Into The Killing Zone
(CPT. O’Donnell & RT Pennsylvania)
March 24, 1970
By Col. Donald Summers, Edited by Robert Noe.
Captain Michael Davis O’Donnell
A NOTE TO THE READER: All of the stories compiled for the 170th and SOG are verified through as many different sources as available. In this case After Action Reports, Aircraft Incident Reports, as well as interviews with personnel present, and POW/MIA reports were consulted. However, in this story I asked CWO James Lake to write the story in his own words for me and I would extrapolate the data and use it, as is my custom. Jim’s own writing was so vivid and well written, that a good bit of the above story was merely copied over from Jim’s own writing and used verbatim. Jim and Mike O’Donnell were close friends, and that passion of friendship shows through in the telling of this story.
The NVA had enjoyed years of sanctuary in Cambodia and Laos, free from the war in Vietnam, with the exception of the ever present threat of SOG Teams who roamed the rugged mountains in search of them. Major hospitals, training centers, and rest and recuperation areas had been established in these areas, free from artillery barrages, attacks by ground troops, and while subjected to bombings, free of the massive bombing runs that racked North Vietnam daily. 1970 was to be the year the NVA were to lose their sanctuaries, as well as their safety from enemy forces of the Americans and South Vietnamese Armies.
With the Prince of Cambodia deposed, and the new Prime Minister an avid enemy of the NVA, movements began immediately to seize control of the Cambodian countryside, thus securing the NVA supply routes and sanctuaries. Back in Washington, there was little doubt of what was going to happen, nor the NVA reaction to the events. Plans were already underway to invade Cambodia with joint forces of American and ARVN Forces later in the year. SOG Teams from all three sectors, CCC, CCN, and CCS, were to recon the interior of both Cambodia and southern areas of Laos in preparation for the invasion. Some of the most concentrated efforts of these initial reconnaissance missions were aimed at the Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia, a major sanctuary for NVA and Viet Cong troops.
The Ratanakiri Province area was covered with triple canopy jungle, shielding most ground activity from aerial view. This coupled with the high and treacherously steep mountains that covered the province, made ground reconnaissance a necessity, as well as a dangerous and often fatal venture. Insertions and extractions into the area nearly always consisting of hover holes which required tight maneuvering and weaving to enter and exit, rope and ladder extractions, or landing zones inside of canyons and narrow valleys that were custom built for cross fire ambushes that no amount of aerial coverage could prevent.
Three days after Prince Schanouk was removed by the parliament, and Lon Nol was inserted as Prime Minister, a flight of Bikinis lead by CWO James Lake inserted RT Pennsylvania into Ratanakiri Province with the assignment of determining the size and movements of the NVA build up of forces seizing control over the province, and suspected NVA movements to seize control of neighboring provinces. The team was led by 1Lt. Jerry Pool, and consisted of SFC John Boronski as One-One, SSG Gary Harned serving as One-Two, and five Montagnard Commandos.
Within an hour of being inserted, Pool and his team were on the run with NVA Counter-recon Hunter teams on their trail. Moving in a southwesterly direction from their insertion they fought the heavy jungle terrain and steep mountain sides at an exhausting pace. Each time they stopped, the pursuing NVA would catch up with them and they would have contact, pushing them further into the mountains to avoid capture. The first night they managed to set up and gain some much needed rest, but by first light they were on the run again, this time the NVA closer than before, seemingly right on their trail. By night fall of the second night, Pool and his team were on a constant dodge and ambush routine with a large force of pursuing NVA. But nothing was working. Unable to shake their trail, and unable to rest they began to reach a point of exhaustion, then the trackers incorporated dogs into the search.
Exhausted and losing ground fast, Pool called for a Prairie Fire Extraction on the third morning. His team had gone as far as they could. They would have to either abort the rest of the mission, or face death or capture. They could not evade much longer. Relaying their emergency situation to SOG, they resume their evasive tactics up the side of the next mountain.
The morning of March 24, 1970, the crews of four UH-1 slicks from the 170th and four AH-1G Cobras assembled at B52 for a brief of the situation in the field and to review the plan for the day. Red Lead, the flight lead for the slicks, was WO1 James E. Lake, flying with veteran pilot and former Green Beret Jonny Kemper. Lake had been in country for over 11 months, making him the senior AC in the unit. Kemper, too, had been in country for many months, but, for much of his tour, he flew Buccaneer guns. He was relatively new to slicks, but he was a steady and capable veteran of many fierce battles.
