Rudy Morales Becerra was a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army when he was Missing in Action in Cambodia on 24 March 1970. Becerra was born on 29 October 1950, and his home city of record is Richmond, Texas. Becerra's remains were recovered in 1995 and identified in 2001.
SURVIVAL UNLIKELY - PER SAR
Leading up to the Incident
By early 1967, the Bell UH1 Iroquois was already the standard Army assault helicopter, and was used in nearly every "in-country" mission. Better known by its nickname "Huey," the troop carriers were referred to as "slicks" and the gunships were called "Hogs." It proved itself to be a sturdy, versatile aircraft which was called on to carry out a wide variety of missions including search and rescue, close air support, insertion and extraction, fire support, and resupply to name a few. It usually carried a crew of four.
Military Assistance Command Vietnam - Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) was a joint service high command unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA) that provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed highly classified, deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction that were called, depending on the time frame, "Salem House," "Daniel Boone," "Shining Brass" or "Prairie Fire" missions.
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 MACV-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 American and allied troops. With the Prince of Cambodia deposed, and the new Prime Minister, who was an avid enemy of the NVA, movements began immediately to seize control of the Cambodian countryside, thus denying the NVA their long-held supply routes and sanctuaries.
Plans were already underway to invade Cambodia with joint forces of American and ARVN forces later in the year. MACV-SOG teams from all three areas of operation - Command and Control Central (CCC), Command and Control North (CCN), and Command and Control South (CCS) - were to reconnoiter the interior of both Cambodia and southern Laos in preparation for the invasion, code named "Lam Son 719." Some of the most concentrated efforts of these initial reconnaissance missions were aimed at the communist's major sanctuaries in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia. This province was covered with triple canopy jungle that shielded most ground activity from aerial view. Coupled with the high and treacherously steep mountains that covered the entire sector, this made ground reconnaissance a necessity, as well as a dangerous and often fatal venture. Insertions and extractions were nearly always carried out by aircrews negotiating their helicopters over "hover holes" in the jungle canopy that required pilots to tightly maneuver and weave to enter and exit them. Rope and ladder or landing zone extractions that were located inside canyons and narrow valleys often appeared to be custom built by the enemy for cross fire ambushes that no amount of aerial coverage could prevent.
On 21 March 1970, just 3 days after Prince Schanouk was removed by the parliament and Lon Nol was installed as the Prime Minister, 1st Lt. Jerry L. Pool, team leader; SSgt. John A. Boronsky, assistant team leader; Sgt. Gary A. Harned, radio operator; and 5 Montagnard Commandos, comprised "Reconnaissance Team (RT) Pennsylvania," which was inserted by helicopter into Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia. The team's mission was to determine the size and movements of the NVA force that was seizing control over the province as well as the suspected NVA movements in neighboring provinces.
Within an hour of being inserted, RT Pennsylvania had been located by highly trained NVA Counter-Recon Hunter teams who were aggressively following them. Moving in a southwesterly direction away from their insertion point, the team fought through heavy jungle and the steep mountain terrain at an exhausting pace. Each time the team stopped, the pursuing NVA would catch up with them and a brief firefight would ensue. During these encounters, the NVA pushed the team deeper into the mountains to avoid capture.
The first night RT Pennsylvania managed to set up a small encampment and gain some much needed rest. However, by first light the team was moving again, this time with the NVA even closer than before, and frequently seemingly right behind them. By nightfall of the second day, 1st Lt. Pool and his team were on a constant dodge and ambush routine with a large force of pursuing NVA. All the team's efforts to evade the NVA failed. Finally at a point when the team reached a state of nearly total exhaustion, the communists incorporated dogs into their search effort.
On the morning of 24 March 1970, the members of RT Pennsylvania were losing ground fast. Jerry Pool radioed for an emergency Prairie Fire Extraction. His team had gone as far as they could and needed to either abort the rest of the mission or face death or capture. Under the circumstances, they could not evade much longer. After relaying their dire situation, the team resumed its evasive tactics up the side of the next mountain.
The Forward Air Controller (FAC) Air Force Capt. Melvin Irvin, pilot; and MSgt. Charles Septer, observer; call sign "Covey," flew over RT Pennsylvania's position. MSgt. Septer was in constant radio contact with the Americans on the ground. 1st Lt. Pool reported they had been "running and ambushing all morning, but their pursuers were right behind them." Charles Septer knew he had to get relief for the team or they were not going to make it. He called for close air support and soon a flight of A1-E Skyraiders, referred to as "Spads" when functioning as attack aircraft, arrived on the scene. With the protective air cover dropping CBU (cluster bomb units) and napalm around the team, they were able to place some distance between themselves and the advancing enemy.
