Four decades after she last hugged her father, Karen Daughety finally can say goodbye.
With her family by her side Thursday, the El Reno woman accepted an urn containing the bone fragments of Lt. Col. Clarence F. Blanton, one of 11 killed when North Vietnamese commandos overran an important tactical air navigation radar site atop a Laotian mountaintop in 1968.
Tears in Daughety's eyes matched the rain that fell on the tarmac at Will Rogers World Airport as her long-lost father's remains were delivered at last.
“It's overwhelming — something I never thought we'd see in our lifetime,” she said, flanked by her husband, daughter and a grandson. “I can't remember my emotions then because it's been so long ago, but I've actually shed more tears in the last three weeks than I ever have.”
On Saturday, Blanton will be buried with full military honors at El Reno Cemetery in an area shared by six generations.
The service is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at Wesley United Methodist Church.
Blanton, recently married and on his second tour overseas, was U.S. commander at the site known as Lima Site 85 in Laos when it was ravaged by enemy forces in a surprise attack.
A U.S. Air Force radar expert, his mission was so secret it wasn't until almost two decades after he was killed that the military revealed where he was when he died.
His wife, however, knew all along.
A secretary for the director of logistics at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Norma Blanton, who now lives in Hot Springs, Ark., said she had to sign a pledge to keep the mission secret before her husband left for war.
“In fact, when they called me and said he was missing in action I told my family and their family he was missing in Vietnam even though I knew it was Laos,” she said. “It did not make a difference; he was missing, and it didn't matter where.”
Lt. Col. Blanton and 18 others were assigned in 1967 to man the radar system installed atop a 5,600-foot mountain peak known as Phao Pha Thi in Houaphan province.
The all-weather system was integral to air bombing missions in North Vietnam, but because Laos was considered neutral the men were decommissioned from the military and reassigned as employees of Lockheed Martin.
Eight of the men who staffed Lima Site 85 were rescued by U.S. helicopters after the firefight, and one man was killed during the evacuation. Numerous attempts to recover the bodies of 10 left behind were unsuccessful.
The event was the largest ground combat loss of U.S. Air Force personnel during the war.
Blanton, 46 when he died, is the second from the battle to be returned home for burial.
The remains of Technical Sgt. Patrick L. Shannon, of Cordell, were identified in 2005.
Missing in action
Norma Blanton, who never remarried, said she remembers her husband as a quiet man who forced her to accept a date with him, later approving the purchase of a 100-acre farm in Arkansas for the couple despite never having set foot on the land.
“He was talking retirement, but suddenly they get this radar perfected, they're going to take it to Laos and so all bets are off,” she said. “We liked the same foods, the same drinks — it was just so easy to get to know him. My mother said, ‘It's no wonder you two get along, you're exactly alike.'”
Her husband left his wedding band behind when he left for Laos, she said.
She was waiting for the day she could return it to his ring finger when she got the dreaded call.