Tan Son Nhut AB, Vietnam
Combat Controllers TSgt Mort Freedman and Sgt Jim Lundie, And their airlift
mission commander, Maj John Gallagher, lay in a ditch along what was left
of the Kham Duc runway. Sweat poured from their dirt-caked bodies and etched
tiny rivers of grime down their beard-stubbled faces. Their flak vests and
steel helmets provided protection on the outside but kept the heat on the
inside swirling into a built-in steam bath. They had been this way for three
days. There was no hint of the typical, spit-and-polish, Combat Control image.
No starched fatigues topped with a blue beret nattily cocked to one side.
Not that it mattered now.
They squinted hard into the glare of the Vietnam day, searching for some
sign, any sign, of a rescuer who would pluck them from this nightmare.
Kham Duc. Until a week earlier, it had been just one of many Special Forces
camps dotting the Vietnamese countryside. Now it was destined to capture
the attention of the entire country.
For two days, the two combat controllers had labored under a fierce barrage
of enemy mortar fire, directing Air Force C-130 'Hercules', C-123 'Providers',
C-7 'Caribous' and even Army helicopters into and out of the airstrip. Their
MRC-108 radio jeep had been peppered by deadly mortar shrapnel, and had almost
taken a direct hit. The jeep trailer was completely destroyed. During the
attacks they had dragged wounded from exposed areas to cover, where they
could give first aid. They had even directed fighter strikes on enemy positions
around the perimeter until an airborne forward air controller (FAC)
It was now coming to a foreboding climax. They had come close to death
during the past two days. Now, they thought, their time had indeed come.
Earlier that afternoon, the entire camp had been evacuated in one of the
most harrowing and spectacular airlifts ever carried out. One C-130 was hit
by ground fire on landing. It lay crumpled on the side of the runway. The
runway and camp were strewn with the wreckage of helicopters, bulldozers,
vehicles and other aircraft.
Now the relative silence was deathly. Gone were the sounds of aircraft
landing and taking off. Gone was the evacuees' high-pitched banter as they
waited to be picked up. The combat control radio jeep had been destroyed
in preparation for a quick air evacuation. The survival radio was out. Everything
was gone. Everything, that is, except the three Americans. And the North
Vietnamese soldiers who were closing in around the camp. The three men could
see the figures darting back and forth between gun emplacements, waiting
for the order to charge down and take the camp.
It was normal for the combat controllers to be the last out of a camp.
They were always the "first in, last out", according to their unofficial
motto. But where was that last plane? The one that was to take them out?
Have they left us? Have we been forgotten? Despair quickly answered their
The sound of airplane engines ("the greatest sound in the world") snapped
them back to reality. A C-123 swooped in low and touched down. The combat
controllers sprang to their feet and made a dash to the taxiing plane. Enemy
automatic weapons blazed away. Tracers lighted a deadly path toward the moving
plane. Mortar rounds were landing all around the aircraft.
The plane picked up speed. It wasn't stopping!
Lundie and Freedman yelled at the tops of their voices, but it was to
no one. Their pleas were lost in the thunderous roar of the engines and jet
boosters. "They didn't see us. They didn't see us," cursed Lundie.
NVA tracer bullets from machine gun emplacements at the end of the runway
followed the C-123 as it climbed out of range. Quickly the enemy gunners
pivoted back down on the runway where the three lonely figures stood, their
hopes of rescue now dashed. And just as quickly, the controllers bolted for
the relative safety of the ditch, firing their M-16s from the hip as they
ran, silencing at least one of the guns.
"That was really it," Freedman recalled later. "They sent in a plane but
the pilot saw no one left on the ground, so he took off. No one would come
back. At that point we had two choices. Either be taken prisoner or fight
it out. There was no doubt about it. We had 11 magazines left among us and
we were going to take as many of them with us as we could."
"I told Lundie that if he made it and I didn't, to be sure to get my wallet
so those bastards wouldn't take it."
The C-123 crew had seen them, but was too far down the runway to stop.
And soon another C-123, piloted by Lt Col Joe Jackson and Maj Jesse Campbell,
landed in a barrage of enemy bullets and mortar shells, screeched to a stop
long enough for the combat controllers and their mission commander to jump
in, and took off, trailed by the "biggest hail of tracers you've ever
Mort Freedman and Jim Lundie's experience at Kham Duc is by no means "all
in a day's work" for combat controllers. But it servers to dramatically
underscore the "combat" in combat control. Vietnam is providing Combat Control
Teams (CCT) with their first real test under fire.
