Words of Major Michael Davis O’Donnell; KIA, Dak To, 1970


Major Michael O’Donnell


Major Michael O’Donnell was a helicopter pilot killed in action near Dak To, Vietnam in March of 1970. Although I did not know Major O’Donnell we were in Vietnam at the same time, and in some of the same places. This is a poem he penned three months before his death.





If you are able,


save them a place


inside of you


and save one backward glance


when you are leaving


for the places they can


no longer go.


Be not ashamed to say


you loved them,


though you may


or may not have always.


Take what they have left


and what they have taught you


with their dying


and keep it with your own.


And in that time


when men decide and feel safe


to call the war insane,


take one moment to embrace


those gentle heroes


you left behind.


~Major Michael Davis O’Donnell

1 January 1970, RIP



About the Author

Joe Campolo Jr.

Joe Campolo, Jr. is an award winning author, poet and public speaker. A Vietnam War Veteran, Joe writes and speaks about the war and many other topics. See the "Author Page" of this website for more information on Joe. Guest writers on Joe's blogs will have a short bio with each article. Select blogs by category and enjoy the many other articles available here. Joe's popular books are available thru Amazon, this website, and many other on-line book stores.


  1. Major Michael O’Donnell’s poem is very well known among veterans. He was killed when I was in Vietnam in a battle I was indirectly involved with.
    Joe Campolo Jr

    1. I would love if you were able to tell me some of your stories if you would/could. I am writing a book about Vietnam, and I’d like it to include some real perspective from the men who were there. I know several Vets who won’t talk about it, and that’s fine if you can’t.
      Thank you for your service sir.

      1. I can talk about most of my experiences in Vietnam, Ryan, though some I will never be able to talk about. I’ll help you if I can, I’ll contact you via email.

  2. 12 years after I left Vietnam the PTSD I brought back and refused to acknowledge came crashing into my life. Major O’Donnell’s poem allowed me to look at what happened and to feel sadness and to cry. Thank You, Sir.

  3. SYNOPSIS: Kontum, South Vietnam was in the heart of “Charlie country” —
    hostile enemy territory. The little town is along the Ia Drang River, some
    forty miles north of the city of Pleiku. U.S. forces never had much control
    over the area. In fact, the area to the north and east of Kontum was
    freefire zone where anything and anyone was free game. The Kontum area was
    home base to what was known as FOB2 (Forward Observation Base 2), a
    classified, long-term operations of the Special Operations Group (SOG) that
    involved daily operations into Laos and Cambodia. SOG teams operated out of
    Kontum, but staged out of Dak To.

    The mission of the 170th Assault Helicopter Company (“Bikinis”) was to
    perform the insertion, support, and extraction of these SOG teams deep in
    the forest on “the other side of the fence” (a term meaning Laos or
    Cambodia, where U.S. forces were not allowed to be based). Normally, the
    teams consisted of two “slicks” (UH1 general purpose helicopters), two
    Cobras (AH1 assault helicopters) and other fighter aircraft which served as
    standby support.

    On March 24, 1970, helicopters from the 170th were sent to extract a
    MACV-SOG long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) team which was in contact
    with the enemy about fourteen miles inside Cambodia in Ratanokiri Province.
    The flight leader, RED LEAD, serving as one of two extraction helicopters
    was commanded by James E. Lake. Capt. Michael D. O’Donnell was the aircraft
    commander of one of the two cover aircraft (serial #68-15262, RED THREE).
    His crew consisted of WO John C. Hoskins, pilot; SP4 Rudy M. Beccera, crew
    chief; and SP4 Berman Ganoe, gunner.

    The MACV-SOG team included 1LT Jerry L. Pool, team leader and team members
    SSGT John A. Boronsky and SGT Gary A. Harned as well as five indigenous team
    members. The team had been in contact with the enemy all night and had been
    running and ambushing, but the hunter team pursuing them was relentless and
    they were exhausted and couldn’t continue to run much longer. when Lake and
    O’Donnell arrived at the team’s location, there was no landing zone (LZ)
    nearby and they were unable to extract them immediately. The two helicopters
    waited in a high orbit over the area until the team could move to a more
    suitable extraction point.

