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.”