Friday, November 25, 2016

Michael O'Donnell: A poet, a poem and Vietnam ...

Some days (including Thanksgiving), as other aging and increasingly dilapidated veterans of the war in Vietnam may do,  I look at my world through other eyes --- closed now more than 40 years; the inspiration, a poem.

I came across it first 30 years ago in a book, "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam," published in 1985 by the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, still here on a shelf nearby.

The poet was U.S. Army Captain Michael Davis O'Donnell (left), just 24, a helicopter pilot assigned to the 170th Aviation Company, 52nd Aviation Battalion, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade.

O'Donnell shared his poem first --- the day after it was written --- in a letter, datelined Pleiku,  to his best friend, Marcus Sullivan, a combat engineer in Vietnam himself during 1967-68, who had made it safely home to Milwaukee.

9:00 P.M.
2 Jan 70

Dear Marcus,

I guess we are not very good correspondents. I have raced thru the month of December and found I was not entirely unhappy to see it leave. I am, right now, in the middle being positive. I was never anywhere except Pleiku, Vietnam, this whole lifetime and am sorry to report that I've already played the same good times over and over and they are beginning to fade out. I think you must know what I mean. It's hard to make the old dreams last --- especially when you have no one to make the new ones with.

At any rate I should not complain, it could be much worse, I could be a combat engineer or something.

I enjoyed the poems you sent me, I really did. I have typed them up and added them to A Leaf of Life.

I have written a few new things. I will send them later. I do want to give you this one I wrote last night:

If you are able
save a place for them
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 this war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind ...

I am convinced that this will be worst or the best year I have had. Ask me this time next year. Let me wish you a good year and when you have the time, write me, and take care of yourself.

Until that time,


Note: The complete text of O'Donnell's letter was published for the first time, long after the poem had taken on a life of its own, in War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, Andrew Carroll, editor; New York: Schribner, 2001, pp. 438-39. The year of publication also was the year Michael's remains were interred in Arlington National Cemetery.


Here are the circumstances of the young pilot's dying --- less than three months after his "gentle heroes" poem was written and shared. By this time, the 170th had been reassigned to Kon Tum Airfield with missions staged out of Dak To.

Michael D. O'Donnell

On March 24, 1970, four helicopters --- two extraction and two cover --- from the 170th were sent from Dak To to extract a Special Forces long-range reconnaissance patrol team, RT Pennsylvania, in contact over night with the enemy about 14 miles inside Cambodia, in Ratanokiri Province.  O'Donnell was commander of one of the cover aircraft,  in charge of a crew consisting of a co-pilot, crew chief and gunner. Capt. James E. Lake, senior pilot, commanded the mission and one of the extraction helicopters.

The reconnaissance team awaiting rescue on the ground consisted of three U.S. troops and five Montagnard tribesmen. Outnumbered and outgunned in running combat by an NVA hunter team all night, the U.S.-led team members were exhausted and could no longer run.

Because there was no landing zone near their location when relief arrived, the helicopters hovered in high orbit for 45 minutes as team members moved to a spot where extraction would be possible.

Running low on fuel, Lake ordered the two extraction and one cover craft to make a quick refueling trip to Dak To while the ground team was moving, leaving O'Donnell and his crew on station in case of an emergency.

Before the other craft returned, the commander of the ground team advised O'Donnell that if his men were not extracted immediately it would be too late. 

O'Donnell considered the situation, decided to go in, set his craft down on the LZ for about four minutes, loaded all eight reconnaisance team members and lifted off.

Now back in the save zone, Lake heard O'Donnell's last radio message, "I've got all eight; I'm coming out."

Lake described what happened next:

"About a hundred meters from where he lifted off, something white streaked from the slope on the side of the ravine. It struck the aircraft and the aircraft exploded. Bodies were blown out the doors and fell into the jungle. There was a moment of stunned silence and the next words spoken came from one of the Cobras, Ranger 13: 'I don't think a piece bigger than my head hit the ground.' A large secondary explosion followed with a yellow flash and a cloud of black smoke billowing from the jungle. Ranger 13 made a second high-speed pass over the site. Two more white streaks passed just below him and exploded on the other wall of the ravine."

Intense ground fire prevented Lake from approaching the crash site, obscured by heavy tree cover. He ordered all craft back to Dak To before more were lost. Subsequent efforts to insert search teams failed and on April 18, SAR efforts were discontinued.

Twelve men were killed in the crash --- including O'Donnell and his crew, John C. Hosken, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, co-pilot; Rudy M. Becerra, Richmond, Texas, crew chief; and Berman Ganoe, Belleview, Florida, gunner. Also lost were Reconnaissance Team Pennsylvania members Jerry L. Pool, Freeport, Illinois, commanding; John A. Boronski, Ware, Massachusetts; Gary A. Harned, Springboro, Pennsylvania; and the five Montagnard.

