Now-Identified Vietnam Vet Was `A Natural,’ Fellow Soldiers Recall

The mental snapshots have stayed with his comrades for 26 years. Air Force Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie is flying his A-37 fast and low to dump a load of napalm on a target, when abruptly his jet rolls over and plunges into the trees, kicking up a cloud of smoke and debris.

“It seems like yesterday,” said retired Lieutenant Colonel Mel Ledbetter, a Nashville insurance executive who was operations officer for Blassie’s squadron. “In some ways, you can see the faces.”

By early 1972, the Pentagon had handed over much of the ground war to the Vietnamese. The air war, though, raged on. It would become even more furious when the North Vietnamese launched their Easter offensive at An Loc and elsewhere across South Vietnam. The thrust against An Loc, 60 miles north of Saigon, began April 2. North Vietnamese forces, using modern Soviet- and Chinese-made tanks, laid siege.

One key to An Loc’s defense was the 25 A-37 attack jets of Blassie’s 8th Special Operations Squadron. The A-37 they flew – not one of the war’s memorable aircraft – was a converted trainer. During the war, the Air Force fitted it with a Gatling gun, 14 rockets, four bombs and renamed the plane the “Dragonfly.”

Blassie, 24, an Air Force Academy graduate and the oldest of five children of a St. Louis meat-cutter, spent the last night of his life in the alert barracks near his jet parked by the runway at Bien Hoa.

“Mike was a natural,” said Ledbetter, 64, his old commander. “He was just calm and tough and very level-headed in everything he did.”

About dawn on May 11, 1972, as enemy tanks closed in on An Loc’s defenders, the Klaxon sounded, summoning Blassie and then-Major Jim Connally, 34, to their olive-drab airplanes. Connally, now a 60-year-old defense consultant, was the flight leader. Tactics called for him to dive on the target, drop one bomb and pull out. The wingman would then swoop in low as the bomb debris was settling and drop his bomb. Connally made his dive, dropping a 500-pound bomb, and pulled out. “At one point, it’s looking just fine,” he said. Suddenly, though, Blassie’s jet began to trail white vapor. Then he began to roll to the right. Over the radio someone hollered, “Eject! Eject!” But the jet dove into the ground and broke apart. Connally circled silently. “You just sort of go numb,” he said.

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