Name: Samuel O'Donnell, Jr. 
Rank/Branch: Captain/US Air Force 
Unit: 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron                         
Ubon Air base, Thailand 

Date of Birth: 28  January 1946
Home of Record: Weatherly, PA
Date of Loss: 12 July 1972 
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 174300N 1062900E (XE573593)
Click coordinates to view maps

Status in 1973: Missing in Action 
Category: 4
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F4E "Phantom II"
Other Personnel In Incident: James L. Huard (remains returned) 


SYNOPSIS:  The McDonnell F4 Phantom used by Air Force, Marine and Navy air wings served a multitude of functions including fighter/bomber, interceptor, photo/electronic surveillance, and reconnaissance. The two man aircraft was extremely fast (Mach 2) and had a long range, 900 - 2300 miles depending on stores and mission type. The F4 was also extremely maneuverable and handled well at low and high altitudes. It was selected for a number of state-of-the-art electronics conversions, which improved radar intercept and computer bombing capabilities enormously. Most pilots considered it one of the "hottest" planes around.

It was well known by the summer of 1972 that the war was drawing to a close, and that the North Vietnamese were offering huge bonuses to anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) gunners who could shoot down American aircraft and capture the aircrews alive. At this stage in the war our enemy knew the more men they could capture, the better their chances were at the negotiating table to secure peace on their terms. Everyone knew the prisoners were worth much more alive than dead to both sides.

On 12 July 1972, 1st Lt. James L. Huard, pilot; and Capt. Samuel O'Donnell, Jr., weapons systems officer; comprised the crew of an F-4E, call sign was "Wolf 08," conducting an early morning single aircraft armed reconnaissance mission to interdict NVA troops and supplies moving across the Rao Nay River. Their mission sector was described as the Quang Khe Ferry Area, Quang Binh Province, North Vietnam.

At 0730 hours, Wolf 08 entered the target area. Capt. Huard immediately contacted the airborne battlefield command and control center (ABCCC) to obtain their first assignment. During this radio contact, which was also the last communication with Capt. Huard and 1st Lt. O'Donnell, the aircrew reported no problems with the aircraft or their mission assignment. Weather conditions in the target area included scattered clouds with bases ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 feet and visibility of 6 miles.

The ABCCC directed Wolf 08 to investigate enemy activity in and around the Quang Khe Ferry that crossed the Rao Nay River as well as the terrain along Highway 1 north of the river toward Vinh and south toward the major port city of Dong Hoi.

When the Phantom failed to return to Ubon Airbase by 0900 hours, the estimated time its fuel supply would have been exhausted, Wolf 08 was declared overdue. The ABCCC attempted to make radio contact with Capt. Huard and 1st Lt. O'Donnell, but all attempts met with negative results. An extensive aerial visual and electronic search and rescue (SAR) mission was immediately initiated and continued over the next three days. The entire region in and around the Phantom's last known position was thoroughly searched by air along with Wolf 08's briefed egress route back to base.

According to one report provided to the men's families, during the subsequent SAR operation, one of the aircrew's involved in it reported he believed he heard a faint emergency signal emanating from a densely populated and heavily defended area south the Rao Nay River. However, no radio contact could be established with either James Huard or Samuel O'Donnell.

The families were also told that the Phantom "went down in a reservoir and that some time later when it was drained, the wreckage of the aircraft was found. However, when it was examined, no evidence that either crewman stayed with the aircraft and died in it was found." At the time the formal search was terminated on 15 July 1972, James Huard and Samuel O'Donnell were listed Missing in Action.

The last contact with the Phantom placed it just west of Highway 1, less then a mile south of the Rao Nay River and approximately 1 mile west of the coastline. It was also 18 miles north-northwest of Dong Hoi, 34 miles northeast of the Ban Karai Pass and 87 miles south-southeast of Vinh.

This sector of the North Vietnamese coastal plain was laced with roads of various sizes running in different directions linking not only the populated civilian areas together, but connecting the major communist manufacturing and supply centers, storage facilities and railway system with each other. Further, the entire region was deemed critical to the NVA war effort because of its logistical importance. The Ban Karai Pass was one of two major ports of entry into the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and the one used by the communists to transport the material from this part of North Vietnam through Laos and into South Vietnam.

When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

In 1988 the North Vietnamese unilaterally turned over three boxes reportedly containing the remains of American POW/MIAs. The three boxes were identified simply as "1988-230,1988-233 and 1988-234." At the same time, the North Vietnamese turned over Capt. O'Donnell's military identification card. These boxes were transported to the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI) for examination.

CIL-HI personnel were able to obtain mt-DNA samples from the bone fragments in box 1988-230, but the DNA sequences did not match the DNA samples provided by Huard and O'Donnell families. The bone fragments in boxes 1988-233 and 1988-234 proved to be from the same person and subsequently combined under the identifier 1988-233. These remains did not include teeth or parts of teeth. The bones are fragmentary, but include portions of long bones that show signs of fracturing at the time of loss. Through mt-DNA comparison, the remains of James Huard were positively identified on 17 January 1997. They were returned to his family shortly thereafter for burial.

While the family of James Huard finally has the peace of mind of knowing where their loved one lies, there are no answers to the fate of Samuel O'Donnell. If he is also dead, he has the right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country. However, if he survived, there is no doubt he would have been captured and his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.

Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE American Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.

Pilots and aircrews in Vietnam were called upon to fly in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.