"Our purpose in being, as planned in 1952, and as practiced in Vietnam
today, is basically unchanged," explained Maj Robert Barinowski, head combat
controller in Vietnam. "We've had a few variations in theme, but our primary
task is still that of performing as air traffic controllers in a forward,
austere airstrip or drop zone."
The need for the combat control function arose in World War II when, in
Sicily, Army paratroopers were scattered all over the countryside because
no one was controlling the drops from the ground. The dispersal of men and
equipment made the airborne force ineffective as a combat unit.
Since that time Air Force combat controllers had been a part of US troop
deployments to meet crises in Lebanon, the Congo, the Dominican Republic
and were put on alert during the Cuban crisis in 1962. During troop and cargo
airlifts, they are always the first in to the airstrip or drop zone to set
up marker panels, portable communication and navigational gear necessary
to accurately guide the main wave of airlift aircraft in.
But never has the combat control team concept, and the mettle of the
controllers, been tested like it is in Vietnam today. And as the nature of
the Vietnam war is one of constant change in tactics and strategy, so it
has followed that combat control has had to adapt and innovate with the shifting
One combat controller who speaks with great authority on the job of the
"Blue Berets" in Vietnam is Capt Hayden F. Sears, Jr., who has been in country
since 1965, longer than any other controller.
"When I arrived we had 24 men and were housed in a shack here at Tan Son
Nhut," he recalls. "Now we are three time that number. In the beginning,
we had many air traffic control (ATC) missions, because control towers had
not yet been constructed at various remote airstrips."
"But today many of those strips have permanent towers and some navigational
equipment. As a result, our ATC mission has decreased and our role as a field
extension of the airlift command and control system has become more
Using high-frequency radios, the combat controllers feed vital data from
remote airstrips back to the 834th Air Division Airlift Control Center at
Tan Son Nhut, the nerve center for all in-country airlift operations.
"Also during the first year, we had very few rocket and mortar attacks
to hinder our job," Sears continued. "That sure has changed! Now we're always
sandbagging the radio jeep and always digging a foxhole on the DZ for the
Today, at the peak of their activity in Vietnam, combat controllers are
deployed throughout the country by the Airlift Control Center. The men are
divided into three teams, each headed by an officer and consisting of air
traffic controllers and radio maintenance specialists. One team is always
on alert, ready with jeep and portable navigational aids to deploy by airlift
in as little as 15 minutes.
Their missions are varied. Like a one-day air traffic control job at a
remote airfield guiding in airlift C-130s, C-123s or C-7s laden with badly
needed supplies. Or accompanying the 1st Air Cavalry Division tramping through
the jungles for 30 days, providing necessary control for emergency airdrops
of ammunition, rations and fuel. The operating conditions vary, too---from
the relative quiet of nearby outgoing friendly artillery, to the terrors
of "incoming" rounds of a Kham Duc or Khe Sanh.
Between field missions, the combat controllers go through numerous standard
checks at their Tan Son Nhut home station, maintaining proficiency in air
traffic control procedures, packing parachutes, performing radio maintenance,
cleaning their weapons (the M-16 and the shortened version, the CAR-15 used
in paradrops) and spending time on the rifle range.
Perhaps the clearest image of what a combat controller's life in Vietnam
is all about is found by snatching glimpses of experiences during various
Since most of the CCT was at Khe Sanh at one time or another during the
78-day siege, that operation---in which eight controllers received Purple
Hearts---provides a good look.
Jim Lundie was there, crouched in a foxhole, directing aircraft in and
out of the airstrip on February 23, when the NVA fired over 1,000 artillery
rounds into the combat base, or the equivalent of nearly one round a minute.
He'll never forget that day. It was his 21st birthday.
Following the crash of a Marine helicopter, Captain Sears and his team
of SSgt Jimmy Grishom, Sgt Arthur Hosey, Freedman and Lundie, ignored the
possible explosion of the helicopters fuel and incoming motar rounds to pull
the crew members out of the burning wreckage. Although two were already dead,
the third was saved by their action.
TSgt Thomas Monley and his team of Sgts David McCracken, Erwin Rhodes
and Walter Smith, have been awarded Silver Stars for pushing a burning pallet
of mortar rounds away from Khe Sanh's populated bunkers (Lifeline to Khe
Sanh, The Airman, July 1968).
