Stories of those lost part of Memorial Day remembrance

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By Traci Chapman

They were two very different men who traveled a long way and found a resting place thousands of miles away. Now home, they are just two of the stories that make each Memorial Day more than a day for barbecues or a Monday off from work.

On Monday, Mustang American Legion Post 353 members and a small crowd of residents gathered to honor more than 400 people who have given their lives in service of their country buried in Mustang Cemetery. Their stories are worth telling and remembering, CCMS (USAF Retired) Lloyd Smithson said.

Dave Schacher (Photo/Traci Chapman)

“It is important, what they did and what they sacrificed – their stories are important,” Smithson said.

Those who lived and died in service of their country each have a story – not just of their service, but of their lives and the people who loved them. They are the journeys of men like Finley Blanton and Donald Wann. And while those two soldiers didn’t hail from inside Mustang’s 12 square miles, the gift they gave their country was the ultimate sacrifice given by their peers laid to rest in Mustang Cemetery.

Clarence Finley Blanton finally made it home last year. It had been more than 44 years since the El Reno native was last seen, thousands of miles away, on a rocky cliff in Laos. Known to his fellow soldiers as Bill, none of them were supposed to be where they last lived and died – and that was one reason it took so long to get him home.

Long before that day, Blanton was loved and missed by the women in his life – his widow, Norma, who would never remarry, and his daughter, Karen Daughety. To them he was a warm and funny man with a huge heart who loved the country he served, knowing that dedication could ultimately cost him his life.

“He was something special all right,” Norma said. “Even that last assignment was something different, something people wanted to find out about.”

Chaplain Karen Douthit, American Legion Post 353 Commander Paul Ray and (in background) CCMS (USAF Ret) Lloyd Smithson.

Blanton became a part of the story of the Vietnam War. While many people later wanted to forget that war ever happened, for families like his, it was something they never forgot – not just because their husband and father was lost but also because he never made it home at all.

“There was never that chance to say goodbye, to have somewhere to visit him, to know he was home,” Norma said.

An Air Force man, the story of Blanton and the men who served with him on that final assignment would remain as misty as the fog that would blanket the place where they died.

That secrecy involved a radar installation located on Phou Pha Thi mountain, rising about 5,600 feet with a near-vertical face on one side. Called Lima Site 85, it wasn’t its function that made Blanton’s outfit secret. It was where that mountain, and Lima 85, was located – in Laos, a self-proclaimed neutral country where Americans were not supposed to be conducting any kind of military operation.

The operation was so secret, the 19 men assigned to it were “sheep-dipped” – separated from the Air Force and proclaimed civilians. However, the men were still considered Air Force personnel by military officials. Many years later, documents revealed that Lima 85’s radar was used to help guide bombing strikes into North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With the enemy’s capital – Hanoi – just 160 miles away from Lima 85, it provided a perfect location for a radar installation. Its height and sheer face gave military leaders confidence the small outpost would be protected from the enemy.

Clarence Finley Blanton’s ashes are returned to his family more than 40 years after he was killed during the Vietnam War. (Photo/Traci Chapman)

Those leaders were wrong. On March 11, 1968, North Vietnamese forces were able to scale the cliff. While bombardment rained down, Blanton and 10 other men died on the mountain, while eight men were airlifted to safety. Of those who escaped by helicopter, one – Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger – was killed by gunfire shortly after being lifted onto the helicopter. Etchberger was awarded the Medal of Honor in September 2010 for helping four injured airmen board the helicopter, saving their lives.

After American forces determined no one was left alive at Lima 85, the radar unit was bombed to keep it from falling into the enemy’s hands.

All of those facts were kept from the families of Lima 85’s casualties. While the men were first listed as Missing in Action, a change in their status to “killed in action” did not bring closure.

“We really didn’t know what happened to them, and it was a terrible thing,” Norma Blanton said. “It’s like what people say – the not knowing is the worst.”

Back home, Blanton’s family had to cope with the news he was missing. A month later, his mother, Mabel Blanton, died.

“It was a horrible time, and she never had an answer, his father never had an answer about what had really happened to him,” Norma said.

But Blanton himself might have had a foreshadowing about what was to come, Norma said. In his last letter, written just three days before he was killed, Blanton’s tone changed from his usual correspondence.

“He said, ‘It’s very spooky up here tonight,’ and that was uncharacteristic for him,” she said.

As the years went on and files were opened, Norma and the families of the 11 other men lost that day learned information, bit by bit. Finally came the news that Vietnamese troops said they had thrown the American casualties over the side of the mountain because they could not be buried on the rocky surface.

“And that’s where they found him,” Norma said. “They had dummies they threw over the side of the cliff to see where they’d land, and that’s where they were.”

