Today, November 11th, is Veterans day. While government offices are closed, it’s one holiday that hasn’t morphed into a “just tuck it in on Monday so everyone can have a three day weekend” holiday. It’s the one day we set aside to thank all those who serve and have served our country in uniform. It is held on the same day every year, the anniversary of the end of World War I.
Saturday, between the hallowed hedges of Sanford Stadium, it was homecoming. There was a homecoming of a different kind, however, as Georgia National Guard soldier Robert Owens, the first of his unit to return to Georgia, was reunited with his family. Watch this so you know what a real hug feels like if you haven’t had one in a while.
Later, Medal of Honor recipient Col Joe M. Jackson of Newnan was honored. Here’s a bit of the story from which he earned his award:
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 machinegun 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-123 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-123 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-123 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.”
What struck me about Col Jackson is that he didn’t just serve in Vietnam, but in Korea and World War II as well. He was 45 years old when he did the mission above. He served, and served, and served again. At an age where retirement was an option, he put his life on the line to save others. “Hero” barely begins to describe it. The man is a badass.
The juxtoposition of having those two events (along with recognition of many of UGA’s veterans on the jumbotron) was nice. In a time where we too often refer to sport or politics as “battle”, we had many reminders of those who know what battle really means.
Take a minute to call a veteran you know today. They’ve earned it.