ST. LOUIS — Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns for 14 years, was laid to rest today near his home, eulogized by a sister as a man who believed in freedom.
Blassie, whose plane was shot down in Vietnam in 1972, was buried with full military honors in the oldest section of the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Mary Hart, the middle of his three siblings, said she sees her brother's face in the faces of military men who currently are flying in the no-fly zone over Iraq.
“My brother believed in America just like these young men,” she said. “And he like them believed that freedom is not free.”
Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, including Secretary of Defense William Cohen and House minority leader Richard Gephardt.
An honor guard fired a 21-gun salute and F-15 Eagle fighters flew overhead. The ceremony was presided over by his eldest sister, Pat Blassie, a captain in the Air Force Reserve.
Blassie's remains were brought back to St. Louis on Friday, and family and friends gathered to welcome him at Scott Air Force Base, near his hometown of Florissant, a St. Louis suburb.
“All of a sudden, it's as if no time has passed,” said Pat Blassie, who had crusaded for a year to bring him home. “We're grieving all over again.”
“Mike lived a hero, and he came home a hero,” said Emanuel Cassimatis, the ir Force Academy liaison officer who recruited Blassie in 1965.
During a memorial service Friday evening at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, Blassie was remembered as a courageous young man who fought for peace.
“At a moment of great crises in the history of the world, he gave of himself,” Archbishop Justin Rigali said to about 350 friends, family members and current and former members of the military.
“The resting place of Michael was for so long the Tomb of the Unknowns,” Rigali said. “This shrine was still distant from his house, the soil of Missouri, the banks of the Mississippi. Today he comes home.”
Blassie, a 24-year-old first lieutenant, had been missing since May 11, 1972, when his A-37 fighter was shot down over An Loc during a bombing run. His jet lost a wing, crashed and burned.
Blassie's remains were recovered later that year.
The bones were taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where officials said they were “believed to be” those of Blassie. But the evidence that they were Blassie's was too slim, so the designation was removed in 1979.
Blassie was then listed as “killed in action, no body recovered.” In 1984, on Memorial Day, Blassie's remains — four ribs, pelvis and the upper part of an arm — were buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
For the past year, Pat Blassie crusaded for the disinterment, convinced that recent evidence — including Blassie's wallet and dog tags found near the crash site — suggested the remains were those of her brother.
The remains were exhumed in May; DNA tests that were not available 26 years ago confirmed the remains were Blassie's.
“Today was a significant day for us,” Blassie's brother, George Blassie said during Friday's service. “This has meant so much to us. We believe Michael would have been proud of how we pulled together to bring him home.”
Reviewed by: Michael Howard