Jay Jackson

By Paul Wood

Photo By Stephen Haas/The News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN — The night Jay Jackson landed at Danang, North Vietnam forces lobbed mortar shells at them and hit a fuel depot that burned for three days.

His Air Force comrades were told to don protective gear, but they hadn’t yet been issued it, so they were told to hunker down under their beds.

It reminded him of a similar scene in a favorite John Wayne movie, “The Green Beret,” he said.

“Welcome to Vietnam,” he said.

Master Sgt. Jackson, now 70, was fired on often when he set up water purification and water towers in Vietnam.

“So many times,” he said. “God had his hand on me.”

The Champaign man spent 26 years in the Air Force, retiring from Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, where he then taught cadets at Lincoln’s Challenge on the former base.

He knew he wanted to enlist as a combat engineer. At 16, growing up in Kentucky, he had a fascination with water he could never explain.

A recruiter told him the Air Force had plenty of need for water engineers, and he scored close to the top of his class.

He was sent to Alaska, then to Omaha, neither a weather paradise.

“I volunteered to go to Vietnam,” Jackson said.

He was sent there at the peak of the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive in 1968, at a hot spot called Tan Son Nhut Air Base, a Republic of Vietnam Air Force facility.

The U.S. used it as a major base including Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine units — and the target of major Viet Cong attacks during the 1968 offensive.

He spent 180 days there on his first tour of duty.

Then he was sent back to Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, this time at Danang in a mobile unit.

At Danang, “we were fired on a lot, protected by Marines who shot first and asked questions later,” he said.

Jackson’s specialty was purifying water and filling water tanks from trucks, but the engineers were also expected to help fill in bomb craters on runways.

They could repair a large hole in two-and-a-half hours.

Repairing water systems took longer, perhaps a day, often in dangerous circumstances.

Sometimes, duty was 24/7.

He served in a Red Horse Squadron of civil engineers responsible for heavy-duty repairs at lightning speed.

A third duty: At 6-foot-4, he was also on the Air Force basketball team.

“We competed in tournaments with all the other services,” Jackson said.

He visited Hong Kong, Japan and Okinawa, among other places, on rest and recreation.

Jackson also served in Germany before arriving at Chanute.

“If I had it to do all over again, I would,” he said. “It was a thrill.”

He said he made a lot of friends in the service. “I don’t see color,” Jackson said.

“Your battle buddies are the best friends you’re ever going to get,” he said.

Jackson is very active in American Legion Post 559, serves in the color guard and remains patriotic.

He’ll be on an Honor Flight June 19 to Washington, D.C., and see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at pwood@news-gazette.com.