CPT Michael Davis O’Donnell, the Red platoon leader, flew Red Three. While senior in rank, he was junior in experience, so he flew wing rather than lead. On SOG missions, experience equated to survival for the crews and the teams. By mutual agreement, the most experienced aircraft commander led the mission, regardless of rank. O’Donnell’s copilot was WO1 John C. "Hippie" Hoskin. Shy and retiring, he earned his nickname from the little round glasses he wore. In the back, was the crewchief of aircraft 68-15262, SP4 Rudy Becerra , along with doorgunner SP4 Berman Ganoe. Both men were veterans of many missions over fence.
The briefing that morning focused on the situation faced by RT Pennsylvania. At brief time, Pennsylvania had declared a "Prairie Fire," or tactical emergency. As soon as the team moved close to an extraction LZ, the Bikini’s would be called upon to pull them out. After the brief, the Bikini’s and the Panthers flew north to Dak To, landed, and began to wait.
In the sky over RT Pennsylvania, circled the Covey FAC flown by Air Force CPT Melvin Irvin accompanied by MSG Charles Septer, the Covey Rider. Septer was in constant radio contact with Lt. Pool and SGT Boronski on the ground. Pool reported that they had been running and ambushing all morning, but their pursuers were right behind them. Septer knew he had to get relief for the team, or they were not going to make it. He called for TAC air and soon a flight of A1-E Spads arrived on the scene.
On the ground, the arrival of the Spads were a welcome sight, and RT Pennsylvania made some distance between them and the advancing enemy, as the Spads dropped CBU and napalm around the team to give them some breathing room. The napalm slowed down the NVA, but it also started numerous fires in the dense growth of the jungle, these fires soon becoming as much of a threat as the advancing NVA. Pool reported that now, both the fires and NVA were closing in on them. As the Spads had been working their area, Septer had been working on an extraction plan. He radioed back to Pool, directing the team to move to the nearest available extraction LZ which was southwest of their position, near the bottom of a narrow valley with steep canyon walls. Pool recognized the transmission and again emphasized the NVA were closing in, he was going to need more aerial coverage if he as to make it to the LZ. AT about 1130 hours, Septer called Dak To and called for the Panthers to provide close air support.
The Panthers scrambled, accompanied by Lake and O’Donnell as chase birds for the guns. After an approximately 20 minute flight, the four Cobras and two slicks arrived at the team’s location. The Spads still circled in the sky above. Below them, the Covey Rider pointed out Pennsylvania’s location to the gun team, and then gave coordinating references to the enemy positions based on the reports from Pool. Immediately, the lead fire team dove down to fire rockets, 40 mm, and mini guns at the NVA positions around Pennsylvania. The other fire team and the two slicks orbited 1500 feet above the site, waiting for the team to reach the extraction LZ. The first fire team soon expended their rockets and ammunition, and withdrawing from the area, turned back to Dak To to rearm and refuel.
On the ground, the situation facing RT Pennsylvania was deteriorating. Pool reported that they were back in contact with the enemy. They were moving as fast as possible, but the NVA were right behind them. To reach the LZ from their position they were having to descend into the valley floor, and then move southwest some distance.
In the sky above, Lake noted that he had a bit more than one hour of fuel remaining. Considering Pennsylvania’s progress, he judged that it would reach the extraction LZ at about the time the two slicks would be forced to return for fuel. He instructed O’Donnell to remain on station as long as possible to cover the guns. He, meanwhile, would return to Dak To, refuel and collect the other two slicks for the extraction of RT Pennsylvania.
Racing back to Dak To, Lake and Kemper discussed the best way to perform what was sure to be a red hot extraction. Landing in Dak To, Lake briefed the other two slicks on their situation. Not only was RT Pennsylvania in desperate need of extraction. By the time they would return, O’Donnell and the other Panthers would need to leave the area to refuel. Time was critical.
Approximately 45 minutes later, Lake and the other two Bikini’s were en route back to the LZ. Aboard one of the slicks was WO William H. Stepp, while the co-pilot (Peter Pilot) WO Alan Hoffman was at the controls of the other. Neither pilot had extensive experience at FOB, and Hoffman was even new to country. Neither of the newer pilot totally appreciated the situation until they were airborne and across the fence, but the reality was coming home fast, and as the somber flight raced towards the LZ, they monitored the calls between the FAC and Pool, as the teams situation deteriorated even further.
Those 45 minutes, Lake and Kemper had been gone, had been harrowing ones for Pool and RT Pennsylvania. In continuous contact with the enemy, they were running through the dense jungle toward the LZ. Lake and the extraction birds were now ten minutes away. As Pennsylvania stumbled down a steep slope towards the valley extraction LZ, Pool fell, and injured his ankle. He reported that the enemy was right behind them, the fires were closing in, and he could not move further. He asked Septer where the extraction birds were. Septer replied that they were on their way. Pool looked up to the sky, and saw O’Donnell orbiting the LZ, he desperately called out to him, "you ain’t got no balls at all if you don’t come down and get us right now!"