During another operation the 1st Air Cavalry Division pushed into the
A Shau Valley, an enemy stronghold. TSgt Richard Taylor, SSgt James Philpot
and Sgts Gary Brock and Michael Welding went into the valley's thick, jungle
carpeted floor with the first wave of assault helicopters, which received
some of the heaviest enemy antiaircraft fire of the war. Once in the valley,
the CCT marked the assault landing strip for C-123s and C-7s and directed
C-130s over the drop zone for emergency drops of ammunition, rations and
fuel. During the same operation, SSgt Robert Mahaffey withstood five straight
hours of enemy shelling to perform the control mission.
On one of the rare airborne operations, Capt Danny M. Pugh, a 19-month
Vietnam veteran, led his eight-man team in combat control's classic
role---support of a mass parachute assault. Jumping 30 minutes ahead of a
1,000-man Vietnamese paratroop formation at Van Kiep, the CCT was dropped
short of the drop zone. Realizing the error, and realizing the potential
disaster if the mass formation was also dropped short, Pugh led his team
at a rapid clip, overland, through enemy territory. They found the DZ, set
up communications equipment, and guided the formation in---right on schedule.
There was no doubt about the value of combat control on that occasion.
On another jump two years ago, Capt Sears, who has four combat jumps to
his credit (more than any other controller), parachuted into a drop zone
in the Northern II Corps Tactical Zone.
"We jumped from about 800 feet," he said, "and immediately could hear
ground fire coming up at us. All of a sudden, I felt something, and looked
up to see two bullet holes in my 'chute. When we hit the ground, we started
receiving a lot of sniper fire."
More Than Guts and Glory
But combat control is more than the guts and glory of combat. It takes
a special breed to hurdle all the obstacles set in the path of earning and
keeping the blue beret. In addition to jump school, combat controllers attend
other schools: control tower, combat control, survival, tropical survival,
artic survival, water survival, amphibious training, High Altitude Low Opening,
parachute rigging, and radio maintenance. And what's more, failing any one
school means elimination from combat control.
"In Vietnam, in a given month, we work more airfields than drop zones,"
said Major Barinowski. "Consequently, I place heavy emphasis on proficiency
in airlanding techniques---operating three or four radios, proper voice
procedures, 'stacking' airplanes; and on two other tasks which have become
part of our mission in Vietnam---coordinating artillery firings with landings
of aircraft, and installation and maintenance of the Ground Proximity Extraction
System, a method used by the C-130s to delivery bulky cargo loads to the
But no matter what role combat controllers perform, one fact is certain:
they are a vital part of the airlift effort in Vietnam. It doesn't really
matter whether they're the "first in and last out." It's what they do in
between that counts. And that adds up to quite a lot.
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 home.
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 wrote:
May 12, 1968
I 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.
Happy Mother's Day Love,
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
Technical Sergeant 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 directions.
Something seemed 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.
"My 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.
U.S. 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.
Only 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 village. 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
With 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.
Alarmed 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
The 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 struck the neighboring outpost at Ngok Tavak.
Ngok 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
There 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 the CIDG.
By 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 the dawn.
With 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.
As 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.
Enemy 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."
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
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
As 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
Dreams 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
Suddenly, 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.
"It's 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.
Meanwhile 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
And 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
The 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.
In 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.
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 happen.
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 daybreak!"
Though eagerly 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 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
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.
The resident 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 something."
"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
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,
High overhead, a frustrated Air Force commander swore. How could
this have happened!
On 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.
Overhead 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 yards away.
"You 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.
"If 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 have it."
"They 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
High 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
In 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:
LTC Jackson would have felt more at home going into combat in a jet fighter
than the lumbering C-123 transport identified as No. 542. Enlisting in the
Army Air Corps just prior to World War II, his service in that war as a
crewmember motivated him to become a pilot. In Korea he had flown 107 combat
missions in an Air Force fighter, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After that war, he become one of the first Air Force officers to pilot the
U-2 reconnaissance planes.
At the controls now of the lumbering, unarmed cargo plane, he was preparing
to turn his 296th Vietnam sortie into the most unlikely of routine missions.
It was nearing five o'clock in the evening as he raced his twin-engine
"mail-plane" over the hills that surrounded Kham Duc, flying at 9,000 feet.
He had a pretty good idea what he would find in the valley below, having
heard across his own radio reports of what had been happening that afternoon.
