First In, Last Out
Tan Son Nhut AB, Vietnam November 1968
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
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 question.
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
"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 seen."
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 scenes.
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
"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 prominent."
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 combat controller."
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 operations.
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
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 Wlater
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
"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 ground forces.
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.
Mother's Day, May 12, 1968
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.
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 and civilians.
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
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.
KHAM DUC, 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 SIDES!
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 their attack.
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 enough!
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
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."
Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, South Vietnam
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 of fear.
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 flights.
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 Kham Duc.
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 abound.
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.
Saturday, May 11th Kham Duc, South Vietnam
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....
May 12, 1968....MOTHER'S 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 embattled runway.
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
"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,
"We've Still got THREE MEN ON THE GROUND!"
High overhead, a frustrated Air Force commander swore. How could this have
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 their position.
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 men.....but who?
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:
"We're Going In!"
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. 542.)
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
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 alive."
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 Jeanotte.
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.
Coincidence Or Just Meant To Be?
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
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
"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
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
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
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!
A First Hand Account!
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 first.
The camp had been probed, we were told several, 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 it's 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 (Mothers 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 evacuation.
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 evacuate.
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 M-16 fire.
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 your letter.
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; 01-18-2003 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
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 without Mort.
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
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 different…..Jim