Air Force Col. Patricia Blassie rolls a black suitcase into the living room of her neatly furnished home near Denver. She opens it and pulls out a piece of nylon flight suit.
“This was Michael’s,” she says, carefully placing it on the coffee table before reaching back into the suitcase.
Out comes part of a pistol holster, followed by a portion of parachute, then a flattened one-man life raft that she unfolds on the floor. After all this time, the rubber raft is stiff and cracked.
These reminders of the last seconds of her brother’s life were found in South Vietnam, where his plane crashed in flames 40 years ago. Surprisingly, none appears burned. Patricia Blassie thinks she knows why.
After her brother’s A-37 jet was hit by enemy fire, it went into an inverted nosedive. “He probably ejected upside down, and the parachute and life raft went with him.”
The survival gear and a few personal belongings were found months later, not far from the crash site. Also recovered were six human bones, originally identified as her brother’s, then reclassified as “unknown.” It would take decades, but eventually those bones would do more than provide answers the Blassie family had been waiting for; after years of official bungling and denial, they would help solve one of the U.S. military’s longest-running cases of mistaken identity.
Advances in science mean there will likely never be another American soldier lost in battle and “known but to God,” as the famous inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery reads. But during the Vietnam War, families of unaccounted-for casualties were often left in the dark, hoping for information that never came.
In post-Vietnam Washington, what began to matter most was putting the divisive conflict to rest, moving debate about Vietnam from politics to history by honoring an anonymous soldier killed in the war. The problem was finding one.
“In the end, all you have is your name,” says Patricia Blassie, as she packs away her brother’s things. “When that’s taken away, you’re left with nothing. We just wanted Michael’s name back.”
May 11, 1972
Lt. Michael Blassie, a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy, learned to fly A-37s at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. When he took off from the American base in Bien Hoa that May morning, Blassie, who had arrived in South Vietnam less than four months earlier to join the 8th Special Operations Squadron, had already flown 130 combat missions.
Shortly after starting his initial strike on an artillery position outside An Loc near the Cambodian border, a burst of tracer rounds was seen coming toward Blassie’s plane. His flight commander, Maj. James Connally, described what happened next in a letter to Blassie’s parents: “Mike’s aircraft was hit and began streaming fuel. He must have been killed instantly, because he did not transmit a distress call of any kind. The aircraft flew a short distance on its own and then slowly rolled over, exploding on impact in enemy-held territory.”
Other planes were dispatched to provide cover while an Army helicopter rescue team went in to inspect the wreckage. The team encountered such “a murderous hail of fire” it was forced to leave, wrote Connally.
The day following Blassie’s death, his parents in St. Louis were visited by an Air Force chaplain who informed them that their son had been killed in action, but his body could not be recovered.
That would be the same official explanation the Blassie family would hear for the next 26 years.
“My father, who served in Normandy during World War II, never got over losing Michael,” says Patricia Blassie, who was 13 years old when her brother, the oldest of five siblings, died. “He and Michael were very close. Dad set up a little memorial in the basement and would go down there all the time and just sit.” George Blassie, Michael’s father, died in 1991.
Nearly six months after Blassie’s plane was shot down, a South Vietnamese Army patrol located the crash site. A short distance away it made another discovery, reported in a radio log: “1 U.S. pilot’s body with ID Card, 1st LT BLASSIE, MICHAEL JOSEPH, and one Beacon radio and two compasses and one US flag and one parachute.” A rubber raft, portions of a holster and a flight suit were also found. The “body” consisted of six bone fragments.
Among the personal belongings recovered was a wallet. Inside was a photograph of Blassie’s family. The American operations officer in An Loc, Army Capt. William Parnell, kept the remains with him that night.
The next morning, the bones and other items were placed in a plastic bag and handed to a departing helicopter crew chief.