The Bikini’s had a credo they lived by. "You take them in - you get them out!" Without hesitation, O’Donnell told Septer that he would make the extraction alone. Lake intercepted, telling O’Donnell they were minutes away, to wait. O’Donnell’s reply was simple, RT Pennsylvania didn’t have a few minutes, he was going in. Followed by the gun team, O’Donnell swooped from the sky. Dropping down between the canyon walls he slowed and hovered over RT Pennsylvania. He waited at a hover while as the team scrambled through the dense undergrowth towards his bird.
As the minutes ticked by, Lake and the other slicks arrived overhead. After about four minutes on the ground, an eternity, O’Donnell started away from the LZ. Slowly gathering speed, he climbed toward the sky. At about 200 feet above the ground he reported, "I’ve got all eight, I’m coming out." Lake, Kemper, and the others heaved a collective sigh of relief. Suddenly, without warning, O’Donnell’s slick exploded in flames. Raining parts, its momentum carried it forward some three hundred meters, where it crashed in the jungle.
After a moment of stunned disbelief, the first voice over the radio was that of CPT Michael Jimison, Panther 21, who was following O’Donnell down the valley. He said, "I didn’t see a piece bigger than my head." Jimison stated that he would move in for a closer look at the crash site. Making a wide, high speed orbit of the site, the two Cobras flew back to the head of the valley, and began a run down the valley at a speed of close to 200 knots. Suddenly, the canyon walls lit up with muzzle flashes and tracer rounds. From the northern wall of the canyon, Lake watched a white streak flash behind the lead Cobra exploding against the far wall of the canyon. At the end of the run, Jimison reported that he could see nothing in the heavy jungle of the valley floor except smoke and fire.
Suddenly, a red flash of light followed by a column of dense black smoke rose from the crash site. Fires began to burn furiously in the jungle in and around it. Lake decided to make a closer investigation of the crash site. He ordered the two chase ships to remain high, and leaving the other slicks in a high orbit, he descended through the veil of smoke toward the crash site. As he approached the valley, he watched thousands of tracer rounds begin their seemingly lazy looking arcs from the jungle on the canyon walls, to flash by all sides of his aircraft. The crash site was at the bottom of a valley with steep walls populated by hundreds of NVA soldiers, who were pouring out small arms fire. From their position on the walls of the canyon, the NVA could shoot down at any aircraft attempting to fly through the valley near the crash site. Lake’s friends, his comrades in arms, lay somewhere ahead in the midst of a maelstrom of fire and smoke under the thick jungle canopy. There was nowhere to land, and hovering was certain death. Lake and Kemper agreed there was nowhere to go, and nothing left they could do. From what they saw on the pass through, with what lay below them in smoke and fire, neither man believed that any person could have survived the explosion aboard O’Donnell’s aircraft or the 200 foot fall that followed it. Lake made a max power climb-out from the valley, and reluctantly turned away and ordered the flight to head back Dak To.
O’Donnell, Hoskins, Becerra and Ganoe plus all of RT Pennsylvania were listed as MIA. Army records show no indication that another team returned to the area of the crash until long after war.
On November 16, 1993, during JFA 94-2C, a joint team investigated the location of crash site. The team landed by helicopter on the top of the small hill about 500 meters south of the valley. The team moved to the reported location of the crash site, but the one kilometer movement took two and one half hours. The team searched the area, but no evidence of a crash site was found.
On January 18, 1994, a joint team interviewed Le Thanh Minh, of Kontum. Minh reported that in April 1993, while looking for aluminum, he found the crash site in Cambodia. He said he found human remains, three dog tags, a first aid kit and a rucksack. He heard that people from Laos had discovered a watch, a gold ring, and an AR15 gun. He said that the crash site was spread over a 100 meter area. He said that the tail section was visible and was engraved with the number "262". He gave the dog tags to the team, two were Ganoe’s and one belonged to Hoskins. The remains consisted of 15 bones.
In January of 1998, the joint search teams again entered the area of the crash site, and this time were successful in locating the aircraft. The remains of all of the crew and team members inside were recovered, along with dog tags, weapons, and other personal effects. These remains are at the Hawaii Veterans Remains Identification Station now awaiting final verification, and transport to their respective home of record for proper burial. After 29 years, the brave men of the 170th and RT Pennsylvania are coming home in honor.