Joe M. Jackson receives the Medal of Honor on January 16, 1969.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 3/10/2014
  • Essay 10735

On January 16, 1969, Joe M. Jackson (1923-2019) receives the Medal of Honor for heroic action in the Vietnam War in which he rescued three airmen surrounded by enemy forces. The rescue required landing and recovering the airmen while under intense fire. Jackson entered the United States Army Air Corps in March 1941 wanting to become an airplane engine mechanic. Once in the Air Force, he expanded his aspirations and became a pilot. He served 17 years in fighters, three years in reconnaissance planes, and one year flying transport aircraft in Vietnam. After 33 years in the United States Air Force, Colonel Jackson will retire and relocate to Kent, Washington, where he will work at Boeing developing maintenance training programs.  

A Veteran of Three Wars 

Joe M. Jackson was born in Newnan, Georgia, in 1923. As a young person he became interested in aviation and wanted to become an airplane mechanic. In March 1941 he joined the Army Air Corps to realize that dream. Early in World War II he was a flight engineer on B-25 Mitchell bombers. During one flight the bomber caught fire and Jackson instructed the pilot how to deal with the situation. It was then he decided that if he had to tell the pilot what to do, he should be a pilot. Jackson completed the Aviation Cadet Program in April 1943, earning his wings and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He became a gunnery instructor at Eglin Field, Florida.

At the end of World War II Jackson was assigned to occupation duty in Germany flying the P-47 fighter. Following that assignment he returned to the United States with duty at various bases.  Captain Jackson contributed to aviation advances in early 1950 with development of a standard jet penetration and landing in poor weather using ground navigational aids and timing. During the Korean War Jackson was promoted to major and flew 107 combat missions in the F-84 fighter. 

After that war he was assigned to the 2nd Air Force and was co-developer of the toss bomb technique for fighter delivery. Toss bombing was a technique where the aircraft pulls upward at release to increase the forward velocity of the bomb.

After 17 years flying fighters Major Jackson spent three years piloting reconnaissance aircraft. In 1962 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and the next year  earned a master’s degree in Political Science from George Washington University. He would serve in Europe and would fly combat missions in yet one more war in Vietnam.  

He was deployed to Vietnam in August 1967. Lieutenant Colonel Jackson flew 298 missions in the C-123 Provider transport aircraft. 

Heroic Action

On May 12, 1968, during the battle of Kham Duc, Jackson displayed the uncommon valor that was subsequently recognized with the the Medal of Honor. He was piloting a C-123 Provider with the 311th Air Commando Squadron. The American Special Forces base at Kham Duc had been heavy attack by a larger enemy force. Planes from the Danang Airbase, 45 miles away, made a number of flights to rescue the surrounded American forces. Lieutenant Colonel Jackson joined the rescue effort and was flying a holding pattern south of camp. An airborne command post was directing planes into the camp and its short airstrip. 

As the planes evacuated the camp, Vietcong forces increased their fire on the camp and its airstrip. American fighter aircraft attacked the Vietcong in an effort to repress them while the evacuation was underway. When the last survivors had been rescued, the order for the fighters to destroy the camp and enemy was given. 

An animated voice on the radio reported that three airmen had been left behind. A C-123 Provider had gone in under intense enemy fire, but did not see the three airmen. They touched down with heavy fire and made a full-throttle liftoff. As they were taking off the crew spotted the three airmen in a ditch along the airstrip. Low on fuel this C-123 returned to base.

Now with the three survivors located, Lieutenant Colonel Jackson volunteered to try a rescue. He was sure the Vietcong would expect him to make the same glide approach to the airstrip so instead he took an elevator approach nose dive to the enemy-surrounded camp. Lieutenant Colonel Jackson surprised the enemy who did not react until the C-123 was near the airstrip. The plane landed on a runway littered with debris and shell holes. As it came to a quick stop, the three airmen ran to the aircraft.

In the few moments on the ground, a 122-millimeter rocket shell landed 25 feet from the nose of the aircraft. Fortunately, it was a dud and did not explode. Lieutenant Colonel Jackson taxied around the shell and took off. Mortar shells hit the airstrip as he lifted off and tracer rounds could be seen ahead of the aircraft. The rescue aircraft managed to get through the heavy fire and made it safely to base. 

Joe Jackson was promoted to colonel. On January 16, 1969,  President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) awarded him the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony. The Medal of Honor citation noted his concern for his fellow man led to his heroic act. Colonel Jackson’s awards also include the Legion of Merit, and Distinguished Flying Cross awarded twice, and Air Medal awarded seven times.

A Lifetime of Leadership  

Following his Vietnam service Colonel Jackson received a Pentagon assignment and later one at the Air War College where he shared his flying knowledge.

He retired in 1974 to Kent in south King County and began a career with Boeing developing maintenance training programs. This included establishing a training program in Iran. Jackson retired from Boeing in 1985. Over the years he participated in many veterans and Medal of Honor events. He was recognized on national television for his 18 years of church service providing meals to the needy. He also gave talks to service members on leadership and service to the nation.

In December 2013, 90 years of age but still a powerful presence, he gave one of these inspirational talks at McChord Field. McChord Field honored Jackson with the naming of its main boulevard in his honor.  A Boeing-produced C-17A Globemaster III was named after him on September 7, 2006, as the "The Spirit of Col. Joe M. Jackson." A bridge in Kent, over the Green River, was named the Joe Jackson Bridge and in Georgia a section of highway carries his name.

Joe M. Jackson died at the age of 95 on January 13, 2019, just days before the 50th anniversary of his receipt of the Medal of Honor.


Donald K and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men Of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); Peter Collier and Nick Del Calzo, Medal of Honor: Portraits Of Valor Beyond The Call Of Duty (New York: Artisan in collaboration with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, 2003); United States Senate, Committee On Veterans’ Affairs, Medal of Honor Receipts: 1863-1973 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973); "2 From Same Town Win Medals of Honor," The Seattle Daily Times, January 16, 1969, p. 1; "Medal of Honor," The Seattle Daily Times, May 17, 1980, p. 12; "Fish on! Westport Lands Prize Ones," The Seattle Daily Times, July 13, 1982, p. 1; "Our History, C-17A S/N 00-0184, The Spirit Of Col. Joe M. Jackson," McChord Air Museum website accessed January 17, 2014 (www.; Steve Hunter, "Air Force Legend, Kent Resident Col. Joe M. Jackson Dies," Kent Reporter,  January 14, 2019 (
Note: This entry was updated on January 16, 2019.

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