Focal Point - An Ice Cream Season: Letters from Pleiku

Published on Sunday, 16 March 2014 09:22 - Written by

DAVE BERRY, dvberry@tylerpaper.com

The war in Cambodia claimed Capt. Michael Davis O’Donnell a full week before Richard Nixon announced Americans were fighting there.

I watched the president perform on a grainy television, knowing for sure my lottery number of 183 would not be high enough.

Two years later, in uniform as an Army correspondent in Vietnam, I discovered the young helicopter pilot from Springfield, Illinois, through a collection of his poems he called “An Ice Cream Season: Letters From Pleiku .”

The war had claimed his body, and the jungle was keeping it hidden. But his words lived on, returning to America decades ahead of him.

One poem, the one that opens with “If you are able, save for them a place inside of you…” has become an unofficial tribute, almost an homage to veterans of that war. If you Google that first stanza, your search will yield 73,400 results. A search for Michael Davis O’Donnell nets 1,660,000 references. The verse helped dedicate “The Wall” in Washington, D.C., graces the flyleaves of dozens of books and runs over the credits of movies such as “Hamburger Hill.”

Tuesday night, in Palestine, I addressed the Dogwood Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. They knew the words; I wanted them to know the man.

On New Year’s Day 1970, in Dak To, Mike O’Donnell wrote this:

 

If you are able, save for 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 love 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.

 

Years later, I wrote my first column about him. Here’s how it went:

I knew his poetry would survive. Those quiet reflections couldn’t simply disappear. And as I read those words in Time’s special edition on Vietnam, my thoughts drifted back to two earlier encounters with O’Donnell; 13 years ago in Vietnam and last spring in the nation’s capital.

 

A day lost somewhere in the Pacific... 


There are no days 
 any of us can come back to. 


Friday was a day I never had at all...

 

I never knew the warrior. But I think I understood the poet. Maj. O’Donnell died in 1970, killed while piloting a rescue helicopter in South Vietnam. But his poetry touched something in me that even today I can’t explain. Until the Time article, I had read only one of his poems, one selection from a book he called “Letters from Pleiku.” The poem and a short story about O’Donnell appeared in Stars and Stripes . I tucked the article away in my wallet.

 

On the days there is no mail from you 


I sit quietly in my room and reread what I have... 


Because I love you. 


I am alone for the first time in my life...

 

I carried that tattered and worn poem for 13 years, but I didn’t rediscover my poet friend until last spring, a name among the more than 58,000 names etched in the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I went to “the wall” looking for his name ... and for something more, something personal.

 

Sometimes there is not one thing worth feeling... 


Some feelings are not worth a thing. 


I will not recall this day except to add it to a growing number not worth recalling. 


They all become the same in the end...

 

So many names. Each one special to someone. Each one gone forever. Emotions come to the surface quickly. And as you study the names, trace them with your fingers, and remember... your own image is reflected back. A sobering experience. I found his name. Just above eye level on Panel 2W, Row 40. His name and a small MIA cross. Michael Davis O’Donnell never came home.

 

Heaven knows I’m not so proud of everything I’ve done... 


I mean I’ve let some people down. 


And heaven knows there’s so many things left I’ve got to do...

 

From my wallet, I pulled the clipping, worn and brown from years of carrying. I read it once more and attached it to the wall next to his name. Then, heart pounding and eyes stinging, I walked away.

 

God knows I’m not so sure of Him these days. 


He also knows why people are bleeding to death in the back of my helicopter... 


And he understands how we can wash the floor clean 
 and just one day later forget He knows anything at all...

 

I left it there ... a small brown scrap of paper fluttering in the Washington breeze. The warrior didn’t come home. But the poet did.

 

###

 

Back then, I knew little more than the brief military report of what led to his death. It said that on March 24, 1970, helicopters of the 170th Aviation Company were sent to extract an eight-man Special Forces long-range reconnaissance team involved in a running firefight 14 miles inside Cambodia.

O’Donnell circled above, covering the lead helicopters. Thick cover prevented a rescue, and the ground team fought to reach a clearing. Low on fuel, the lead helicopters returned to Dak To for refueling, leaving O’Donnell and his three-man crew on station.

When the leader of the Special Forces team radioed that his team would be wiped out if not brought out immediately, O’Donnell decided to go in. It took only four minutes to load the endangered Special Forces team, and O’Donnell radioed he had all eight and was coming out. Ascending, the helicopter was hit by heavy enemy gunfire. Two explosions rocked the craft, sending it – and the dozen men aboard – crashing into the jungle, where it burst into flames.

Enemy gunfire thwarted all attempts to reach the crash site by air or on the ground. With no sign of life, but no proof the men were dead, the Army declared the crew missing in action.

In 1978, their status was changed to killed in action, but their bodies remained lost in Cambodia for more than two decades. Remains were finally discovered in 1995, but positive identification through DNA tests would took another six years. They would not be returned to their families until June 2001, just three months before the terror attacks of 9-11 brought America another decade of war.

Over the years, I looked for more information, finding just enough to keep me digging. In 1982, columnist Anne Keegan wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Mike O’Donnell was the boy next door. He lived next door to my grandmother in a comfortable white house shaded in back by an old cottonwood tree.” They moved to Springfield, she wrote, “to a tree-lined street in a part of town Norman Rockwell would have liked to paint.” Before moving to Illinois, Michael lived in Shorewood, Wisconsin, where he captained the high school wrestling team, ran cross-country and served on student council.

He was a likeable guy. The men of his helicopter company were grieving over the loss of 18 men in a span of two weeks when one of them discovered his notebook and the 22 poems among his personal effects. They shared, protected and brought them home.

Many who knew or wish they had known the young pilot thanked me for caring. Others – like Judy Swanson of Connecticut, mother of a soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan – wanted to help and sent copies of all 22 poems. She got them from Christopher Warren, who was in Michael’s unit but on R&R at the time of the crash. Warren wrote on the Virtual Wall in 2004 that “his death still pains me.”

Peter Tracey wrote me in 2012 after finding my original column posted on O’Donnell’s page of the Virtual Wall (www.virtualwall.org ). “We spent our last days together prior to me leaving for basic training the U.S. Navy and Mike shipping out for Vietnam. This was in October 1969 and I remember we saw the movie ‘Midnight Cowboy’ on the last night… I am still haunted by his loss.”

Tracey said O’Donnell played guitar and sang popular folk songs. He was an interesting contrast between Army officer and musician/poet, “a mix between his very straight-laced father and his very kind, sweet mom.” Neither Tracey nor O’Donnell thought they were living up the expectations of their fathers, Tracey confided. “But who does?”

Jane Fulkerson, who forwarded stacks of information, sent a copy of the letter O’Donnell wrote to his friend Marcus, who served in Vietnam as a combat engineer. The letter contained the “If you are able…” poem he had written New Year’s Day 1970. “I am sorry to report,” O’Donnell confided to his friend, “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.”

Michael Davis O’Donnell never set out to make a political statement. He never thought his notebook, in which he scribbled his inner thoughts, would be seen by more than a few of his friends. But Vietnam veterans have universally embraced him as someone who put into writing what many could only feel. This final poem, one he calls, Letters from Kontum , would be his last.

 

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.

18 mar70 mdo

 

Six days later, Michael Davis O’Donnell would be dead.

I have found the world to be full of gentle heroes. I wish we knew them all a little better.

###

Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every week. Thanks for reading.