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Lieutenant
Michael Blassie


Unknown 
No Longer

 

On May 11, 1972 Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael John Blassie piloted his A-37B Dragonfly aircraft in the vicinity of An Loc, in South Vietnam.  He was flying wing for Major James Connally, the flight commander.  Lieutenant Blassie, who entered service from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri was a 1970 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and was assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron in Vietnam.  On this day he was flying support for an ARVN (Army of South Vietnam) ground unit besieged at An Loc in the latter days of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Easter Offensive of 1970.

Major Connally and a Forward Air Controller watched helplessly as ground fire from 23mm anti-aircraft fire struck Blassie's plane during an attacking run on enemy positions.  The A-37B rolled, turned upside down, crashed and exploded.  Returning to base, Connally reported having seen no sign of ejection.  No parachute had been witnessed, and no emergency radio signals had been broadcast.

Immediate recovery attempts were launched, but Lieutenant Blassie had crashed in an area heavily controlled by enemy forces and it was impossible to examine the crash site.  With eyewitness accounts of the crash and explosion, and with no evidence that Lieutenant Blassie had survived, he was classed as Killed In Action, Body Not Recovered, and his family back home was notified of the tragic loss.

The day was a sad one that would haunt Blassie's parents, brother George and sisters Judy, Pat and Mary, as well as extended family, for the years that followed.  Brother George recalled:  "One of the last conversations I remember having with Michael, I pointed to this picture of an A-37 and asked him how someone could possibly shoot it down.  He pointed to the guy in the cockpit and said they'd have to shoot HIM.  I had a sense of security when my brother told me that.  I didn't have any fear he would die."

Lieutenant Michael Blassie was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart Medal, which was added to his Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.


 

In October, five months after Lieutenant Michael Blassie had crashed near An Loc, ARVN forces regained control of the area.  During a sweep they discovered a crash site from which they recovered a few human bones (pelvis, upper arm bone and some ribs), as well as pieces of a parachute and remnants of a flight suit, life raft, and part of an USAF holster.  The remains and the associated items were turned over to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CIHLI) for possible identification.

The bones were confirmed to be of a Caucasian who was similar in height and weight to Lieutenant Blassie, and were originally marked "BTB  (Believe To Be) Lt. Blassie".  Other aircraft had gone down in the vicinity on or near the May 11th date of Lieutenant Blassie's crash however, and conflicting evidence indicated that the remains recovered might be those of another lost airman.  Ultimately the remains recovered in October 1972 were designated "Unknown" and marked "X-26".


 

In 1973 Congress passed Public Law 93-43 directing the Secretary of Defense to inter an unknown American serviceman from the Vietnam Conflict at The Tomb of the Unknowns.  The sophisticated identification techniques utilized by CILHI had become remarkably efficient, and it took until 1984 before remains of an American serviceman were classified as unidentifiable.  Those remains were identified only by the designation "X-26" and consisted of a few bones, a piece of parachute, and a few other remnants of an American flier.

During ceremonies at Pearl Harbor on May 17, 1984, Sgt. Maj. Allan Kellogg, Jr., A Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War, placed a wreath before a casket containing these remains, formally designating the Unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War.  The coffin was placed aboard the USS Brewton for transport to the mainland United States where the unknown arrived at the U.S. Capitol on May 25, 1984 to lay in state for three days in the Rotunda.

Funeral Procession the the Vietnam War UnknownOn Memorial Day, May 28, 1984, an elaborate funeral procession paid tribute as the body of the Unknown Soldier was transported to the Memorial Amphitheater on an Army caisson.  

President Ronald Reagan presided over the funeral and presented the Medal of Honor to the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War.  In the custom of the past, the President also acted as next of kin by accepting the burial flag at the end of the ceremony.  (The interment flags of all Unknowns at the Tomb of the Unknowns are on view in the Memorial Display Room.)

The Vietnam Unknown was then borne to the plaza and following religious rites, a 21 Gun Salute was rendered.  The solemn service concluded with 3 volleys of rifle fire, followed by the sounding of Taps and the Unknown Vietnam War hero was laid to rest before the sarcophagus and between his comrades of World War II and Korea.


 

A decade after the Vietnam War Unknown was laid to rest, a stranger called the home of George Blassie, now an adult.  The caller indicated that the remains of the Vietnam Unknown might be identified and said, "I think your brother's in the tomb."  The caller then forwarded a copy of a book written by Susan Sheehan in 1986 titled A Missing Plane.  In her book Susan Sheehan indicated described the recovery by a reconnaissance team of six bones and remnants of paraphernalia that indicated the bones belonged to a fighter pilot, near a town 60 miles north of Saigon.  The caller also sent George a list of all those Americans killed near An Loc on May 11, 1972.  The only fighter pilot on that list was Lieutenant Michael Blassie.

Media attention surrounding the possible identity of the Unknown Vietnam Soldier increased over the years and in August 1997 a CBS News reporter obtained permission from the family to dig deeper into the mystery.  He traced the trail of the remains of X-26  back to the time at which they had been initially designated "BTB Lieutenant Blassie".  That information convinced the family that, despite opposition from some veterans groups, they had an obligation to pursue the matter.  It was their firm belief that if one of them had been missing, Michael himself would not have rested until he had uncovered their full story.

It took several months before the U.S. Government finally agreed to open the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War.  On May 7, 1998 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen announced the opening of the grave.  "We disturb this hallowed ground with profound reluctance," he stated, "and we take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedoms we cherish."

On May 13, twenty-six years and two days after Lieutenant Blassie was shot down over South Vietnam, the body of X-26 was exhumed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for Mitochondrial DNA testing (which had not been available 26 years earlier), to determine an identity.  On June 30 Secretary Cohen called the family to notify them that indeed, the bones that had rested in the Tomb of the Unknown for twenty-six years were those of Lieutenant Michael Blassie.  After the family's acceptance of the identification, on July 8 Secretary Cohen announced the identification to America.


 

On July 10, 1998 an MC-130 airplane from Lieutenant Blassie's unit the 8th Special Operations Squadron, transported Michael Blassie home to St. Louis.  The following morning Air Force jets flew over the grave site at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, one of them peeling away in the Missing Man Formation, a final tribute to one of their own.  After an emotional funeral service attended by the family of Michael Blassie, government and military dignitaries, and somber brothers-in-arms, Michael Blassie was laid to rest with full military honors.

The Unknown Soldier was unknown no longer.


Michael Blassie's mother, a brother and sister visit his grave.

NOTE:  Though Lieutenant Blassie's family petitioned for the Medal of Honor that was conferred upon the then Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam war in 1984, it was determined that the award was a representative one and their petition was denied.  The Medal of Honor remains associated with the empty Tomb at Arlington.

Nearly two thousand American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from the Vietnam War remain Missing in Action and unaccounted for.  Though recovery efforts to find their remains continue in Southeast Asia, advances in technology and the diligent efforts of the CILHI make it unlikely that there will ever be another truly unknown soldier.

At the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, the crypt of the Vietnam War unknown will remain therefore, symbolically enough, empty.  A new covering was placed above the crypt on September 17, 1999 with words etched into its face to remind of of these men who, unlike Michael Blassie, have not yet returned home..


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