account he states that Smotherman went to "the Tactical Air Control Party" bunker to contact the Direct Air Support Center, but there is no mention of a tactical air control party being on the ground at the camp. Tactical air control parties, which were made up of fighter pilots trained as forward air controllers and communications personnel, were Air Force units that operated with Army ground units to direct air strikes. Gropman may be referring to Army or Marine personnel who had been trained to call in air strikes. Somehow, Smotherman managed to contact the DASC and was told that Gen. Momyer had "ordered" him to remain on the ground as the ALO - a moot order since at this point he had no other choice as no aircraft were getting in and there was no way out. Helicopter and fixed-wing transport operations had been suspended due to the intense ground fire around the camp. At around 1230 a C-130 made an attempt to land but the pilot broke off his approach when he encountered extremely heavy ground fire which made a landing impossible. Although the details are not recorded, the DASC after-action reports indicate that several attempts were made by C-130s and C-123s to land but their efforts were halted by the FACs working over the camp due to ground fire. 

An air of confusion prevailed at every level, all the way to the top at MACV headquarters in Saigon. The initial plan calling for a helicopter evacuation died when the first two helicopters directed into the camp took heavy ground fire, resulting in the loss of one and the diversion of the other. MACV then called for a fixed-wing evacuation but that plan went down the toilet as aircraft losses around the camp mounted. At one point the regional commander decided to abandon all plans for an evacuation and have the camp's defenders exfiltrate through the enemy lines. Finally, at some point in the afternoon, MACV decided to order a fixed-wing evacuation. Some authors state that the order went out at 1315, which is probable since MACV kept records of communications. However, the evacuation did not actually begin for another two hours. The delay was most likely due to the intense fire around the camp. North Vietnamese troops had overrun all of the outlying outposts and had reached the outer perimeter of the camp itself. Earlier that morning Seventh Air Force commander Maj. Gen. William "Spike" Momyer ordered a "Grand Slam," a code word for a maximum effort, at the camp. Normally, Grand Slams were used for air actions in North Vietnam, but the situation unfolding at Kham Duc was becoming the most intense of the entire war. In response to the Grand Slam an Air Force Airborne Command and Control C-130 was diverted to the vicinity of the camp to act as an on-scene command post and every available Air Force fighter/bomber was diverted from its assigned mission to provide close air support at the camp. Navy and Marine fighters were also part of the effort. Army and Marine helicopter gunships were also active around the camp although their efforts had been limited due to the volume of ground fire that came up to greet them.

The air strikes were literally "close" air support. The attacking PAVN (NVA) forces had penetrated the outer defenses and were inside the perimeter wire. Some airstrikes were laid right on the wire, so close that the men in the camp could feel the heat from the napalm. The ordnance being used was mainly napalm and cluster-bombs, or CBUs, bombs filled with tiny bomblets that threw out steel bearings or flechettes that mowed down anything in their path. At some point there were also evidently some ARC Light strikes by B-52s, but they were in the hills to the northeast of the camp rather than in the immediate vicnity of the camp itself. The B-52s were based in Guam, and were several hours from South Vietnam so it was impossible to use them on short notice unless they were already in the air. An AC-47 gunship operated in the vicinity of the camp during the early morning hours but none were used during the day due to their vulnerability to ground fire and the heavier ordinance afforded by fighters. At one point during the morning a two-plane flight of F-105s that had been diverted from a planned strike in North Vietnam dropped sixteen 750-pound bombs on a concentration of communist troops who were organizing for an assault on the base.
They wanted to strafe but the FAC said no.The lead pilot was Captain Wayne Warner, who had been a C-130 pilot in the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron up until a year before. His wing in Thailand, the 355th TAC Fighter Wing, received a telegram from the 196th Infantry that their attack had prevented the camp from being overrun. Captain Warner and his wingman recieved Silver Stars for the mission. 

