It would make a rousing movie, the same genre as the siege of Zinderneuf in Beau Geste, the firefight around the DC-3 in The Wild Geese,the evacuation of the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, the fall of Osgiliath in The Return of the King.
A Special Forces camp is overrun. Defenders desperately hold off a swarming attack. Fighter jets drop bombs ever closer to the shrinking perimeter to keep the attackers at bay. Other airplanes land under heavy fire, lifting out frantic civilian, dependents and combatants.
The last team is almost left behind, surrounded. A pilot makes one last landing for a dramatic rescue.
On May 12, 1968, 40 years ago today, Technical Sergeant Mort Freedman was rescued at Kham Duc, Vietnam. He was the last man out.
Kham Duc had a 6,000 foot runway, surrounded by mountains. The North Vietnamese had the high ground. There were 1,700 defenders – Montagnard tribesmen, their families and dependents, American soldiers and US Green Berets.
Before dawn a decision was made to evacuate the camp. C-123 and C-130 cargo airplanes launched from Cam Ranh Bay, Danang and Tan Son Nhut for the evacuation.
A three-man Combat Controller Team, or CCT, was already on base. The CCT was composed of a C-130 pilot and two enlisted combat controllers. Their mission was to control air traffic in the combat zone. They were now the control tower, working with a radio jeep by the runway.
Every fighter and bomber mission in Vietnam was diverted to Kham Duc. Cargo airplanes, some based out of Mactan air base in the Philippines, orbited overhead, with helicopter gunships, fighter jets, B-52s, and Forward Air Controllers flying small Cessna 0-2s.
A CH-47 Chinook, a UH-1H Huey and a Cessna O-2 were shot down in the middle of the runway.
A C-130 Hercules, still loaded with cargo, landed under fire and was mobbed, people running into the propellers in a frenzy. Fuel gushed from bullet holes in the wing, and a tire was shredded. The pilot aborted his takeoff. The passengers abandoned the airplane. The crew hacked the rubber tire away from the wheel and tried again. With just 4 passengers aboard, they made it out.
The passengers were the 3-man CCT and another officer. They flew to safety in Cam Ranh Bay.
Another C-130 landed and slammed to a halt. Hundreds of civilians mobbed the airplane. Women and kids were crushed in the rush to get in.
The airplane stayed on the ground for only a couple of minutes, then hurriedly took off. As it rotated off the runway, it was hit by ground fire, and crashed and exploded a mile from the camp. All who had made it on board died.
Another C-130 crash landed on the runway, hit the CH-47 wreck and slewed into a dirt mound off the runway.
Other C-130s, a C-123 and helicopters landed and lifted out 600 remaining civilians and defenders. A last C-130 picked up the crashed aircrew and the last rear guard.
The camp was now almost entirely in enemy hands.
Then one more C-130 landed. The same 3-man CCT got off. In the confusion of the battle, they had been ordered back to control air traffic for the evacuation. They ran into the camp and found it empty.
They were the only ones left in Kham Duc. They were stuck in a base that was now in enemy hands.
The C-130 could not wait. No one came to be rescued. The pilot saved the airplane and flew out. As he climbed out, he heard the order to the orbiting fighters to destroy the entire base with bombs and napalm. The C-130 pilot screamed into the radio that they had just inserted an American Combat Controller Team. The entire frequency went silent as the blunder sank in.
The CCT — two enlisted Combat Controllers and a C-130 pilot officer – hunkered down in a ditch beside the runway. They held off the North Vietnamese with their M-16s. They had just 220 bullets among them.
A C-123 Provider then landed on the runway, the pilot hoping to flush out the CCT. He had to immediately take off again because of heavy fire. As he banked left, his crew members saw the CCT running back to the ditch. They were alive!
The next C-123 in line made a steep combat approach and stopped on the runway. The CCT ran out onto the airplane, and the last men out of Kham Duc were finally rescued.
The C-123 pilot, Joe Jackson, got the Medal of Honor. One Combat Controller, James Lundie, met Jackson again by accident at the Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina in 1997, 29 years after the battle.
The other Combat Controller, Mort Freedman, made the Philippines his home. He has been the skydiving safety officer at the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta for 2 years now.
Mort is a gentle, quiet person. He told me about Kham Duc at the Fiesta. He holds the C-123 pilot in very high regard. I’m glad Mort was saved.
The picture is the only known photograph of an ongoing Medal of Honor action. The wrecked C-130 is in the foreground, the CH-47 in the middle of the runway. A crashed Cessna O-2 is just above the C-130, and across the runway from it is the wrecked UH-1H Huey. At the top of the photo is Jackson’s C-123. Three tiny dots to the right are the CCT running for their lives.
Kham Duc is annotated in Google Earth. You can still see the broken up asphalt runway.
“Rescue at Kham Duc”, an article by John Correll published in the online Airforce magazine, is a detailed narrative of this exciting episode. Some of the photos here came from that site. There is also a book, The Airlift Evacuation of Kham Duc, by Alan Gropman.
Posted from Manila, May 12, 2008.