The napalm slowed down the NVA, but it also started numerous fires in the dense growth of the jungle, these fires soon became as much of a threat as the advancing NVA. Jerry Pool reported that now both the fires and NVA were closing in on them. As the Spads worked overhead, Charles Septer devised an extraction plan. He radioed instructions to the team leader directing the team to move to the nearest available extraction LZ that was southwest of their position, near the bottom of a narrow valley with steep canyon walls. 1st Lt. Pool acknowledged the transmission and again emphasized the NVA were closing in and they were going to need more aerial coverage. At roughly 1130 hours, MSgt. Septer called Dak To for additional close air support.
Capt. Michael D. "Mike" O'Donnell, aircraft commander; WO1 John C. "Hippie" Hosken, pilot; then SP4 Rudy M. Becerra, crew chief; and SP4 Berman Ganoe, door gunner; comprised the crew of a UH1H helicopter (serial #68-15262), call sign "Red 3," in a flight of 4 Huey and 4 Cobra gunships conducting the emergency extraction mission for the RT Pennsylvania. All 8 of the helicopters were assigned to the 170th Aviation Company, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade.
WO1 James E. Lake, who flew the aircraft that originally inserted RT Pennsylvania, and veteran pilot/former Green Beret Johnny Kemper, flew Red Lead, the flight leader for the Hueys. WO1 Hosken, while shy and retiring, received his nickname from the little round glasses he wore. SP4 Berman and SP4 Ganoe were both veterans of many clandestine missions "over the fence" into the politically denied areas of Laos and Cambodia. Capt. O'Donnell was Red platoon leader, but flew Red Three because while senior in rank, he was junior in experience, so he flew in the wingman position rather than lead. This was because on many MACV-SOG missions, experience equated to survival for the aircrews and teams alike.
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 RT Pennsylvania's location to the gun team, and then gave coordinating references to the enemy positions based on the reports from 1st Lt. Pool. Immediately, the lead Cobra dove down to fire rockets along with its 40mm cannons and miniguns into NVA positions around RT Pennsylvania. The other gunship and the two Hueys orbited 1500 feet above the site, waiting for the team to reach the extraction LZ. The first Cobra soon expended its rockets and ammunition. The gunship withdrew from the area and flew to Dak To to rearm and refuel. On the ground, the situation facing RT Pennsylvania was deteriorating. Jerry 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, the team had to descend to the valley floor before moving southwest some distance.
In the sky above, WO1 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 Hueys would be forced to return for fuel. He instructed Capt. O'Donnell to remain on station as long as possible to provide air cover for the team on the ground while he returned to Dak To to rearm, refuel and collect the other two Hueys for the extraction. Racing back to Dak To, James Lake and Johnny Kemper discussed the best way to perform what was sure to be a red-hot extraction. Landing in Dak To, WO1 Lake briefed the other two aircrews on their situation. Not only was RT Pennsylvania in desperate need of extraction, but by the time they could return, Capt. O'Donnell and the other Cobras would need to refuel. Time was critical.
Approximately 45 minutes later, WO1 Lake and the other two Hueys were enroute back to the LZ. WO1 William H. Stepp and WO1 Alan Hoffman were the pilots of the two Hueys. Neither pilot had extensive experience and WO1 Hoffman was also new to Vietnam. Because of this, neither of them totally appreciated the situation until they were airborne and had crossed into Laos. The reality set in as the flight raced westward. The aircrews monitored the radio transmissions between the FAC and 1st Lt. Pool as the team's situation continued to deteriorate even further.
Those 45 minutes had been harrowing ones for RT Pennsylvania. In continuous contact with the enemy, they were running through the dense jungle toward the LZ. The extraction birds were now ten minutes away. As the team stumbled down a steep slope towards the valley floor, Jerry Pool fell injuring his ankle. He reported that the enemy was right behind them, the fires were closing in, and he could not move further. He asked MSgt. Septer where the extraction birds were. Charles Septer replied they were on their way. 1st Lt. Pool looked up to the sky and saw Mike O'Donnell's Huey orbiting the LZ, he desperately radioed, "You ain't got no balls at all if you don't come down and get us right now!"
The aircrews supporting MACV-SOG operations had a creed they lived by: "You take them in - you get them out!" Without hesitation, Mike O'Donnell told Charles Septer that he would make the extraction alone. James Lake heard the transmission and told Capt. O'Donnell the rest of the extraction force was minutes away and to wait for them to arrive. Mike O'Donnell's reply was simple, the men on the ground didn't have a few minutes and he was going in. Followed by a Cobra gunship, Capt. O'Donnell dropped down between the canyon walls, slowed and hovered over RT Pennsylvania. He waited at a hover while the team scrambled through the dense undergrowth toward his aircraft. As the minutes ticked by, James Lake and the others arrived overhead. After roughly four minutes on the ground - an eternity under the circumstances - Mike O'Donnell started to pull up and away from the LZ. Slowly gathering speed, he climbed skyward. At an altitude of approximately 200 feet above the ground he reported, "I've got all eight, I'm coming out." The other aircrews heaved a collective sigh of relief. Suddenly and without warning, Mike O'Donnell's helicopter exploded in flames. Raining parts as its momentum carried it forward; the Huey continued some three hundred meters beyond the point of contact before it crashed in the jungle.