As the day progressed and it became apparent that the North Vietnamese were going to prevail, the senior US officer in I Corps, 23rd Division Commander Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, considered the situation. Although at one point an evacuation was considered impossible, he finally decided to try to evacuate the Americans. Previously, his headquarters had drawn up an evacuation plan that called for the CIDG troops to be brought out last, after the command and control personnel from his own unit and the Army Special Forces team. During the morning several Army and Marine helicopters attempted to reach the camp, but it is unclear how many were successful. An after-action report written by a 196th officer records that there had been fifteen helicopter and one C-123 sortie prior to the beginning of the C-130 evacuation at 1530 (3:30 PM). Although the communist attacks were intense, the air strikes were taking their toll. Gen. Koster decided to try for a fixed-wing evacuation after all.
   
In the early afternoon
General Westmoreland notified Seventh Air Force to commence an evacuation and the order was passed on to 834th Air Division, which was in a state of confusion. Some C-130s had been loaded with airdrop bundles and were standing by at Da Nang while others had been loaded with cargo, which had to be downloaded. A few C-130s and C-123s were in the air near Kham Duc waiting for orders (there were three C-130s and one C-123 - probably Maj. Shelton's - holding near the camp during the morning and others were on standby waiting to be launched. The number of transports in the holding pattern had increased to about a dozen by mid-afternoon) Several made attempts to land but, with the single exception of Maj. Shelton, were turned away by the FACs due to hostile fire. When the evacuation was ordered, 834th directed that C-130s be used in view of their larger payload capacity and the C-123s were shifted aside. Col. Gropman states that the weather was closing in as daylight was running out, but the photos shown below reveal blue, clear skies punctuated by a single cumulous cloud in the distance. At 1500 hours, several hours of daylight remained. As it turned out, the evacuation began at about 1525 and continued for roughly an hour.

The first airplane to land was a C-130B flown by a crew from the
774th TAS, commanded by Major Bernard Bucher who approached the camp at about 1530 (3:30 PM). Major Bucher landed and loaded his airplane with more than 200 Vietnamese, mostly civilian dependents of the CIDG force. A report written by someone, evidently a member of the Special Forces team, claimed that Americal troops mobbed the airplane but if this is true, they must have gotten off because none were on the airplane when it took off. The only American on board other than the flight crew was a member of the Special Forces team. As Bucher's airplane lifted off, it flew through the apex of fire from two machine guns, trembled, then crashed into a ravine and exploded. As Bucher was taking off Lt. Colonel Bill Boyd was approaching the runway. He had to go-around for a second attempt when he saw Bucher's airplane headed right for him. Earlier in the day while waiting at Chu Lai, Boyd had talked to an A-1E pilot who had been shot down over Kham Duc earlier in the day and rescued. The fighter pilot had told him "For God's sake, stay out of Kham Duc! It belongs to Charlie!

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Smoke from the C-130B crash site - Taken by Sam Kerro, loadmaster on the crew that followed them in.

After watching Bucher crash,
in spite of more than 100 hits Boyd landed, then took off in the opposite direction and managed to make it to safety with about 100 troops onboard. After they landed Boyd's copilot, Major Reed, took a can of spray paint and wrote "The Lucky Duc" on the side of the airplane. Sam Kerro, the loadmaster, took the picture.

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Maj. Reed, copilot on Lt. Col. William Boyd's crew, painting "The Lucky Duc" on the side of their airplane - Taken by Sam Kerro.

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Pilots Lt. Col. Bill Boyd and Major Reed with unidentified ground troop after landing at Chu Lai. Photo taken by Sam Kerro

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Loadmaster Sam Kerro in a sweat-soaked flight after their heroic flight into Kham Duc. Sam is on the right; the ground troop is unidentified.
Photo courtesy of Sam Kerro
The third C-130 was an A-model also with a crew from the 21st TAS, commanded by Lt. Colonel John Delmore. The airplane was hit repeatedly by automatic weapons fire that ripped out the top of the cockpit and shot away the engine controls. Delmore had no choice but to feather the engines - he crash-landed the shot-up C-130 and managed to steer it clear of the runway. The crew was armed only with their .38 revolvers and had little hope, but rescuing troops reached them within a few minutes and they were soon on a Marine helicopter headed for safety. Meanwhile, airstrikes had been directed at the guns that brought down Bucher's airplane and other strikes laid down protective fire alongside the runway. To this point three C-130s had landed at the camp and two had been shot down. 



