Unknown no longer, Lt. Michael Blassie was laid to rest on Saturday in Missouri soil, buried at a veterans’ cemetery near his childhood home, over the hill from the Mississippi River.
For the first time since his Air Force jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972, Blassie rests beneath a headstone bearing his name, at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. His body had been interred for 14 years at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.
The full military funeral was held under gray skies and attended by hundreds of veterans, friends, relatives and well-wishers, including Secretary of Defense William Cohen. A formation of four F-15 jets flew overhead, and one of the four broke away in the traditional “missing man” salute.
“He was strong, he was fearless, and he loved what he was doing,” said Patricia Blassie, one of the flier’s four siblings, all of whom spoke at the graveside service. “He was the heart, the soul and the spirit that is America.”
Blassie was 24 years old and a highly decorated Air Force pilot when his A-37 attack jet was shot down on May 11, 1972, outside the South Vietnamese village of An Loc, near the Cambodian border.
The fighting was so intense in the area that the site could not be searched immediately. When remains were found in October 1972 the bones were tentatively identified as those of Blassie, based on an identification card and other effects. But by 1980, that classification was changed to “unknown.”
On Memorial Day, 1984, the remains were buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns alongside unknown servicemen from World War I, World War II and Korea.
An investigation by CBS News prompted the Defense Department to review the case. Blassie’s remains were disinterred and a sample of mitochondrial DNA was removed from the pelvis and matched to a sample provided by the flier’s mother, Jean.
The remains were brought to St. Louis on Friday, and relatives and friends gathered at Scott Air Force ase, near his hometown of Florissant, a suburb north of St. Louis. A memorial service was held on Friday night at a Roman Catholic church.
“This has meant so much to us,” George Blassie, Blassie’s brother, said during Friday’s service. “We believe Michael would have been proud of how we pulled together to bring him home.”
The grave site is in the oldest part of the 172-year-old cemetery, and is surrounded by the graves of veterans of World War I and World War II, including several containing remains of more than one person. Ms. Blassie, who is a captain in the Air Force Reserve, explained the family’s quest to identify her brother’s remains and to bury him close to home.
“I kept searching my soul and asking myself what was so important about just six bones,” she said. “But the answer came from my heart. It’s important because it’s my brother.”