U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie was once known as the Vietnam War “Unknown Soldier”.
On May 11, 1972, Blassie was flying an A-37B Dragonfly aircraft when it was hit by ground fire near An Loc, 60 miles outside of Saigon. His wingman witnessed an explosion and there was no indication that Blassie survived. Blassie was then listed as missing-in-action for more than a decade. He was 24 years old. Blassie’s remains were taken “home” to the United States in 1984 but they were not positively identified, and instead were interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Forensic technology was limited at the time, preventing positive identification.
On Memorial Day in 1984, a set of unidentified remains were interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns, alongside remains of service members from WWI, WWII and the Korean War at Arlington National Cemetery. Those “unknown” remains, later identified as Michael Blassie, became representative of those who remained unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.
On June 30, 1998, the Defense Department announced that the Vietnam Unknown had been identified.
At the request of the family, Blassie’s remains were removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns. On July 11, 1998, 1st Lt. Michael Blassie was buried with full military honors at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri.
Dan Bullock is the youngest American service member killed in action in the Vietnam War. When he was just 14 years old, he falsified the date on his birth certificate to read December 21, 1949 in order to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. On June 7, 1969, Bullock was killed by small arms fire while on night watch at An Hoa combat base. He had been in-country nearly one month.
On September 4, 1967, while providing comfort and aid to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, an already wounded Father Capodanno rushed forward to comfort a wounded corpsman. While administering last rites, he was shot more than 27 times. This act of heroism would earn him the Medal of Honor posthumously.
His service to his country was as great as to the Roman Catholic Church – and for that he is currently being beatified. That process, known as canonization, is when the church will prove that he lived and died in such an exemplary way that he deserves to be recognized as a saint.
On December 13, 1968, a C-123K Provider with a crew of seven, left Nakhon Phanom Air Base, Thailand, for a mission over Savannakhet Province, Laos. The Provider was the forward air controller for another aircraft on the same mission, and the two aircraft collided. The crews of other aircraft in the area saw a large fireball that seemed to break up into three smaller fireballs and crash. It was later determined that one of the aircraft broke in two during the collision, accounting for the three fireballs observed. The pilot of the C-123K parachuted to the ground and was picked up by a search and rescue (SAR) team later the same day. He was the only individual to survive the collision; no other parachutes were observed and no other rescue beeper signals were received. SAR efforts continued for several more hours after rescuing the pilot but no other remains were found or recovered.
Lt. Donahue was officially held in a Missing in Action status and was promoted through the ranks to Major before being declared dead on February 2, 1981. His remains have never been recovered.
1Lt. Diane Carlson Evans, ANC RVN (born 1946) served as a nurse in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. Diane Carlson Evans is the Founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation (formerly the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Project), and former President and CEO of the Board of Directors.
Carlson Evans was born and raised on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota and graduated from nursing school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Upon graduation, she joined the Army Nurse Corps and served in Vietnam from 1968-1969. She served in the burn unit of the 36th Evacuation Hospital in Vung Tau and at Pleiku in the 71st Evacuation Hospital. Including her one year in Vietnam, she completed six years in the Army Nurse Corps.
Evans envisioned the idea for a memorial to honor over 265,000 women who served during the Vietnam war. A former Army combat nurse and Vietnam veteran she led the ten-year struggle to complete the circle of healing with the placement of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. Although the eloquent wall of names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. lists the names of eight women nurses who died in Vietnam, Evans felt deeply that the memorial, with its statue of three fighting men, did not acknowledge adequately the women. In her words, “…women are also soldiers. Women also need to heal. Their service is worthy of honor and recognition.” That recognition took place on November 11, 1993, with the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
Hal Kushner enrolled in the US Army while a medical student at the Medical College of Virginia in 1965. In August of 1967 he deployed to Vietnam as an Army Flight Surgeon. Not four months later during a dark and rainy evening Kushner was aboard a helicopter that crashed in to the side of a mountain in South Vietnam.
Kushner spent the next few years in the jungles of South Vietnam, surviving with other POW’s on spoiled rice and incredibly desolate conditions. In 1971 Kushner and the other men in his jungle prison were moved 560 miles over 57 days to the POW camp called the Hanoi Hilton where he remained until March of 1973. When released Kushner returned home to his wife and children and remained in the Army until 1986 when he retired at the rank of colonel.
Sharon Ann Lane is honored on Panel W23, Line 112 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Though one of eight American military nurses who died while serving in Vietnam, Sharon Lane was the only one killed as a direct result of hostile fire.
For her service in Vietnam, 1LT Sharon Ann Lane was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star with “V” device, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Order of Vietnam Medal, and the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross (with Palm).
Lt. Col. Janis Nark, USA (Ret.) enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps while in nursing school and shipped off to boot camp in the spring of 1970. Her first duty station was at Madigan General Hospital in Washington state. Her ward was a medical one, all Vietnam Vets with overlapping diseases and toxic exposures. She served one year in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971, where she was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay.