Searchers found five vests and four different sizes of boots at the mountain’s base. They also found bone fragments and – a “miracle,” Norma said – Blanton’s identification card.

“It was in pretty good shape so they didn’t know if it had been there that whole time or if someone had it and then knew about the search effort and returned it to the spot,” she said.

“After 44 years to be even getting him back, I can’t even describe it,” Norma said.

And as for that spot so far away where Finley spent his last moments?

“Bill – Finley – would always say in his letters how beautiful it was,” Norma said. “That’s what I hold onto.”

Shannon Wann Plaster knows all about the search for a missing loved one.

She, like Norma and Karen, experienced a loss during the Vietnam War – when she was 9 years old, her father left to serve and he never returned. Like the Blanton family, it wasn’t just that her father was killed in action, she said.

“It’s the not knowing, the fact that we didn’t know where he was – that was the most difficult part of it,” Shannon said.

The search for her father, Chief Warrant Officer Donald Wann, would become a defining part of Shannon’s life. Convinced he could be found, Shannon never gave up until he actually was –39 years after he was last seen.

Donald Wann volunteered to serve long before war came to a far-away place called Vietnam and a soldier who signed up for two tours of duty once war broke out. He was awarded 152 air medals, two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, a Good Conduct Award and the Vietnam Medal.

Wann was nearing the end of his second tour when on June 1, 1971, he and 1st Lt. Paul Magers were flying an AH1G Cobra gunship helicopter on a two-copter mission to pick up a ranger team stranded near Dong Tri, South Vietnam. After the first team picked up the rangers, Wann and Magers flew closer to destroy some ammunition and mines left on the site. As the helicopter neared the site, it was hit by rounds from anti-aircraft artillery, spun out and crashed on a steep hill, before exploding. Because the area was under heavy fire, rescue or recovery attempts were impossible.

Wann’s final flight was the day after his 34th birthday and five days before he was set to come home on leave.

That was the official story of her father’s disappearance and it was all Shannon, her mother, Ruth, and her sister, Michelle, had as they struggled to understand how their lives had changed so radically.

“It was strange for a kid to have your dad go away and never go back, and then there was the aftermath,” Shannon said. “We lost our house and in a way, we lost our way. It took a long time to try to accept how our lives changed.”

Wann was declared dead in 1973, but that didn’t clear up the “lingering doubts” in his daughter’s mind. With the documents concerning her father’s activities in Vietnam still classified, answers were hard to come by.

“We didn’t know where he was, we didn’t know a lot of things about him,” she said. “As a teenager, of course, I had a lot of anger and confusion. I always had these dreams that my dad would come back, and I wouldn’t believe people who said that he was dead. I had no closure.”

During those years, Wann said she had no idea that a single decision would change not only the course of her own life, but also set the stage for her father’s final journey.

“I was searching and I finally decided I was going to do something to try to get some answers,” she said.

That something was to write a letter to the Pentagon. In 1990, after reading about other Oklahoma soldiers missing in action, she sent an appeal for information. Twenty years after writing that letter, she finally got the news she had dreamed of for so long – her father had been found.

Oddly, the trail leading to Donald Wann’s helicopter wreckage veered into the past, Wann said. Investigators first believed they had found the crash site in 1993. Located on a steep mountain in dense jungle terrain, crews began what would be the first of several excavations. Initial finds – an empty wallet, helicopter parts, a seat belt and boot parts – were encouraging, but the items could not be positively linked to Wann or Magers.

Throughout the excavations, the interviews and the endless paperwork, Wann – now living in Yukon – said she never lost faith her father would be found, although frustration was a constant part of the process. That’s when fate stepped in, Wann said. Two witnesses came forward with information, men who said they had seen the downed helicopter and the two victims after the crash. One of those men claimed to have buried one of the Americans.

“He gave them information, as did the other man, and it started to become clear this man believed he buried my dad,” Wann said. “In the end, he was right about that.”

Eventually, the most important clues were found – teeth and a bone fragment. Although it didn’t seem like much, it was enough to finally determine it was the Wann/Magers crash site. DNA and dental records determined the teeth belonged to Wann, while Magers’ family also finally learned, for certain, his fate.

In 2010, Donald Wann finally came home. Buried in a military funeral attended by hundreds of people, it didn’t erase the pain of all those years of loss, but it gave Shannon a chance to say goodbye and to reflect on the journey that led both of them to that place.

“Throughout this process, I have learned so much about my father and the man he was – even just recently, I’ve learned so much,” she said. “I want to make sure people know who he was and what a great person he was, and I want other families to never go through this alone.

“I will never stop missing my dad and grieving for what we missed, but I know one thing – he was doing what he believed in and what he loved, and that makes me very proud,” Wann said.