Wednesday, January 21, 1998
LT. MICHAEL BLASSIE IS REMEMBERED AS A DEDICATED PILOT, GOOD FRIEND LIFE ON PLAYING FIELDS HERE ENDED IN DEATH IN VIETNAM
By Michael D. Sorkin And Tim O'Neil Of The Post-Dispatch
of the men who flew in battle with Michael Blassie in Vietnam recalls the
young pilot from St. Louis as "a good stick and a good guy," a volunteer
who believed in his country and was ready to die for it.
Blassie did die; his aircraft was shot down in May 1972.
"We were all ready to give our lives," said Mel Ledbetter. He was a lieutenant colonel in Blassie's Air Force squadron and the outfit's No. 2 officer.
Ledbetter, now living in Nashville, Tenn., expressed surprise at reports this week that the armed forces had first identified Blassie's body, then lost his identification and eight years later reclassified the body as unidentified.
The Pentagon has begun an investigation to find out if Blassie is the unidentified Vietnam veteran in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
"Military people are very, very loyal to one another," Ledbetter said. "The last thing you would want to do is cause any grief to a family that has lost a son."
Mistakes can happen. "In retrospect, in the haze of war . . . we don't really know what happened, he said.
"If Mike is there" in the tomb, "his mother just wants to bring him home," Ledbetter said. "If he's not there, we know that he's definitely somewhere. I just hope that the family can get some closure."
Blassie's mother, Jean F. Blassie, lives in Florissant. Ledbetter has kept in touch with the family.
Blassie flew more than 130 missions in an A-37 attack plane. The plane was built as a small, twin-engine jet trainer, known as the "Tweet," and then outfitted with bombs, napalm, explosives and a 7.62 mm machine gun that could fire 3,000 rounds a minute.
The plane could turn on a dime and run even if one engine gave out, Ledbetter recalled.
He and Blassie served in the 8th Special Operations Squadron, the equivalent of the old air commandos. When not flying, the men wore bush hats with a raised flap.
The unit flew out of Bien Hoa, northwest of Saigon. Blassie was shot down over An Loc, near the Cambodian border.
"We were proud of our kill-ratio," Ledbetter said. "We were glad to be there."
He said Blassie lost his life doing what he wanted to do. "It's a pity that you've got to sustain losses - but we all understood that."
Blassie grew up in north St. Louis and attended grade school at the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, roughly halfway between O'Fallon Park and the water tower on East Grand Avenue. He was a standout soccer player in grade school and sold the weekend newspapers at Warne and West Florissant avenues.
Blassie's father, the late George Blassie, was a meat-cutter at the old McHenry Meat Co. The late Nick Blassie, longtime president of Meatcutters Local 88, was an uncle, as was the late John Blassie, a former state representative.
He went to St. Louis University High School. As a senior, he was a starter at fullback and halfback on the soccer team. He also was on the track and tennis teams, and the school band, where he played the bassoon. He graduated in 1966.
From there, he went to the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., where he graduated as a second lieutenant in 1970. He played soccer there, too.
Ebbie Dunn, Blassie's soccer coach at SLU High, remembered him as an "excellent soccer player, a hard worker." Dunn said Blassie also did well as a student in his junior algebra-trigonometry class.
Dunn said Blassie had grown up wanting to be a pilot. "When he got into the academy, he was completely satisfied, and his mom and dad were tickled," Dunn said. "Mike went there to fly."
High school classmates described him as serious but friendly. "He was happy and would greet everybody," said Charles Payer Jr. of west St. Louis County. "Like `Sara Lee,' nobody didn't like Mike Blassie."
At the Air Force Academy, cadets got to write their own testimonials for the yearbook, the Polaris, an academy spokesman said. Blassie's senior yearbook included these jaunty lines: "Mike was an average student through his first three years at the academy, but the dean's list is still a remote possibility with the influence of the psychology department."
Jim Schulte, 52, was three years older than Blassie but grew up with him and went to the same high school. Schulte said Blassie was a good soccer player but also excelled at tennis.
"He could set a goal for himself and reach it," Schulte said.
Blassie had three sisters and a brother: Judith A. Cozard of Chesterfield, Mary E. Hart of Florissant, Patricia S. Blassie of Atlanta and George J. Blassie of St. Peters.
They looked up to their older brother, and when he returned on leave he led them in exercise: sit-ups and a run around the block.
"We did it," said his sister Pat.