She stayed in the Army Reserve for 20 years, serving on active duty for Operation Desert Storm from 1990 to 1991.
Nark is a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College and retired from the military in 1995 as a Lieutenant Colonel, with 26 years of service behind her.
U.S. Air Force A1C William ‘Pits’ Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescue medic who completed more than 300 missions in Vietnam.
On April 11, 1966, a call came to help 134 men of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. The soldiers were surrounded by a battalion of Viet Cong troops near Cam My, Vietnam. The company was pinned down and casualties were mounting. Pits joined the rescue efforts after Detachment 6 of the USAF’s 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron received a call to help evacuate the wounded. Pits volunteered to be lowered down to hoist the wounded, where they would then be sent to a nearby airfield. He helped organize the rescue efforts and was able to pull out nine soldiers. When Pits had the option to leave with the helicopter, he elected to stay and care for the wounded and dying – all while under fire.
For his actions, Pits was posthumously awarded the Air Force Cross. It was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor and his parents accepted the award on his behalf on Dec. 8, 2000.
Riley Leroy Pitts was born in Fallis, Oklahoma in 1937. He graduated college from Wichita State University, the first in his family to do so, and after graduation married his wife, Eula. The couple had two children – Stacie and Mark – while Pitts worked for Boeing.
Pitts enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1960 and arrived in Vietnam in December of 1966. He started out as an Information Officer, but eventually left to serve within a combat unit. Finding his way to C Company, “Wolfhounds”, 2nd Battalion, 27thInfantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
On March 7, 1972, U.S. Air Force Captain Stephen A. Rusch was the weapons systems officer in an F-4E Phantom II aircraft when he was attacking enemy targets over southern Laos. The plane was the number two aircraft in a flight of two. When his aircraft was cleared to begin its second run over enemy targets, the flight leader of the number one aircraft lost sight of his plane. He then observed enemy ground fire followed by a large explosion. Days later, Stephen Rusch and the pilot, Carter A. Howell, were declared missing in action.
In the years that followed, a joint team, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), investigated the incident. Excavations continued throughout 2002 and 2003, and joint teams conducted two excavations of the crash site where they recovered human remains and supplementary evidence, including U.S. coins and life support equipment.
The last traces of Rusch—his dental remains—were found and identified in 2007. His remains were escorted from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Arlington National Cemetery by his daughter, Sharon. He was buried on November 30, 2007, with full military honors.
In 1979, Jan Scruggs conceived the idea of building the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as a tribute to all who served during one of the longest wars in American history. Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is among the most visited memorials in the nation’s capital.
Scruggs launched the effort with $2,800 of his own money and gradually gained the support of other Vietnam veterans in persuading Congress to provide a prominent location on federal government property somewhere in Washington, D.C. After a difficult struggle, Congress responded, and the site chosen was on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.
As president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., the nonprofit organization created to build and maintain the Memorial, Scruggs headed up the effort that raised $8.4 million and saw the Memorial completed in just two years. It was dedicated on November 13, 1982, during a week-long national salute to Vietnam veterans in the nation’s capital.
On November 9, 1967, Lance Sijan was on a bombing mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail with squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel John W. Armstrong. The F-4C went up in flames and Sijan and Armstrong managed to eject. Sijan suffered a fractured skull, mangled hand, and a compound fracture to his left leg. With no survival gear, no food and little water, he evaded capture in the jungle for 46 days. He was finally found emaciated by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day in 1967. As a prisoner of war, he was tortured and beaten but relayed no information to the enemy.
Sijan died in captivity on January 22, 1968 and his remains were repatriated on March 13, 1974. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on March 4, 1976. Sijan was the first Air Force Academy graduate to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Col. Leo Thorsness was a highly decorated American pilot of the Vietnam War. On April 30, 1967, Thorsness was shot down over North Vietnam and spent six years as a prisoner of war. Thorsness was later released during Operation Homecoming in 1973. That same year, he was presented the Medal of Honor from President Richard M. Nixon for his actions on an earlier mission on April 19, 1967.
In November 1967, Chaplain Watters was with 2d Battalion, 503d Infantry, as the battalion took part in the bloody fighting for Hill 875 around Dak To. For Watters, the culmination of the battle came on 19 November. During that day, an intense fire fight broke out with the enemy forces. Without thinking of his own safety, Watters began to rush out on the battle field to help collect the dying and wounded and bring them to safety. He also helped carry others to safety, including a paratrooper who was in shock and unable to move from his exposed position.
After hours of intense fighting and with the perimeter of the battlefield in a state of constant confusion, Chaplain Watters continued to maintain his composure in a time of severe crisis. For hours after the initial fighting, he kept venturing out between friendly and enemy lines picking up the wounded, providing the exhausted soldiers with food and water, administering the sacraments, and helping the medics give aid to the wounded. Sadly, Watters himself became a victim of the battle raging on Hill 875 and did not survive the day. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.