Eight American aircraft had already gone down, two Army Chinooks, two Marine
Corps C-46s, two Air Force C-130s, an O-2 FAC aircraft and and one A-1. Wreckage
of three of these, a C-130, the O-2 and one helicopter, was strewn across
the badly damaged runway. (The photo at the bottom of this page is an actual
photograph taken from an orbiting aircraft while Joe Jackson landed No.
Twenty years of experience in the air had taught Jackson that sometimes
one has to do the unexpected to accomplish the impossible. Reasoning that
the enemy that now controlled the air strip could hear the roar of his engines
and were undoubtedly setting up their forces in anticipation of a landing
like LTC Jeanotte had made minutes before, Jackson prepared his own surprise.
Banking his cargo plane to line up with the runway, the intrepid pilot cut
power and dropped full flaps. The nose of Number 542 dropped and the C-123
was in the kind of dive reserved for fighter planes. Diving in at 4,000 feet
per minute, eight times a normal cargo planes rate of descent, he was pushing
his aircraft beyond its capabilities. Later he said, "I was afraid I'd reach
the 'blow-up' speed, where the flaps in the full down position, would be
blown back up to the neutral position. If that happened, we'd pick up additional
speed and not be able to stop."
On the ground the three airmen could hear the whine of the C-123's dive
as it broke through the fog. Screaming earthward in an impossible maneuver,
the men were filled with a mix of feelings... relief that a rescue craft
was on the way...despair at the chances of success. As they watched the cargo
plane dropping towards them like a rock, Sergeant Lundie thought, "This guy's
crazy. He's not going to make it."
And then No. 542 was on the ground, touching down in the first 100 feet
of runway amid a hail of enemy machingun and mortar fire. Plummeting down
the battered runway at speeds far to high for any safe landing, Jackson fought
the controls. Afraid that if he reversed the propellers to slow the C-130
he would blow out the two auxiliary engines needed for escape, he shoved
his feet down hard on the brakes to skid past the enemy. Dodging debris,
his cargo plane finally came to rest near the drainage ditch.
"There they are," Major Campbell shouted as he spotted three ragged figures
rise out of the ditch and break for the waiting rescue plane. Staff Sergeant
Grubbs opened the cargo door as the men ran towards the waiting plane, enemy
fire erupting all around them. Quickly the haggard men were pulled inside
the cargo hold and Jackson was revving the engines and turning his C-130
to take off in the same direction from which they had approached.
As the big cargo plane turned to face down the runway and make its escape,
Major Campbell shouted, "Look out". From the edge of the runway the enemy
had fired a 122mm rocket to abort the dramatic rescue and destroy No. 542.
Both pilot and co-pilot watched in horror as the missile sped towards then,
then hit the pavement to bounce and skid within ten meters of their cockpit.
As it bounced one final time, the rocket broke in half....then lay there
sizzling. Miraculously, it had been a dud.
Sending power to the engines, Joe Jackson raced down the runway and through
the gauntlet of enemy fire. All within the cargo plane felt a sense of relief
as the wheels lifted off the airstrip, and the C-130 was airborne...racing
for home and safety. The plane gained altitude to head for Da Nang, landing
shortly after 5:30 in the evening. A haggard Sergeant Jim Lundie walked over
to the flight deck to look at Jackson quizzically for a moment, then said,
"I wanted to see how you could sit in that little seat with balls as big
as you've got." It was the ultimate compliment from a combat controller who
for three days had demonstrated his own brand of valor. "We were dead," he
later summed up the events of that day, "and all of a sudden we were
Before returning to their billets, Major Campbell and LTC Jackson checked
out their aircraft. Amazingly, despite the withering fire from small arms,
51-caliber heavy machinguns, and the torrential rain of mortars they had
braved on the airstrip at Kham Duc, they had not been hit a SINGLE TIME!
A weary Jackson then settled back in his billets to write home. It was
Mother's Day, a day of tragedy and terror that had robbed far too many mothers
of their sons. Joe's actions that day had spared grief for three mothers.
Picking up paper and pen, he began to write a letter to his wife Rose, mother
of the couple's two children. "Dear Rosie," he wrote.
"I 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."
The evacuation of Kham Duc had proven to be an amazing military
accomplishment. Despite the loss of 8 aircraft, of the 1,500 Americans and
South Vietnamese at Kham Duc, only 259 lives were lost...nearly half of them
in the tragic crash of Major Bernard Bucher's C-130. For his heroism, Bucher
was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross. Our Nation's second highest
award for military valor was also awarded to Ltc William Boyd and Ltc Al
Survivors from the outposts at Kham Duc escaped and evaded for days. Few
were found in the heavy jungles that were now totally owned by the enemy.
Two years later the remains of five American soldiers from the Kham Duc operation
were recovered. In 1973 Specialist Fourth Class Julius Long, who had manned
Outpost Number 1 with three other American soldiers, came home with the returning
Prisoners of War. He is the only KNOWN survivor. Three dozen additional soldiers,
Marines and airmen remain Missing In Action and unaccounted for.
As the announcer read the names and biographies of each Medal of Honor
recipient, the only name that stood out to Jim Lundie of Concord, N.C., was
Lt. Col. Joe M. Jackson, U.S. Air Force retired, 311th Air Commando Squadron.
"When I looked at my wife she agreed with me; it was the man who rescued
me," said Lundie. On May 12, 1968, Jackson, then a pilot of a C-123 Provider,
volunteered to attempt the rescue of a three-man Air Force Combat Control
Team from a special forces camp at Kham Duc, Vietnam.
Little did either of them know that 29 years later, on May 25, 1997, as
Jackson was honored during the Air Force's 50th Anniversary activities at
the Coca Cola 600, Charlotte Motor Speedway, N.C., one on the men he rescued
would be sitting in the audience.
The two men were reunited with a compassionate hug and a strong handshake.
"It was a very emotional meeting as tears came up in our eyes," said Jackson.
"It almost seemed impossible that we could find each other after all these
years in a crowd of 185,000 people.
"It seemed like I had been a step behind him all these years of almost
catching up with Colonel Jackson, said Lundie. "I am shocked and pleased
to see him.
What had seemed like hours the day of the rescue was probably only minutes,
according Lundie. "Colonel Jackson risked the flight crew and the airplane
to save us."
Hostile forces overran the forward outpost and established gun positions
on the airstrip. "We were the only people (Americans) left in the area,"
said Lundie, "and the Vietnamese knew we were there. They were raking the
camp with small arms, mortars, automatic weapons and recoilless rifle fire."
With the camp engulfed in flames, ammunition dumps were continuously exploding
and littering the runway with debris, according to Jackson. Additionally
eight aircraft had been destroyed by intense enemy fire and one aircraft
remained on the runway, reducing its usable length to only 2,200 feet.
"I knew there had been other attempts for the rescue," Jackson said. "Then
there was a radio call to see if anyone was in the vicinity to make another
attempt and I knew the situation as well as anyone." To further complicate
the landing, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, permitting only one air
strike prior to Jackson's landing.
Although fully aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of an attempt,
Jackson landed his aircraft near the point where the combat control team
was reported to be hiding.
While on the ground, the aircraft became the target of intense hostile
fire, according to Jackson. A rocket landed in front of the aircraft nose
but failed to explode. Once the combat control team was aboard, Jackson succeeded
in getting airborne despite the hostile fire directed across the runway in
front of his aircraft.
After the aircraft landed safely at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam. The four
crew members and three combat controllers were taken to separate intelligence
debriefings where they lost contact with each other.
"You hear about long lost family members being reunited and the emotions
they feel; this was the same close family feeling for me," Lundie said. "Now
it's all about staying in touch."
Jackson was presented the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson
at the White House Jan. 16, 1969. Jackson in one of six Air Force Medal of
Honor recipients still living and he resides in Kent, Wash.
Lundie separated from the Air Force in 1968 and resides in Concord, N.C.
with his wife Diana.
As I Sit Here With Tears Running Down My Face, I Thank You Joe Jackson
For Taking Care Of Business And Saving Our CCT Brothers!
Jim Lundie writes; On 10 May, 1968, Mort Freedman and I inserted
into Kham Duc on what we were told would be a reinforcement / resupply mission.
We had been there before and it was one of the best missions we'd been on
………. A friendly A Team, great food and no hostilities. We
never got to Da Lat but our first trip to Kham Duc had to rate up there with
it. I wasn't supposed to go because I was restricted to the barracks due
to an altercation I'd had with Bill York the day before, but when Mort said
Kham Duc I was anxious to join him. The trip proved to be different from
The camp had been probed, we were told, for several nights before we arrived
and came under mortar fire almost immediately after we landed and secured
our jeep. No real biggie at this point, just harassing fire mostly. The time-line
is pretty vague to me now, but my recollection is that it wasn't until the
next day, Saturday the 11th, that the shit really started hitting the fan.
