DUNWOODY, Ga. — For 14 years, Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie was buried at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Thanks to DNA evidence and the unwavering perseverance of his family, Blassie was identified and reburied in 1998. His sister, Patricia Blassie shared the family’s story with the Dunwoody-based World War II Roundtable on Feb. 20.
Patricia enlisted in the Air Force just a few years after Michael died in South Vietnam. Because of money and expectations for women at the time, she said she never thought she would go to college until a military recruiter expanded her vision of her future.
“My mother was very upset,” She said. “My father didn’t think I would make it through basic training.”
Contrary to her father’s expectations, Patricia Blassie served in the Air Force for 37 years and rose to the rank of colonel.
The oldest of five, Michael Blassie graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. In May 1972, while flying his 132nd mission, Michael’s plane was shot down about 60 miles north of Saigon.
His family was notified that he was shot by ground enemy fire and likely died before the aircraft crashed. Rescue teams were unable to find his body at that time. Patricia said her family was devastated.
About five months later, a South Vietnamese patrol found partial skeletal remains in the area of the crash. They also found an ID card, dog tags and a wallet identifying Michael Blassie. His family was not informed.
The remains were transferred to the Saigon Mortuary. At some point, Blassie’s ID card and some of the artifacts that were recovered with the remains were lost. Later, the remains were reclassified “X-26” after bone analysis estimated the age and height of the remains did not to match Blassie’s.
In 1973, Congress passed a law calling for a Vietnam soldier to be buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns, but no remains fit the requirements. Under increasing political pressure, X-26 was selected for burial in Arlington in 1984, in spite of evidence that the remains belonged to Michael Blassie.
“There are very specific criteria, as it says on the Tomb of the Unknown, it’s ‘Known but to God,’” Patricia Blassie said. “There should be no identifiable characteristics or artifacts, but that was not adhered to.”
President Ronald Regan presided over the funeral ceremony and acted as the next of kin, accepting the interment flag on behalf of the nation.
In the 1990s, the Blassie family began receiving calls from investigative reporters who suspected the “Unknown Soldier” could be their son and brother. Patricia Blassie, then a captain at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, initially dismissed the theory as crazy, she said.
“I said my mother cannot keep getting phone calls like this,” she said. “It’s just too difficult.”
The family allowed CBS reporter Vince Gonzales to submit Freedom of Information Act requests on documents pertaining to Michael Blassie.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, but we were surprised by what we weren’t told,” Patricia said.
Once Patricia had gathered and reviewed the evidence, the family sat down to decide what to do next. The four siblings argued: Would anyone even care? Was it worth the trouble? Was it not an honor to be buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns?
“My mother was very patient,” Patricia said. “She waited for us to quit our bantering, and she just said, ‘I want to bring my son home.’”
A task force reviewed the Blassies’ case, and in May 1998, the remains were disinterred for DNA testing. The test returned a 99.9 percent match.
“Whatever it takes, a mother will do,” Patricia said. “She gave her blood so they could perform this test, but she would tell you if she was living today that this was not for her. It was for the media, for Congress, for the American public. We knew where he was.”
Michael Blassie’s remains were returned to his family, and another funeral was held for him in St. Louis.
Patricia Blassie admitted the mishandling of her brothers remains left her disillusioned with her country and her own years of service to the Air Force. However, she says the family’s story is an encouraging reminder of what can be accomplished with a unified force.
“I thought I was going to get out, but that would have been the wrong thing to do,” she said. “I’d rather know the truth, as hard as the truth is sometimes.”
The World War II Roundtable meets on the third Thursday of months September through June at Dunwoody United Methodist Church to socialize, eat lunch and hear guest speakers on World War II history. Social time begins at 10:45 a.m. with speakers beginning at noon.