COLUMBIA, S.C. – During the Vietnam War, even doctors got drafted. And at least one of them got singled out to participate in a secret, CIA-run mission into Laos.
That was the late Dr. Robert E. Jackson of Manning, S.C. On Friday, March 30, Anne Jackson Bristow and Abbot Carnes – his daughter and widow, respectfully – will talk about his service at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. Their presentation, “Undercover in Laos: A Secret Mission in the Vietnam War,” will start at noon. It is free and open to the public, as part of the museum’s monthly Lunch & Learn series.
In 1966, Dr. Jackson was practicing family medicine in Manning. He and his wife had four children. On Jan. 12 of that year, his draft notice came, and he went into the U.S. Air Force.
His training started the following month. He volunteered for and was assigned to the First Air Commando Wing at England Air Force Base in Alexandria, La. – a special forces unit. After completing flight surgeon training, he deployed to Udorn AFB in Bangkok, Thailand.
In July, this recent civilian was recruited for a secret operation in the neighboring mountainous country of Laos.
All through the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army transported troops, weapons, and supplies along a pathway through the rugged jungle terrain of Laos and of Cambodia – the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The U.S. Air Force bombed North Vietnamese positions along the trail during the war. Many of those missions originated in Thailand. In fact, at the peak in 1969, more airmen were serving in Thailand than in South Vietnam.
Dr. Jackson left Udorn Air Force Base in Thailand and traveled to the U.S. Embassy located in Vientiane, Laos. There he was briefed by the CIA on his assignment. He was to run a small hospital in the mountains of Laos at a place called Sam Thong. Since there could be no overt U.S. military presence in Laos, he left behind his uniform and identification. Thereafter, he was referred to in reports as “Number One.” If captured or killed, he would most likely have been identified as a volunteer with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
There, Dr. Jackson would be the flight surgeon for American air crews, as well as for the local friendly forces that used the airfield where the medical facility was located. He would also provide medical care for the surrounding Laotian villagers, and to Laotian refugees.
He would have many adventures there, which his widow and daughter will tell about in their lecture. Dr. Jackson died in 1978, but he left behind a detailed journal and took hundreds of slides from his experiences in Southeast Asia.
“Once drafted, Daddy was eager to serve and to go above and beyond just serving out his time with a stateside assignment,” said Anne Bristow. “He sought, was approved, and trained to be an Air Commando; he volunteered for service in Southeast Asia; he enthusiastically accepted the CIA’s undercover assignment. He embraced the CIA’s plan of medical civic action for the Laotian people as an opportunity to proudly serve his country, as a humanitarian mission, and as an adventure.”
An article in an Air Force publication in March 1967 described his war service as follows:
“We know too well that the only way to stop the insidious advances of communism is to win the hearts of the people – and medicine is more effective than bullets. Without a gun, Dr. Jackson fought a war – a war to win the people.”
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.