After a moment of stunned disbelief, the first voice over the radio was that of Cobra pilot Capt. Michael Jimison who was following Mike O'Donnell's Huey down the valley. He said, "I didn't see a piece bigger than my head." Capt. 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, WO1 Lake watched a white streak flash behind the lead Cobra exploding against the far wall of the canyon. At the end of the pass, Capt. 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. James Lake decided to make a closer investigation of the crash site. He ordered the other helicopters to remain in high orbit while 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 located at the bottom of a valley with steep walls that was populated by hundreds of NVA soldiers who were pouring out small arms and automatic weapons 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 burning wreckage. There was nowhere to land and hovering was certain death. James Lake and Johnny 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 the Huey or the 200 foot fall that followed it. WO1 Lake made a max power climb-out from the valley, and reluctantly turned away and ordered the flight to return to Dak To. At the time the immediate search effort was terminated, Mike O'Donnell, John Hoskins, Rudy Becerra, Berman Ganoe, Jerry Pool, John Boronski and Gary Harned plus the indigenous team members were immediately listed Missing in Action. Due to the area of loss being deep within enemy held territory, no further search and rescue/recovery operation was possible.
The Huey's wreckage was also located approximately 3 miles southeast of the Cambodian/Lao border, 15 miles west of the Cambodian/South Vietnamese, 23 miles southwest of the tri-border junction to Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam and 35 miles west-southwest of Dak To, South Vietnam.
Recovering the Crash Site and the Crew
On 16 November 1993, during JFA 94-2C, a joint team under the auspices of the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting (JTFFA) traveled to Cambodia to investigate this loss incident. The team landed by helicopter on the top of the small hill about 500 meters south of the valley in which the Huey's wreckage was located. As the team moved to the crash site through the dense jungle and rugged terrain, it took them 2 ½ hours to travel the distance of only one-kilometer. The team searched the area, but found no evidence of a crash site.
On 18 January 1994, another JTFFA team interviewed Le Thanh Minh, a Vietnamese resident of Kontum, South Vietnam. Le Thanh Minh reported that in April 1993 he found the crash site in Cambodia while looking for aluminum. 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 also reported that the crash site was spread over a 100-meter area and the tail section was visible and engraved with the number "262." He gave the dog tags to the team, two belonged to Berman Ganoe and one belonged to John Hoskins. The remains consisted of 15 small bone fragments.
Later in 1994, a JTFFA recovery team located and began excavating the crash site based upon information provided by Le Thanh Minh. As the work progressed, the American team members noted that the site had obviously been heavily scavenged over many years. Other joint teams returned to the site twice in 1995 and once again in 1998 to complete the excavation. During the various trips to Cambodia, US personnel also interviewed a variety of local residents of the region about the crash site and the fate of its crew and passengers. When questioned, the villagers would frequently say things like, "Oh yes, we've gotten some stuff from there," then they would produce remains, equipment and/or wreckage.
In January 1998, the recovery team entered the crash site for the final time. At the time the excavation site was closed, the team members believed they were able to recover all human remains, dog tags, weapons, other personal effects, pieces of equipment and aircraft wreckage that was left at the crash site. In addition to the material recovered during the excavation, on several occasions human remains and material was recovered from local villagers as well as Vietnamese bones brokers. One bone fragment associated with this loss was actually sent into the Defense Prisoner and Missing Office (DPMO), Washington, DC; and from there it was sent via US mail to the US Army's Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIL-HI).
The remains recovered included 18 teeth/parts of teeth and a large number of bone fragments of varying sizes representing bones from every portion of the body and included some complete ribs and a scapula and were transported to the CIL-HI for forensic examination by the laboratory's staff. After a thorough examination and testing, CIL-HI forensic personnel concluded that only 3 bone fragments could be positively identified through mt-DNA to Mike O'Donnell, 3 teeth and 1 bone fragment to John Hosken, 2 teeth and 1 bone fragment to Rudy Becerra; and 5 teeth and 2 bone fragments to Berman Ganoe. No teeth or bone fragments were matched to Jerry Pool, Gary Harned or John Boronski's dental records or their family's DNA samples.
On 16 August 2001, a group burial was conducted at Arlington National Cemetery for Mike O'Donnell, John Hoskins, Rudy Becerra, Berman Ganoe, Jerry Pool, John Boronski, Gary Harned and the five Montagnard team members with the names of all seven Americans on the headstone. On 19 August 2001, those individually identified remains for Rudy Becerra were interred at the family burial plot at Greenlawn Cemetery, Rosenberg, Texas.
Michael O'Donnell was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on 24 March 1970. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as well as promoted to the rank of Major following his loss incident.
For more information, including newspaper articles, please visit Becerra's bio page at pownetwork.org.
Biographical and incident of loss information was obtained from either POW/NET and/or Task Force Omega, Inc (unless otherwise noted). Additional information may be found via remembrances at The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund or The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial.