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 ambusing, 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
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 sice 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 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 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
Dak To, Vietnam