January 21, 2020

Daniel Weiss’ moving story of Major Michael O’Donnell and the evocative poetry he wrote before his death during a heroic rescue mission in Vietnam.

Of all the books I’ve read over the past few years, none has moved me more than In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam. Released late in 2019, the book is authored by Daniel H. Weiss, the President and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Weiss was only seven years old at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which gives him the distance needed to provide a dispassionate overview of the Vietnam Era. He illustrates its impact on those swept up in the war with the poignant story of a talented folk singer and poet whose helicopter was blown to pieces during a courageous attempt to rescue soldiers trapped in a fierce firefight in Cambodia's Dragon’s Tail. The poetry Michael O'Donnell wrote before he died brings back so powerfully the emotions felt by many who lived through that difficult period. Hopefully, In That Time will ensure that his work will survive long after our generation is gone.

Mike O’Donnell had been a struggling student whose first love was making music and writing the lyrics that went with it, performing in clubs in Wisconsin and Chicago in the mid-1960’s. Seeing the inevitability of the draft, he sought to take control of his destiny by enlisting in the Army. His theory was that by the time he completed Officer Candidate School and flight training, the war would be over. It didn’t work out that way, and in the fall of 1969 he was shipped to Vietnam where he was assigned to the 170th Assault Helicopter Company in Pleiku in the Central Highlands.

O'Donnell had been trained to fly a skid, a stripped down UH-1 Huey designed to ferry troops to and from the battlefield.

He was in combat missions nearly every day, many of which involved transporting the dead and wounded from the front lines. The carnage he witnessed caused him to begin working on a book of poetry in between missions, one that he called Letters from Pleiku.

From his first post, his unit was positioned forward to Kontum and then Dak To, a highly secret outpost close to the borders of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. There, the fighting was more intense and the casualty rate higher. He was deep inside enemy territory, part of a group conducting covert counterinsurgency missions in a secret war. What his unit was doing, as happened so often in Vietnam, was known to hardly anyone except the enemy who always knew when his group would be flying and where it would land.

By 1970, it was clear to most that the Vietnam War was not going to be won in the conventional World War II sense. President Nixon was seeking to bring the conflict to a close with his Peace with Honor plan that intensified the bombing in North Vietnam and expanded the war's theater into Laos and Cambodia. O’Donnell’s unit was on the leading edge of these new firefights, and his poems track a growing sense of the futility of the war and a foreboding that his days were numbered.

In March of that year, O’Donnell, now a captain, became part of a mission to extract an eight-person reconnaissance team being relentlessly pursued by the enemy. Circling overhead before air cover could be brought into position, he heard a plea from the soldiers on the ground that they were about to be overwhelmed and needed to be taken out immediately. Without hesitation, O'Donnell dropped his skid into a steep valley where the fire was hot and stayed in the landing zone for four long minutes getting the party aboard. On the way back up, a rocket struck his chopper, turning it into a fireball which fell through the jungle canopy and disappeared. Because of the intensity of the enemy fire, it was impossible for anyone to land in order to determine whether anything or anyone remained.

A few days later when O'Donnell's personal effects were being gathered, his fellow soldiers found his poetry under a typewriter in his footlocker. They had no idea he had been writing so eloquently about the terror they were enduring. Deeply moved, they made copies of his poems and began circulating them such that over time O’Donnell became, in the words of one reporter, a cult figure in Vietnam.

Michael O'Donnell is best known for a prescient work written on the first day of 1970, the last year of his life. It is a plea from what would become his grave in less than 90 days, a lament for the folly that would destroy him and so many of his peers, an expression of hope that in their death they would not be forgotten.

     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 the war insane,

     Take one moment to embrace

     Those gentle heroes

     You left behind. . .

Capt. O'Donnell, a gentle hero, was left behind. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart for his gallantry, but eight years after his helicopter crashed into the jungle, he was still listed as missing in action. At that point his family seeking closure asked the Army to change his status to killed in action which it did while promoting him to major.

Weiss documents the pressure from veterans over the years that resulted in creation of the Joint Task Force—Full Accounting program (JTF-FA) in 1992 to find those still missing in places like Korea, Laos and Cambodia. Following an intensive search requiring considerable resources and manpower, the tail of his helicopter was found in a stream bed in the valley where O’Donnell had been shot down more than thirty years earlier.  

The collection of the remains of all those aboard 262 was completed in 1995, and six years later, he and his comrades were buried together in a joint grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Major Michael Davis O'Donnell will be remembered for his selfless heroism and intense devotion to the safety of his brothers in arms, but more for the time machine his poetry creates. Read a line or two, and you're back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, in that time when those eligible for the draft had little control over their lives, government policy objectives were based on deceptions, and so many people were being crushed needlessly because of America's fundamental misunderstanding of the history and politics of Indochina.

For more information regarding In That Time, please go to its website.

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