That's when I remember our trailer taking a hit and our jeep being bracketed.
Boy, did Mort read that one right. He told me to get the radio jeep the hell
out of its hole and I'd no more moved it when a rocket hit directly where
we'd had it bunkered.
Anyway, that day was pretty rough, but we succeeded in getting the American
reinforcements in along with a small band of artillery folks. That night
was the most horrific I've ever had, and remember, Mort and I spent three
weeks at Khe Sahn that February. We came under very heavy mortar and rocket
fire as well as sustained ground attack. We were with the A Team, protected
by five companies of CIDG, at least one of which was highly suspect. We made
plans that night to E&E out should it become necessary. Only very aggressive
support from Spooky and arc lights got us through.
As dawn broke on the 12th (Mother's Day), Mort and I made our way out
of the camp and across the runway to our control position. It became apparent
sometime that morning that our mission had changed 180 degrees to
Murphy had come along that morning and everything that could go wrong,
did. The first C-130 in took heavy fire and ran off the runway with a blown
tire and ruptured fuel tank. A CH-47 and CH-46 were shot down within the
airfield perimeter. An OH-1 crash landed half way down the runway. A bulldozer
sent out to clear some of the wreckage took a direct hit and was disabled
on the runway. What a day! While all this was happening, the CIDG were clinging
to everything with wings, trying to get out and royally fucking up our efforts
to maintain some sort of order.
Meanwhile, the crew of the first Herky was trying (successfully….go
figure) to cut off the offending tire with a bayonet! Talk about adrenaline!
When the Aircraft Commander told us he was going to try to get his aircraft
out and our safety officer, a Major Gallagher, suggested we get aboard and
Mort vehemently resisted since there were still friendlies there to evacuate.
The Major ordered him and I to leave and still Mort said no. It was only
under the direct threat of a court martial that Mort complied, and he was
still trying to raise Hilda (ALCC) to try and get someone to override Major
Gallagher, right up until we were forced to destroy the radios with WP grenades
What I want Combat Controllers to understand, and I don't think this needs
to be published, but then again maybe it does. I'll leave that up to you,
(we heartily agree that it must be published - Editor, CCA Magazine) is that
from the time we arrived at Kham Duc, Major Gallagher was trying to get
permission from Saigon to leave. He wanted no part of a ground attack. He
pissed and moaned for two and a half days while Mort ignored him and set
forth to accomplish the mission. It needs to be said that Mort exhibited
the highest standards of professionalism and leadership that I have ever
witnessed, even to now. What really bothers me is that at times it is written
that 3 Combat Controllers were extracted that day……….Not even
Any how, now that I finally got that out of my system after only 29 years,
I'll go on with the story. When Saigon found out Gallagher had pulled us
out, they must have been as upset as Mort and I, because we were enroute
to Cam Ranh Bay we were briefed that another aircraft would be waiting for
us to reinsert. Gallagher was not a happy puppy.
Upon landing we were escorted directly to the other aircraft and off we
were again. We touched down at Kham Duc, strangely enough without enemy fire,
and we ran to the SF camp and found it deserted. Then we hauled ass across
the runway to the artillery compound only to find it abandoned. It didn't
take long for us to figure out we were the only good guys around.
There was a ditch that we'd called home for the last two days that paralleled
the runway and that's where we went. It provided a modicum of cover while
allowing us fire zones up and down the runway. All tour I'd given Mort grief
about a battery operated emergency hand held radio that he carried everywhere
we went, and I was about to eat my words when we found out the batteries
were dead. We'd destroyed our equipment before we left the first time so
we were feeling pretty lonely right about then. We noticed the NVA approaching
from our left probably as surprised as we that we were there. We talked about
just making it until nightfall and then E&Eing, but the prospects of
surviving another couple of hours didn't look good.
Then we heard an airplane approaching and noticed it was taking fire.
It touched down well before our position and was already on the go as we
ran out yelling and waving. As it crossed the departure end, it took fire
from that side as well and as Mort and I ran back to our haven we returned
fire. Mort got his, I'm sure, because that position remained silent, but
now we'd given away our position and it looked even bleaker. We were sure
the crew of the C-123 had not seen us and presumed us dead. We'd just about
decided to mount a two man attack on the NVA battalion when we saw Bookie
771 on an approach so steep he seemed to be falling from the sky.
