Will Lieutenant Blassie’s Remains Be Identified


They call him the Unknown Soldier, but Michael Blassie has never been unknown.

Not to his friend and flight leader, Jim Connally, who saw Blassie's plane nose-dive into the jungle after dropping a load of napalm in Vietnam.

Not to his girlfriend, Lou Pennebaker, who would have married him in a heartbeat when she was 20 years old — still would if only he could walk back into her life.

Certainly not to his mother, Jean, who, 26 years after her son's death, believes with all her heart that “it's time to bring Michael home.”

Officially, Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie is missing in action — one of more than 2,000 U.S. servicemen unaccounted for in Vietnam.

But a trail of evidence, from the stream near An Loc where some bones were found, to the identification lab in Hawaii where they were sent, to the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery where they were buried in 1984, suggests that the unknown soldier is very much known.

The circumstantial evidence, including Blassie's wallet and dog tags found at the site, is so great that the remains — four ribs, a pelvis, the upper part of an arm — will be exhumed. They will be tested against DNA samples from as many as nine families who lost loved ones in the same region, around the same day that Blassie was shot down: May 11, 1972.

At the white marble Tomb a sentinel stands guard and wreaths are placed beneath the words: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Jean Blassie has no doubt who rests there.

“He wasn't a genius. He just tried harder than everyone else,” Mrs. Blassie says. She is sitting in her neat suburban apartment about 14 miles north of St. Louis, surrounded by her other children, Judy, Pat, Mary and George. Their father, George, died in 1991.

The kitchen table is covered with photographs of Michael: the big brother arm-wrestling little George; the soccer captain leading the team to victory at the Air Force Academy; the boyfriend showing off his brand new red convertible; the pilot, standing proud and tall in his flight suit beside his A-37 fighter plane.

The pictures evoke memories and smiles. But it is the letters from around the country, written in the past few months, that touch their hearts.

“It's like he has come back,” Mrs. Blassie says of the 24-year-old son she couldn't bear to talk about for 10 years.

She recites a poem from a former girlfriend, a sweet, rambling piece about the handsome tennis player who took her to the prom.

“Is it true, Michael? Is it you, Michael? Are you the Soldier Unknown?”

She reads a letter from an academy graduate who named his son for Michael, the “sophisticated leader in the Midwestern body” he would have followed anywhere.

And she grins at the latest revelation — her son's connection to Lucille Ball. The actress spent a month at the academy in 1968, shooting the movie “Yours, Mine and Ours.” Michael was her official escort. She wore his athletic jacket.

“All this time, we never knew,” Pat says.

There was so much the family didn't know, or was too scared to ask. Especially when it came to Vietnam.

Now photographs arrive in the mail every week: Michael's bunk, the bar in the officer's “hootch,” rows of concrete “igloos” where the planes were stored, the wooden platform where soldiers sunbathed between rocket attacks. They called it “the beach.” Michael helped build it.

The photographs and letters are often followed by phone calls, haunting glimpses into a world that was nothing like the one Michael described in letters home.

Christmas trees decorated with grenade pins and candlelit skulls. Long nights agonizing over the “killing competition” and drinking beer.

“We were just two young thinkers caught up in an insanity we accepted,” wrote Jim Acquaviva, a fellow pilot.

“To suddenly hear his name again…I am not ashamed to tell you, I wept.”

The siblings feel it too, tears that well up without warning. They are still trying to figure out what to do with all this emotion. As Pat says, it's not like they can turn to anyone for advice.

George picks up a framed photograph of an A-37 high above the clouds. He was 10 the day Michael brought it home. Twenty-seven years later, he still remembers asking how the plane could be shot down.

“It would be almost impossible. You would have to shoot that guy, right there,” Michael said, pointing to the pilot, barely visible in his helmet.

The kid brother was satisfied. The cockpit was so tiny. His big brother would be safe in enemy skies.

“I'm 13 years older than he was then,” George says. “And I still look up to him. He still feels like my big brother.”