    While the helicopters were waiting, they were in radio contact with the
    team. After about 45 minutes in orbit, Lake received word from LT Pool that
    the NVA hunter team was right behind them. RED LEAD and RED THREE made a
    quick trip to Dak To for refueling. RED THREE was left on station in case of
    an emergency.

    When Lake returned to the site, Pool came over the radio and said that if
    the team wasn’t extracted then, it would be too late. Capt. O’Donnell
    evaluated the situation and decided to pick them up. He landed on the LZ and
    was on the ground for about 4 minutes, and then transmitted that he had the
    entire team of eight on board. The aircraft was beginning its ascent when it
    was hit by enemy fire, and an explosion in the aircraft was seen. The
    helicopter continued in flight for about 300 meters, then another explosion
    occurred, causing the aircraft to crash in the jungle. According to Lake,
    bodies were blown out the doors and fell into the jungle. [NOTE: According
    to the U.S. Army account of the incident, no one was observed to have been
    thrown from the aircraft during either explosion.]

    The other helicopter crewmen were stunned. One of the Cobras, Panther 13,
    radioed “I don’t think a piece bigger than my head hit the ground.” The
    second explosion was followed by a yellow flash and a cloud of black smoke
    billowing from the jungle. Panther 13 made a second high-speed pass over the
    site and came under fire, but made it away unscathed.

    Lake decided to go down and see if there was a way to get to the crash site.
    As he neared the ground, he was met with intense ground fire from the entire
    area. He could not see the crash site since it was under heavy tree cover.
    There was no place to land, and the ground fire was withering. He elected to
    return the extract team to Dak To before more aircraft was lost. Lake has
    carried the burden of guilt with him for all these years, and has never
    forgiven himself for leaving his good friend O’Donnell and his crew behind.

    The Army account concludes stating that O’Donnell’s aircraft began to burn
    immediately upon impact. Aerial search and rescue efforts began immediately;
    however, no signs of life could be seen around the crash site. Because of
    the enemy situation, attempts to insert search teams into the area were
    futile. SAR efforts were discontinued on April 18. Search and rescue teams
    who surveyed the site reported that they did not hold much hope for survival
    for the men aboard, but lacking proof that they were dead, the Army declared
    all 7 missing in action.

    For every patrol like that of the MACV-SOG LRRP team that was detected and
    stopped, dozens of other commando teams safely slipped past NVA lines to
    strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information. The number of
    MACV-SOG missions conducted with Special Forces reconnaissance teams into
    Laos and Cambodia was 452 in 1969. It was the most sustained American
    campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence gathering waged on foreign
    soil in U.S. military history. MACV-SOG’s teams earned a global reputation
    as one of the most combat effective deep penetration forces ever raised.

    By 1990 over 10,000 reports have been received by the U.S. Government
    concerning men missing in Southeast Asia. The government of Cambodia has
    stated that it would like to return a number of American remains to the U.S.
    (in fact, the number of remains mentioned is more than are officially listed
    missing in that country), but the U.S., having no diplomatic relations with
    Cambodia, refuses to respond officially to that offer.

    Most authorities believe there are hundreds of Americans still alive in
    Southeast Asia today, waiting for their country to come for them. Whether
    the LRRP team and helicopter crew is among them doesn’t seem likely, but if
    there is even one American alive, he deserves our ultimate efforts to bring
    him home.
    Michael O’Donnell was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for
    his actions on March 24, 1970. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying
    Cross, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as well as
    promoted to the rank of Major following his loss incident. O’Donnell was
    highly regarded by his friends in the “Bikinis.” They knew him as a talented
    singer, guitar player and poet. One of his poems has been widely

  4. Thank you for your service, I to was in combat over in Iraq. I served in the 101st arbn div. I studied a lot of what went on in Ww11 and Vietnam. I appreciate our service people more than words can explain.

    1. I served with the 3/506th, “The Stand Alone Battalion”, 101st Airborne Division. The only battalion of the entire division to participate in Nixon’s Offensive into Cambodia May 5, 1970. Leslie H. Sabo, MOH recipient , KIA, May 10, 1970 along with seven other young heroes lost that day in six hours firefight NVA soldiers.

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