Dust rising from runway after the Delmore crash - note C-130A on side of runway
(Taken by a US Army troop at the camp.)

After Lt. Col. Delmore's airplane was shot down, there was a period of about 15-20 minutes when no more landings were attempted. During the interim, heavy air strikes were laid in all around the camp, where communist troops had penetrated the airfield perimeter. Earlier in the day observers on the ground had noted that the North Vietnamese had set up machinegun positions on a hill just north of the runway from which they could fire down at airplanes on approach and while they were on the ground. Finally, at around 1600, air strikes finally knocked them out. Immediately after the gun position was destroyed, another C-130 was directed to land. Air Force records are unclear as to just who came in next. The fourth C-130 to land was evidently an A-model flown by Lt. Col. Franklin Montgomery from the 41st Tactical Airlift Squadron, based at Naha AB, Okinawa. Montgomery's crew counted more than fifty mortar and rocket rounds impacting around them while they were on the ground, but they loaded 150 passengers on board. A Vietnamese woman and her child were trampled in the melee and the loadmaster risked his own life to rescue her. Remarkably, Montgomery's C-130 took no hits, a reflection of the damage done to the PAVN forces by the incessant air strikes.

There is some confusion over the order and even who the pilots were of the next two airplanes. USAF historian Col. Ray Bowers relates that they were a B-model flown by Maj. Norman K. Jensen and an E-model flown by Maj. James K. Wallace. Gropman states that another C-130 landed but Bowers states that the last defenders of the camp were evacuated by three airplanes, not four - after action reports state that six C-130s and two C-123s
landed during the evacuation and the subsequent rescue of the airlift control team - this does not include Lt. Col Cole's C-130 and Maj. Shelton's C-123. Neither Bowers or Gropman mention him by name, but Maj. Billie Mills, a Standardizations/Evaluation pilot from the 463rd TAW at Clark AB, Philippines was, according to his own account, the sixth pilot to land at Kham Duc during the evacuation, which would make him the pilot of the third airplane to land after Delmore was shot down and the last to bring out troops. Mills, who was one of the original C-130 pilots and one of the most experienced in the Air Force, was flying with a crew from the 774th TAS that day, and not his own Stan/Eval crew. Mills is featured in an article in the 315th Air Division newspaper The Airlifter that appeared in the June 4 issue of the newspaper. He made a shortfield landing and stopped in a little over 800 feet (according to the 1968 article), he turned around then after loading about 100 troops, he had the loadmaster watch out the back while he backed the airplane about 600 feet so as to become airborne as far from the other end of the runway as quickly as possible. (In his recent Email Mills says he landed in about 1,000 feet and backed the airplane for about 1,200-1,400 feet.) Gropman and Bowers state that Wallace made the last pickup but it was probably actually Mills. Mills and the senior US Army officer in the camp met at a reunion and recalled their radio conversations. The officer told Mills that at the time they were communicating, he had already abandoned his command post and was in a helicopter waiting for some of his men to return from setting charges to destroy equipment that might be useful to the enemy. After action reports made by Army, Marine and USAF personnel at the DASC record that six C-130s landed during the evacuation, of which two were lost. (Lt. Col. Delmore crash-landed on the runway after being shot down.)

Ironically, at about the time the last C-130 landed, Gen. Momyer was in the process of issuing an order forbiding further C-130 landings. Word of the two losses had just reached his headquarters. While he was on the phone to 834th Air Division Hq. he got word that the evacuation was complete.
  
While the C-130s were landing, Army and Marine helicopter pilots took
advantage of the distraction - the communists were concentrating their fire on the larger transports - and got in to make pickups of their own. Unlike the fixed-wing transports, the helicopters were able to make their approaches from different directions and avoid the concentrated ground fire, which came from communist troops who had been positioned alaong the approach paths to the runway. Within a few minutes, some 500 of the camps defenders were evacuated (Gropman claims 700, evidently including those brought out by Army and Marine helicopters), although the bulk of the Vietnamese were left to exfiltrate through the enemy forces. But as the last C-130 came out of the camp with part of the US Army Special Forces team and other evacuees, another C-130 was landing with the three members of the airlift control team who had been brought out earlier.

The pilot of the C-130 was Lt. Col. Jay Van Cleef, who had been at Cam Ranh Bay when Lt. Col. Cole's airplane landed with the USAF personnel who had been brought out of the camp several hours before. Maj. Gallagher had attempted numerous times to convince 834th Air Division that there was no reason for them to go back. He has been criticized for his resistance but it seems he was probably the one person who truly understood the situation. That there was no reason to send them back was made even more profound by the fact that the camp had been evacuated by the time Van Cleef arrived in the area. The crew was monitoring the evacuation on their radios and knew that several C-130s had managed to come out of the camp with evacuees. Van Cleef protested to the ABCCC and to the 834th Air Division command post that it was not necessary for him to land the airlift control team, but his protests were ignored and he was directed to drop them off. At this point neither the controllers orbiting overhead or the 834th ALCC had fully realized that the camp had been evacuated. Fortunately, the incessant air strikes had greatly reduced the amount of ground fire - the preceding C-130s had gotten in and out of the camp largely unscathed after the guns north of the runway were knocked out - and Van Cleef was able to land without difficulty. Maj. Gallagher and the two combat controllers ran off of the airplane and, evidently, toward the camp. The first official reports related that they were sent back into the camp to search for survivors. This, however is unlikely; they were likely sent back because someone had decided they had abandoned their posts without authorization. No one has ever publically admitted to responsibility for sending them back but it was rumored that the ALCE commander at Da Nang was the one who insisted they should go back. If the team was intended to search for survivors, there was no reason for Gallagher to go back with them. He was a pilot, not a combat controller, and although he was a combat veteran whose experiences dated back to B-17s in World War II, he had not been trained for ground combat as the two enlisted men had. Not to mention that an operation to search a camp that had just been abandoned for survivors makes absolutely no sense! As it turned out, there were still Americans on the ground and at least three were in the vicinity of the camp but no one made contact with them. The three men had reached the camp just as the last C-130 departed. One panicked and disappeared, but the other two returned to the hills. One, PFC. Julius Long, was captured and sent to Hanoi. The other, who had been wounded, died during the night. Other 196th personnel were also still in the area and would finally be picked up three days later.  

The camp had been evacuated, or had been declared so, at a cost of two C-130s and several other aircraft and helicopters, ten in all. (Some published accounts give the number as seven, but this is in error. The after-action reports record a total of ten.) What happened next is the event for which Kham Duc is most remembered, although in reality it was but a footnote to the day's events. The seventh (or eighth) C-130, Van Cleef, flew into the camp and off-loaded the three men from the airlift control team who had been brought out of the camp earier, but had been ordered back. (ALO Capt. Willard Johnson was evidently not sent back in.) The three men ran off the ramp of the C-130 and into the camp; Col. Van Cleef waited several minutes then when no one came aboard his airplane, took off again. As he was climbing out he heard someone report that the evacuation was complete. No it wasn't! Van Cleef protested into his radio he had just left three airmen on the ground! Those present later reported that there was a dead silence in the airways afterwards.

The three airmen ran to the camp but found it deserted, then ran back to a ditch next to the runway where they had spent most of the past two days. Inexplicably, they only had one radio between them and it was inoperable. They had no means of contacting anyone to let them know they were still alive or where they were located.
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The next airplane in the que to go into the camp was a C-123 flown by Lt. Col. Alfred Jeanotte. He and his crew had been in the vicinity of the camp for some time and their fuel supply was dwindling  but he thought they had enough for one attempt. He landed but took off again when no one ran to the airplane. His crew spotted the three men hiding in a ditch right after they took off, but they were too low on fuel to make another landing and takeoff. It fell to the next C-123, flown by Lt. Col. Joe M. Jackson and Major Jesse Campbell, a Stan/Eval pilot from the 315th Air Commando Wing, to make the pickup. Col. Jackson was the detachment commander at Da Nang for the 311th Air Commando Squadron, which had previously been based there but had been transferred to Phan Rang to join the rest of the 315th Air Commando Wing. (Although they bore the air commando designation, the 315th wing's squadrons were airlift and part of 834th Air Division, the USAF organization responsible for all airlift operations in South Vietnam. The 315th and 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing, which operated Dehavilland C-7 Caribous, were assigned to the division, which had operational control of the C-130s, all of which were permanently based out of country with 315th Air Division.) Earlier that morning they had departed Da Nang for a cargo mission that was to be Jackson's proficiency check. They arrived in the vicinity of Kham Duc at about 1500, a half hour before the evacuation commenced. After Lt. Col. Jeanotte made his attempt, Jackson was sent in. He and his crew landed at approximately 1710 (5:10 PM) and were on the ground for less than a minute, but they managed to pick up the stranded men. Their C-123 didn't pick up a single bullet hole although they could see enemy troops firing in their direction and a salvo of mortar rounds impacted behind them as they were on takeoff roll. For the effort, Colonel Jackson was awarded the Medal of Honor.



Lt. Col. Jackson was not the only airlifter to receive a high decoration for action at Kham Duc. Major Bucher was awarded the Air Force's second highest award for heroism, the Air Force Cross, posthomously. Lt. Col. Bill Boyd also was awarded the Air Force Cross, as was Major Jesse Campbell, who was the Stan/Eval pilot flying with Joe Jackson. Lt. Col. Alfred Jeanotte was also decorated with the Air Force Cross. Silver Stars were awarded to Jackson's enlisted crewmembers as well as to some of the C-130 pilots who landed at Kham Duc and to Major Ray Shelton. Lt. Col. Daryl  D. Cole was awarded the 1968 MacKay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year for an Air Force aircraft. According to the official history of the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing, Lt. Colonels Cole, Delmore and Montgomery were all nominated for the Air Force Cross. (They recieved lessor awards, the Silver Star.) The evacuation of Kham Duc is probably the most heroic day in USAF history and is second only to the low-altitude mission against Ploesti, Romania in World War II in the number of high decorations awarded to US airmen. However, whether or not all of the other officers and enlisted crewmembers on the crews that made the pickups were decorated or not is not clear. Jackson was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his squadron commander, who also evidently put in award recommendations for the other three crewmembers. (General Westmoreland later claimed that he made the recommendation but he most likely approved it.) Maj. Billie Mills, who was aircraft commander on the sixth C-130 to land at the camp, was called to 834th Air Division Commander Brig. Gen. Burl MacLaughlin's office and told he was being awarded a Silver Star. Mills told the general that the rest of his crew deserved it as well but as far as he knows, they were not decorated. Some crewnenbers received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

According to USAF historian Bowers, although Jackson's flight was the last to land at the camp, 834th Air Division had actually dispatched a C-130 from Tan Son Nhut with a combat control team onboard whose mission was to search the camp looking for anyone who might have been left behind. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the landing was cancelled.

While most accounts of the evacuation of Kham Duc focus on Joe Jackson's flight and give the impression that the camp was evacuated entirely by air and by the C-130s and C-123s, such is not really the case. Army and Marine helicopters brought out just under 200 men, at considerable cost to themselves although most of the helicopter crews who were shot down survived and were rescued. If 700 people were evacuated, then little less than half of the camp's 1,508 surviving defenders were brought out by air. Many of the South Vietnamese exfiltrated through the NVA postions and were picked up by helicopter over the next several days or made their way to other camps. In their after-action report, the Special Forces officers who had been at Kham Duc recorded that an order had come in for them to leave the Vietnamese troops, but they protested they would not leave until the CIDG troops had gone. Since few of the CIDG were brought out by air, they must have started exfiltrating through the NVA postions while the evacuation was under way. The heaviest concentrations of North Vietnamese were on the northeast off of that end of the runway. The helicopters that came in for pickups came in from the west and made their egress in that direction. Nor were all of the Americans flown out during the evacuation. A number of US Army infantryman from the 196th Light Infantry Brigade were manning outposts around the camp and some of those who had survived when their positions were overrun - perhaps as many as a dozen - were left behind. Some managed to evade and were picked up by helicopter a day or so after the evacuation, some were killed and one was captured and transported to North Vietnam, where he was released in 1973. One group of survivors was close enough to the camp that they could observe it. At one point they observed a figure in the camp wearing US issue jungle fatigues but were unable to determine if it was American or Vietnamese. They did not observe North Vietnamese troops in the camp.

Two years later in the summer of 1970 the 196th Infantry returned to Kham Duc. Their mission was to reclaim the camp and search the surrounding areas for remains of men who had been reported MIA. They found the camp essentially as it had been left. For some reason, no air strikes were directed against it. Even the combat control team's Jeep was found intact. The North Vietnamese hadn't even bothered to pick up ammunition. Some graves were found, with American and Vietnamese remains intermingled. In recent years several personnel recovery teams have conducted operations in the vicinity of the camp, and have found the remains of several MIAs, including the members of Maj. Bucher's crew. Among the remains found at the crash site in the hills northeast of the camp were those of Army Special Forces Capt. Warren Orr, who had been reported missing after the evacuation and was believed to have boarded the C-130. Remains of the crew, Major Bucher, copilot 1st Lt. Stephen Moreland, navigator Maj. John McElroy, engineer SSgt Frank Hepler and loadmaster A1C George Long, were found and returned to their families for burial. Captain Orr's remains were also found.

While the actions of Lt. Col. Joe Jackson and his crew in extracting the airlift control team were truly heroic, they have somewhat obscured the events of a day of heroism. By the time Jackson landed, at least four and possibly five C-130s and another C-123 had landed and taken off again relatively unscathed. It was the C-130 and Army and Marine helicopter crews - particularly the C-130 crews - who had landed over the preceding hour and a half to evacuate the camp's defenders who went in with the knowledge that there was a strong possibility that they would not be coming back. They had seen the two C-130s go down right before their eyes, but they went in anyway to attempt to make their own pickups. There was no shortage of heroism among the troops on the ground, either. Some of the men maintaining the outlying positions continued to fight even though they knew it was unlikely they would be able to get to the airfield in time to be evacuated. Four Americans and one Vietnamese who had been too badly wounded to make it back to the camp remained at their outpost and continued calling in air strikes until they were killed. The 5th SFG after action report shows 1,760 personnel at the camp of which 1,508 were "returned to government control." Casualties were heaviest among the 196th Infantry personnel, who reported 66 men wounded in action and 24 killed and missing. Special Forces casualties were 8 wounded and 1 (Capt. Orr) MIA. Of 272 Vietnamese civilians at the camp, 89 reached safety. Six were wounded and 183 were MIA, most of whom were on Bucher's C-130. No KIAs or MIAs were reported by the Army engineers, which is surprising since several accounts have related that a soldier, a PFC Sands, was killed when he drove his bulldozer out on the runway to push the remains of a helicopter to the side so airplanes could  land. He was either wounded, not killed, or was not an engineer.

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The above photo was taken by the author in  the summer of 1970, and is believed to have been at Kham Duc when US Army troops returned to search for remains of the men who had been left behind.

Author's note - The events in this article are based on several sources, including the official US Air Force history of the tactical airlift misison in Southeast Asia and the monograph written by Lt. Col. Alan Gropman. In addition, the author has been in contact with veterans of the day's events, including Col. Billie Mills. William Wright, a 196th Infantry veteran who was at the camp, sent the author a number of documents several years ago, including the after-action reports written by several of the officers involved. Additional information, some accurate, some not so much, can be found in the articles linked below.

Air Power and the Airlift Evacuation of Kham Duc
Tactical Airlift
Americal Division Article on Kham Duc
Recent Article about Mort Freedman
Kham Duc Pictures
Air Force Magazine Article on Kham Duc
Account by Army BOXCAR helicopter pilot #1
Account by Army BOXCAR helicopter pilot #2
Combat Controller Account
Home of the Heros Account
Another Account (This is a very informative account, although some aspects are probably erroneous. It includes several photographs, including one of a C-124 off-loading a bulldozer, possibly at Kham Duc.)

Last Updated November 10, 2013
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