The others nod. It is as if they are back in their childhood home and Michael is about to burst through the door, wolf down a plate of tuna and macaroni, and then line them up for military exercises the way he did when they were kids.

“It's like he has become larger than life, and we are still the same,” says Pat, the 40-year-old sister, the one who followed Michael into the Air Force.

Back on College Avenue in north St. Louis, her first visit in years, she stops at the little red-brick house on the corner. The windows are boarded up and everything seems so small. But as she stands on the familiar stoop, it's easy to turn back time. It's easy to imagine the strains of a bassoon floating from the window of her brother's room, to smell the leaves he has just raked in the backyard, to see him racing home from school to sell the Globe and the Post outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help across the street.

The school is closed down. The Velvet Freeze, where Michael bought her ice cream cones, is gone.

“I can see him everywhere, so clearly,” Pat says, shaking her head as if she were trying to wake up.

She climbs back into the police cruiser. The neighborhood isn't safe anymore and the cops insisted on escorting her. They tell her it's an honor.

There have been many honors in the years since Michael died. In 1984, at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, President Reagan, voice breaking, added his.

“As a child, did he play on some street in a great American city? Did he work beside his father on a farm in America's heartland? Did he marry? Did he have children?”

In Meridian, Miss., Lou Adams Pennebaker watched on television and thought of the gentle young pilot who had taught her golf and patriotism and love. They spent a year together before he left for Vietnam.

He had to go, Michael said, holding her in his arms under the St. Louis arch. He couldn't cop out on his country. He couldn't cop out on his dad.

Through marriage, motherhood and divorce, Lou kept his photograph in her living room. She held on to his letters, kept puzzling over one.

“Why am I trying to live if I am just living to die?” he wrote. “I'll keep on living to fight as long as there's a fighting reason to live, or for others to live.”

When his picture flashed on television a few months ago, Lou felt 20 years old again. Just as scared, just as much in love. Trembling, she walked up to the set and placed her hand on the screen. She held it there long after his image had disappeared.

Then she called Michael's mother.

“It was like my whole life just exploded open,” Lou said, sobbing into the phone. “It was a blessing to have had that relationship. To have it come back is another blessing.”

Chris Calhoon was in a dentist's chair in Alaska when he heard the news. Calhoon never met Michael Blassie, but he knows him well. He led the South Vietnamese mission into the jungle in October 1972 to recover Blassie's remains.

“I'm the one who got the Unknown Soldier out,” he says.

Calhoon has no doubt that the bag of bones and personal effects he threw into a helicopter as it was mobbed by refugees and pummeled by enemy fire, were those of Blassie. Whisked off to a mortuary and later the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, the bones were labeled “believed to be” Michael Blassie. The designation was removed in 1979 when it was decided the evidence was too slim.

“It's time,” Calhoon says, “to finish something I thought was done in 1972.”

Michael Blassie has had many memorial services, but never a funeral. It's time, his mother says, to give him one.

In St. Louis, a white marble marker, in a cemetery plot reserved for the missing, is named for him. In Columbus, Miss., a building at an Air Force Base building is called “Blassie Hall.”

There have been smaller, more painful reminders. The box of homemade chocolate chip cookies that was returned to Jean Blassie a month after her son's death. The fine china that arrived from Vietnam a month later, a final gift from Michael. It is the only formal set his mother has ever used.

And there are the White House cards that arrive every Christmas, consecutive presidents promising “the fullest possible accounting” for her son.

“The United States owes you this,” President Clinton wrote in 1997. “And you can rest assured that we will make every effort to resolve all remaining questions…”

For Jean Blassie, those words are a guarantee. She is sure what the tests will reveal, won't even talk about the possibility that they might be inconclusive, or that the remains might belong to some other mother's son.

God has chosen her family for this bittersweet path, she says. And it has taught her more than she could have imagined about the Unknown Soldier, her eldest son.

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