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


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, possibly 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 carobably 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 during the actual evacuation. 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 of the camp 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. Sands was not killed.


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.

* Since I originally wrote this, I have obtained copies of several mission reports, including the one written by Lt. Col. Darrell Cole and an account written by Cole's copilot. They were on the ground for over three hours during which Ray Shelton's C-123 was the only airplane to land. During a conversation with the 834th AD command post. Cole was instructed to advise Maj. Gallagher that no more airplanes would be coming and that they should prepare to escape the camp on the ground. Major Farrar, Cole's copilot, states that some Army personnel gave the crew weapons and ammunition and asked them if they wanted to go out with them. At this point Farrar decided they might be able to fly their airplane out after all and started working on the flat tire with bayonets and a cutting torch. Once the tire had been cut away, Cole asked for permission to bring the airplane out. Neither of them state that they advised Gallgher and the other USAF personnel to come out with them but neither do they say they didn't.

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 at Kham Duc.)

Last Updated October 16, 2015

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