The Americans were carried as missing in action from March 24, 1970, until presumptive findings of death during November of 1978. All were promoted posthumously and all received a variety of posthumous awards. O'Donnell received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Their remains lay scattered in the Cambodian jungle for more than 20 years.


While inventorying O'Donnell's belongings after his death, buddies found among them a notebook containing 22 handwritten poems, including the one that he had shared on Jan. 2 with his friend, Marcus. 

The notebook was returned to his family, but the poems were copied, shared, taken home and treasured. The "gentle heroes" poem, especially.

Eventually, the poems found their way into a slim 1972 booklet, inexpensively produced, entitled "Letters from Pleiku."

And then, the "gentle heroes" poem took on a life of its own, distanced a little from the man who wrote it. It was recited during dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall during 1982, rolled by in the closing credits of 1987's "Hamburger Hill" and has been inscribed on monuments, recited during Veterans Day and Memorial Day addresses and reprinted countless times.


Back in 1982, Anne Keegan, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, paid a Veterans Day tribute to Michael and his poetry. She characterized him as "the boy next door, recalling that he had lived near her grandmother in the Milwaukee suburbs.

Born Aug. 13, 1945, in Columbus, Ohio, Michael grew up in greater Milwaukee and was a 1963 graduate of Shorewood High School. His parents were C. Donald and Bette Joy (Davis) O'Donnell, both gone now. His older sister, Patricia, survives.

Dave Berry, editor of the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph until his retirement in 2014, also has written about O'Donnell, adding the information that he was captain of his high school wrestling team, ran cross country and served on the student council.

About the time Michael was deployed to Vietnam, his parents moved from Milwaukee to Springfield, Illinois, and so he is carried officially as an Illinois loss in Vietnam.

James Lake, who got to know O'Donnell after his arrival in Vietnam during October of 1969, wrote that "Mike was a poet first and foremost, but he was also a talented guitar player and singer. He was especially good with Paul Simon's stuff and whenever I hear Simon I think of Mike."


More than two decades after Michael's death, human remains were recovered from the crash site in Cambodia and, in 1995, repatriated. After extensive testing, DNA results confirmed during 2001 that the remains included those of O'Donnell and his three crew members. Remains of the three reconnaissance team members could not be identified individually but were presumed to be mixed with those of the others.

During August of 2001, a joint memorial service for the seven men was held at the Fort Myer Old Post Chapel and O'Donnell and most of the others then were buried together in Arlington National Cemetery.


Although home now, and at rest --- Michael O'Donnell and his poetry continue to capture the imagination of others, including Daniel Weiss, who assumed new duties as president of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art during 2015. 

During 2001, Weiss was dean of students at John Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Baltimore. Familiar with the poet and his work, Weiss visited his fresh grave at Arlington National Cemetery during that year.

"The poem blew me away and the story deeply intrigued me," Weiss told an interviewer for Johns Hopkins Magazine during 2015, shortly after he was appointed to his new position at the Met. "I first came across this in a book called The American Century by Harold Evans, which was published 17 years ago. There's a picture of this young man and the poem. The poem is very moving, and underneath, it says, 'This poem was written by Michael O'Donnell, a helicopter pilot. He was shot down in March 1970 and he is listed as missing in action.' I wanted to know under what circumstances he wrote the poem. I found out that he wrote it as a letter to his best friend, so I found his best friend, who is a retired schoolteacher in Milwaukee, and I went there to meet him.

"We became good friends and we decided to do this project together. He is now one of my closest friends.... This is a really powerful personal story in some ways, but at the same time, this young man's experience was emblematic of the American experience of the 1960s and people who went to war. He didn't come back, and there were 58,000 Americans who didn't come back, and millions of Vietnamese who were killed as well. So it's a story about America in the '60s through the experiences of this guy who was a brilliant songwriter and a poet. He never fired a shot in Vietnam but he died a hero. So if I didn't have to go to this new job, I could write this book. I've made some progress, but I need to make some more."


Here's hoping Daniel Weiss and Marcus Sullivan find time to finish their joint project and that we learn more about this exceptional man who died too young, as did too many others --- for no particular reason.

As it happens, I was in Saigon at the time O'Donnell and the others were killed in Cambodia that long ago March --- a world away; and recall President Nixon's announcement a month later, on April 30, that the "official" invasion had begun.

That meant round-the-clock work at the military intelligence centers where those of us lucky enough to be "Saigon warriors" scurried around, but little more. We were among the fortunate sons who came home unscathed, or so it seems.

But I still don't know what to make of it all, cringe when the term "hero" is carelessly applied to anyone who wears a uniform, and wonder what the hell all this flag-waving is about.

 Here's the final poem that Michael O'Donnell wrote prior to his death, on March 18, 1970:

I have tasted the air in the early morning,

before the sun and before the day…

I have let it run all down my face and stain my clothes

and I have learned to wash myself with the part of the day that remains…

I am drying in the sun at Dak To.

I am each day becoming less interested in the way the morning tastes

and I am drying in the sun at Dak To…

I am dying in the sun at Dak To.

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