2012-09-28 / People

Event was years in the making

Vietnam-era helicopter arrives for POW/MIA Recognition Weekend
By David Arenstam
Contributing Writer

Larry Russell, executive director of the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, stands next to the Vietnam-era Cobra Attack helicopter his group restored. (David Arenstam photo) Larry Russell, executive director of the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, stands next to the Vietnam-era Cobra Attack helicopter his group restored. (David Arenstam photo) OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Most of the crowd assembled at The Ballpark on Saturday knew that Russ Warriner had been organizing and working toward this weekend for a long time.

Few realized it had been 44 years.

“Feb. 4, 1968,” said the soft-spoken Old Orchard Beach resident. “That’s the last time we saw him.”

He was referring to Michael O’Connor, his friend and comrade who was shot down and taken prisoner during the Tet Offensive that year.

O’Connor spent the next five years as a prisoner of war and was finally released on March 5, 1973.

The POW/MIA Recognition Weekend Warriner organized honored all of the men and women, from any conflict, who were captured or put on the nation’s list of soldiers missing in action.

But the weekend was dedicated to O’Connor.

Early Saturday morning, with a Vietnam era Cobra helicopter overlooking the field, dignitaries from the state gathered to honor the servicemen and women.

Maine’s First Lady, Ann LePage, read a proclamation signed by her husband, Gov. Paul LePage, officially declaring Sept. 21, 22, and 23 as POW/MIA Recognition Weekend in the state of Maine.

“We commit to always remember and never forget the human and emotional sacrifices made by so many,” LePage said.

Warriner certainly never forgot. He and O’Connor were assigned to the same helicopter crew in Vietnam; O’Connor was a pilot and Warriner was the crew chief and door gunner.

As the crew chief, Warriner routinely inspected the ship after every 150 hours of flight time to ensure that it was still airworthy. On that day in February, he pulled his ship from the line for inspection and O’Connor and the rest of the crew were temporarily assigned to another helicopter.

During the inspection, the other helicopter was shot down and O’Connor was the only survivor. For more than a day and a half the wounded pilot from a small town outside of Stockton, Calif. evaded the enemy. Exhausted and near death, he was finally captured and taken north.

“We didn’t know what happened to him,” said Warriner.

“I actually saw him get off the plane in ‘73,” said Tom Johnson, a retired pilot and member of the same unit in Vietnam. “I couldn’t believe it was him. He’d lost a lot of weight, but it was him.”

Johnson, Warriner and other members of their unit didn’t connect with their friend for many years.

“I think he really tried to put it in the past,” Johnson explained.

On Sept. 20, Johnson, Warriner and three members of their unit waited anxiously atPortland International Jetport for their comrade. As the announcement was made that his plane had arrived, they all stood and quietly watched for the passengers.

With smiles, hugs and more than a few tears, the men greeted O’Connor. As cameras clicked and lights flashed, people gathered around the small group of 60- year-old men wondering if there was a celebrity in their midst. To the men of the Aerial Rocket Artillary, members of the 1st Air Calvary Division, there was.

His name is Mike O’Connor.

“This is why our country is the greatest,” said O’Connor to the assembled crowd on Saturday. “We never forget.”

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