In 1972, Mike Wherley was a sergeant with the Army's 1st Special Forces Group operating out of Bien Hoa, an airbase in South Vietnam. His unit wasn't there much. The soldiers spent much of their time on the move, training Army of the Republic of Vietnam regulars as the United States' involvement in southeast Asia was slowly drawing to a close.
They were doing the same kind of work their contemporary counterparts are doing in Afghanistan now.
His unit was deployed to Bihn Long Province, near the Cambodian border, the village of An Loc, about 90 clicks north of Saigon. He was a replacement, taking the place of Sgt. Jim Layton, killed, along with Capt. John Spears, when their three-quarter-ton truck carrying a load of fuel hit a tank mine. Wherley knew Layton and Spears. They were friends.
As his unit worked with ARVN regulars, training them to take over the fight, the Air Force's 8th Special Operations Squadron was above them, flying sorties of A-37 Dragonfly close support aircraft, protecting the troops on the ground from incursions by Charlie.
Wherley never knew who might have been up there. The men who were protecting were unknown to him.
That was, until six months ago, when he learned his relationship to one of the men who may have been flying overhead was closer than he could have imagined.
• • •
Wherley left the service after the war and returned home to West York, joining the family moving business, driving truck and helping run the business.
In 1980, five years after he returned home, he got a visit from an old Army buddy, who came east from his home in Seattle to see his old brother in arms and take in the sights. They went to New York and D.C., did the whole tourist thing. When they were in Washington, they visited Arlington National Cemetery, to pay respects, stopping at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
They noticed there was no unknown entombed from Vietnam. Wherley stopped the guard on duty and asked him, "What's the deal? Why no unknown from Vietnam?" The guard didn't know anything about it and directed Wherley to the sergeant major, the guard's commander, around the back of the monument. The sergeant major had no explanation either, saying there might be a plaque inside the building. Wherley didn't have a chance to check it out; it was late in the afternoon and the building was closed for the day.
His buddy was livid. He just walked off.
It ate at him that an unknown soldier from his war wasn't honored at the nation's memorial to the American soldiers known but to God.
He went home and wrote a letter to the editor, expressing his opinion that someone should do something about it.
It turned out that someone was him.
• • •
People kept calling him, telling him he should do something and volunteering to help. Harold Redding, a fellow Vietnam vet from Spring Grove, wrote letters to every member of Congress. Earl Bosserman, the commander of the West York VFW, worked with the VFW posts. Mary Chronister and Allen Beaverson circulate petitions to submit to then-U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling to spur the congressman to help.
Wherley took the lead. He gave talks to VFWs and local service clubs. He traveled to VFW conventions in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Los Angeles and anywhere else someone would listen to him.
And despite his message of paying honor to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, their identities lost to the chaos of war, he met opposition.
The scientists working with the Pentagon to identify the remains recovered from the war zone were unhappy with his quest, pledging that they, one day, would be able to identify all of the remains that had been stored in freezers in the armed services facility in Hawaii. Wherley met with them — a meeting arranged by Goodling — and he was impressed with their dedication. He could tell by looking in their eyes that this was more than just a job, it was a calling.
He explained that he, in no way, intended to impede their work, that he would be happier than anyone if they were able to identify all of the remains of recovered soldiers and return them to their families.
But the point remained: There were unknown soldiers from Vietnam and they hadn't been properly honored alongside their fallen brethren.
Then, he met with the families of soldiers who were missing and presumed killed in action. It was an emotional meeting, he recalled. He empathized with the families. He knew if he were in their position, he would not consent to anything that would give up hope of, one day, their loved ones returning home to be put to rest.
And Goodling arranged to have him meet then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Weinberger had been scheduled to be the commencement speaker at York College — Wherley was then a junior at the college, taking night courses on the G.I. Bill. He remembered the college's president was upset with him, wondering how he was able to get an audience with his distinguished guest when he had donors lining up for a meet-and-greet with the secretary.
Wherley met Weinberger as he dressed for the commencement, donning his academic robe. Wherley explained his position, reiterating that he did not intend to interfere with any efforts to identify the dead, only that he sought honor for his brothers. Weinberger said he'd take Wherley's request under consideration and "we'll see what happens."
• • •
Six months later, he received an invitation to the entombment of the unknown of the Vietnam war.
It was Memorial Day, 1984. President Ronald Reagan addressed those gathered to mourn.
"Today, we pause to embrace him and all who served so well in a war whose end offered no parades, no flags, and so little thanks," the president said. He assured the families of the missing that the effort to find their loved ones would not end. "We write no last chapters," he said. "We close no books. We put away no final memories."
He placed the Medal of Honor on the flag-draped casket containing the remains of the fallen warrior and said, "Thank you, dear son, and may God cradle you in his loving arms."
And that seemed to be the end of it.
Wherley returned home to the family business and got on with his life.
• • •
Fourteen years later, in 1998, he was driving in Washington, on the Beltway, when the news came across the radio. The unknown soldier of Vietnam was no longer unknown. He was Michael Blassie, an Air Force lieutenant who was killed when his plane was shot down in 1972. The report said his remains were to be disinterred and returned to his family.
Wherley pulled off the highway and, after digesting the news, called Goodling's office to get more information. He was overjoyed that Blassie's remains would be returned to his family. That is how it should be, he thought. He knew it was the right thing to do. He had done what he could to honor the unknown fallen of his war. It was over now.
And, again, that seemed to be the end of it.
Until about six months ago.
The York Rotary Club asked him to give a talk on the 30th anniversary of the entombment of the unknown soldier of Vietnam. He figured he should do some research, learn who this man was.
He looked him up on the Internet.
He learned Michael Blassie was a native of St. Louis, Mo., that he was a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy, that he had served with the Air Force's 8th Special Operations Squadron.
He read more.
He learned that Blassie had arrived in Vietnam in early 1972, that his squadron flew out of Bien Hoa and that by May, he had flown 130 combat missions. He learned that on May 11, 1972, his A-37 was hit with enemy fire as he started his initial strike on an artillery position outside An Loc. His aircraft flew a short distance, his flight commander reported in a letter to his family, and then slowly rolled as it hit the ground, exploding on impact.
Wherley had served in An Loc, though he was in the country later in 1972. Blassie might have been providing air support when Wherley's friends — Sgt. Jim Layton and Capt. John Spears —were killed by the tank mine.
"Holy crap," Wherley thought. "Are you kidding me?"
After all these years, after all of his efforts, he never knew that his quest to honor one of his fallen brothers would have turned out to be a quest to honor a man who died while protecting members of his unit, including two of his friends who didn't make it back.
"It's just weird," Wherley, now 62, said. "After all these years, to learn that. I never knew."