Rank/Branch: E6/US Army Special Forces
Unit: SOA (MACV-SOG) CCC, 5th Special Forces Group
Date of Birth: 24 July 1944 (Northampton, MA)
Home City of Record: Ware, MA
Date of Loss: 24 March 1970 Current Status: MIA
Country of Loss: Cambodia
Loss Coordinates: 142750N 1071816E (YB484003)
Other Personnel in Incident:
SP4 Berman Ganoe
WO John C. Hosken
SP4 Rudy M. Beccera
Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
SGT Gary A. Harned
1Lt. Jerry L Pool
5 indigenous members
(All are listed as Missing in Action)
Source: Compiled by Homecoming II Project 01 July 1990 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, including James E. Lake's account found in "Life on the Line" by Philip D. Chinnery, interviews. Updated by the P.O.W. NETWORK 1998.
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SYNOPSIS: Kontum, South Vietnam was in the heart of "Charlie country" -- hostile enemy territory. 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. Boronski 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 TWO made a quick trip to Dak To for refueling. RED THREE was left on station in case of an emergency.
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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.
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.
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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 distributed, but few understand that the author remains missing.
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 mix it with your own.
And in that time when men decide
and feel safe to call this war insane,
take one moment to embrace those
gentle heroes you left behind.
Special thanks for this poem goes to my Brother:
Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
1 January 1970
Dak To, Vietnam
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