July 15, 1998
MICHAEL BLASSIE: STILL A SYMBOL
14 years, First Lt. Michael J. Blassie of Florissant was the unknown soldier
of the Vietnam War. Now that his remains are buried in the Jefferson Barracks
National Cemetery, he can still be a symbol - a symbol of what we know
about the men who fought in America's longest war.
His funeral Saturday morning was a celebration not only of one life but of the good lives that we want to believe young Americans of all races, backgrounds and religious beliefs live in the service of their country.
Blassie was from a working-class family, as were most Americans who wore uniforms in Vietnam. Often, though not always, those who went to Vietnam were teen-agers and men in their early 20s who believed that when your government asks you to serve your country, you do.
The men who fought in Vietnam usually respected something higher than themselves. Some, like Blassie, believed in helping other Americans who were caught up in the war. They went because, at the bottom of their hearts, they believed it was the right thing to do.
Blassie saw in the military a way to get better things in his life - an education, a career. As a graduate of the Air Force Academy who won his appoint-ment on merit alone, Blassie was career officer material. Before he died at 24, he had accepted the essential military bargain: Serve your country and perhaps die. But die courageously, and you will be honored the military way.
Many who attended his funeral Saturday accepted that bargain. They came to pay their respects to a man whose bravery, sense of duty and love of his country and family were as obvious as the high tributes paid him. This was a man whose father was a meat cutter and who leaped at the Air Force Academy as a way to get a first-class education, the training and experien ce of a combat-seasoned pilot.
He never questioned the military bargain. He also knew that other young men just like himself may have depended on his courage and ability to act under extreme conditions.
If you took the oath of military service, you could not let your allies down. Blassie knew there were Americans at An Loc, though not many. By 1972 when Blassie died, the war had reverted to the status quo ante, to American advisers accompanying South Vietnamese troops, as they had before the U.S. troop buildup began in 1965.
As Charles Ferguson of Olathe, Kan., told me as we talked before Blassie's funeral, the casualities in the long days and nights of fighting at An Loc were staggering. "We started with 5,000 troops and by July (two months after Blassie died), we were down to 150 Vietnamese and three Americans." Ferguson, a sergeant, was one of the three.
It was striking how many people turned out, to wait under threatening grey clouds, to pay their respects to a young officer few knew. At times, those present seemed to weep as one: When the four Air Force jets flew over, with one breaking off to form the missing-man formation. When the bugler played Taps. When the honor guard folded the flag from Blassie's silver-colored casket and presented it to the detail commander, who handed it to the Air Force chief of staff. He in turn handed the flag to Blassie's mother, who held it for all to see.
Cemetery officials estimated the crowd at 2,000 to 4,000. The people came, dressed in every kind of attire, from the retired Marine colonel who wore his dress whites to rag-tag Vietnam vets in jungle fatigues, bush hats and medals. Unit patches stitched to their sleeves and shoulders spoke in code to others who had served in Vietnam.
It was, in miniature, a re-enactment of the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The difference was in how many non-veterans were in the crowd. Clearly the pain of the price paid in Vietnam remains very fresh.
Many in the crowd had memories of Vietnam somehow. One woman told me she came to pay her respects for Blassie and for high school classmates who had died. Several of Blassie's buddies were there, as were a few Vietnamese representing the people Blassie died trying to help.
By the time Blassie reported for duty in Vietnam in January 1972, Americans were in full retreat. From a troop-strength high of 543,400 in April 1969, four months after Nixon was inaugurated, American forces had been shipped home at a dizzying rate. Not fast enough for those who opposed the war, to be sure. But for those left behind or sent later, the numbers were a stark omen. Support for their war was eroding quickly.
By the time Blassie died - among the last of more than 58,000 who perished - fewer than 68,100 Americans remained in country. By June 30, the number would be 47,000. In less than a year, almost all Americans in uniform would be gone as the short-lived armistice between North Vietnam and South Vietnam began.
Still, Blassie and many men like him fought on, knowing that plenty of young men back home were not risking anything for the Vietnamese or an American policy that was bankrupt. That fact, I think, is why so many veterans attended his funeral. We know that but for the grace of God, one of us would be in that casket with the American flag spread across the top. Most of us were in Vietnam when support for the war was little to none.
We'd like to think we would be so honored, even though the cause we fought for was lost and the governmnent and many Americans had turned against us.
Blassie wrote his family that the fighting at An Loc was so brutal there were no prisoners. Everyone captured was killed. When his A-47 was shot down on May 11, 1972, Blassie was on a mission to drop napalm on enemy troops. Napalm is a particularly nasty weapon of war, not something we like to think good Americans would relish using. It is jellied fuel that burns and sticks over a large area. When it touches humans beings, death can be very ugly. It was napalm that had fallen on a young Vietnamese girl when she was photographed at a different battle by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. The picture won a Pulitzer Prize.
If you were an American in adviser Charles Ferguson's jungle boots - or a scared South Vietnamese draftee fighting for your life - a napalm cannister tumbling from a plane like Blassie's could seem like the most wonderful gift from God. Horrible though that fact may be, napalm can save the lives of buddies and allies when it splatters across advancing enemy soldiers. Little wonder antiaircraft gunners paid special attention to planes such as Blassie's. His allies would call him an angel; the enemy troops would call him an angel of death.
Come spring 1972, the North Vietnamese high command sensed an opening. U .S. troops were few. Most of the combat was by South Vietnamese troops. Their morale was low, and the civilian population was resentful because they believed the Americans were abandoning them.
Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, mastermind of the defeat of the French in 1954, noted in a radio broadcast in early May, about the time Blassie died, that the North Vietnamese offensive was taking place on the 18th anniversary of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
When Blassie flew his last mission, the fighting around An Loc was largely a Vietnamese affair. The Fifth South Vietnamese Division, based at Lai Khe, had pulled out of the zone directly north of Saigon in 1970. For two years, with U.S. air support from units at Bien Hoa, where Blassie was based, South Vietnamese troops had defended Highway 13. The two-lane road tied into one of the many fingers of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and could move troops, trucks and tanks quickly past rubber plantations to the prize, Saigon.
When the North Vietnamese launched their multipronged offensive on March 30, 1972, they quickly picked off Quangtri Province just south of the demilitarized zone that had divided the two Vietnams since 1954. There they set up a provisional government, a puppet regime controlled by the communists. The South Vietnamese, in and out of uniform, became even more demoralized.
The seemingly unstoppable North Vietnamese Army also struck in the central highlands, and took the province of Kontum. And they launched their vicious assault on Binh Long Province, taking Loc Ninh just north of An Loc and then throwing two divisions at An Loc, the provincial capital. By the time Blassie died, the fighting had worn on for more than a month, with up to 1,000 rounds of artillery a day crashing in on the surrounded South Vietnamese troops.
In at least one other way, Blassie seems to represent veterans of Vietnam - and give hope. In a bureaucratic snafu, his remains were entombed with the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in 1984. It was not until 14 years later that they were removed and verified as his, although rumors had spoken the truth for years.
Many Vietnam veterans and their families are cynical about the run-around they received from the government over the years. To them, the Blassie situation only proved that nothing had changed.
Perhaps it has. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who attended Saturday's service with his wife, took the unprecedented step of ordering the DNA tests that established Blassie's identity. Several people at the funeral commented on the wisdom and generosity of that decision, and the importance of his gesture of attending.
One was Emanuel Cassimatis, a retired Air Force general who screened and recommended Blassie for the Air Force Academy in 1965. Standing among family members, friends and distinguished guests, Cassimatis declared the funeral costly, elaborate - and entirely proper.
"It's the government's way of saying it's sorry," he said.