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 several 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
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
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.
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.
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.
Welcome home Brent, glad Major O’Donnell’s poem brought you some relief.
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
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
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
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
Thank you for this detailed information Sam.
Cpt.Jerry Pool from my home town
Thank you for the feedback.
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.
Back at you Jay, and welcome home.
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.