He landed, taxied up to our position and as he was turning around we ran
to the tailgate and were dragged aboard by the best looking Provider crew
I'd ever seen.
Mort Freedman writes; I really had kissed the possibility of
getting out of there alive about 0600 that morning. Then leaving there that
afternoon by order of that non-entity of a mission commander that we had.
Then going back in again, you can figure out how Jim and I must have felt
when the C-123 that picked us up got out and away from there. For me initially,
it was complete disbelief. I then realized we were out of there and I thanked
God and the guys that risked their lives for us. It also made me feel that
no matter what we encountered, that belonging to CCT and being a member of
the USAF provided an umbrella of protection.
After reading the above letters from the CCA Magazine 97-02, I wrote to
Jim and this is a portion of that letter;
Jim, I've been rummaging around in my closet and found an old CCA Magazine
97-02. You wrote a personal letter about Kham Duc and I'm going to add it
to the story at SgtMacsBar. Would you still have a copy of that?
I was glad to read your letter. I had heard many stories, one being you
all screwed up, maybe defying orders, and should never have been on that
airfield. I have never repeated that until now and only to you after I read
I think Jim clarified the "screwed up" story below and it's obvious that
even after thirty some years, Kham Duc has left a major impact on Jim. Jim,
thank you for your reply and I hope to see you at the reunion. Maybe we can
talk about how lucky we are to have the friends we do and leave Kham Duc
in the past. This mission was certainly a character builder and we're lucky
to have these two characters with us today!
Jim Lundie writes; Most of me has left most of Viet Nam behind. A few
years ago my (wonderful and supportive) wife convinced me that if I got involved
with CCA and opened up some with "the guys" with whom I had shared experiences
it might clear the blockage that prevents sunlight from shining on those
memories. I tried (ergo the letter re: Kham Duc), but no-go. They remain
in some dark corner, which is OK with me.
This is not easy for me. The reason I'm replying to your e-mail is to
attempt once more to tell the story of the bravest, most heroic, selfless,
dedicated soldier I've ever known, Mort Freedman. Shame on anyone trying
to give him heat over Kham Duc when he was the ONLY one insisting that the
mission come first.
Where are the intelligence gatherers who totally fucked up their assessment
of the opposition strength? Where are the brass at 834th and HILDA who went
into an intellectual flat stall followed by a mental death spiral when the
mission turned to shit? What about the obstructionist and cowardly mission
"commander," Major Gallagher? I don't know or really care anymore.
But I can tell you where T/Sgt Mort Freedman was on May 12, 1968. Right
out front doing everything humanly possible, and more, to work the mission!
Mort always leads from the front. I know Mort and I didn't arrive and depart
RVN at the same time so I'm sure there were missions I worked with others,
but I have zero recollection of them. Isn't that weird? At CCA reunions people
will say remember when we were here?, or remember when we did that?, and
I say yeah, yeah when really I don't remember jack shit about any mission
It didn't start and end at Kham Duc. We were at Khe Sahn about 3 weeks
in February, the height of the siege. We were at Quang Tri in support of
Hue and later in Hue itself. And Thien Ngon, (I'm not sure that's the spelling),
another "A" camp nearly over-run while we were there. And where was Mort
during the battle? In the team house where he should have been? Hell no,
he's in the wire and the mortar pits with the CIDG!
People would joke about Mort being a "mortar magnet." The only guy in
CCT that could take fire at Da Lat! I'm sure part of it was the luck of the
draw but it was also the fact that Mort would volunteer us for any hot mission
that arose. He believed that our job was to accomplish the missions for which
we trained. And if we only had 12 months at a time in country, we had better
hurry and take advantage of every opportunity to engage.
I heard people snicker at his "gung-ho" attitude and bearing. If memory
serves more than one scuffle may have been triggered by such comments. But
Mort is no garrison soldier, he hated it in Saigon. Thirty minutes on 100
p. alley and he was back volunteering us up the mission board. Anyway, I
may have only served one term, but I was raised in the military.
My father made E-9 on the first round and retired after 29 years. He served
in W.W.II, Korea and Viet Nam. I recognize a soldier when I see one, and
Mort Freedman is the best I've known. At age 55 I'll kick anyone's ass who
says differently! ........................................... Jim