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.
“The last note he wrote, he said, ‘It's really spooky up here tonight,' and now that I look back it's really scary, but at the time I didn't know,” she said. “That was the eighth (of March), and they were wiped out on the 11th.”
A Lockheed Martin company official told her that her husband was missing in action; it would be several months before she would realize he was dead.
Even then, without official confirmation, she was tempted to keep hope alive.
Norma Blanton never stopped working alongside other wives of servicemen missing or killed in action, lobbying U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense to acknowledge the truth about their husbands' deaths and to account for them in their memorials for the dead.
She currently volunteers as Arkansas state coordinator for the National League of POW/MIA Families.
Today, 575 American servicemen remain missing in Laos, according to U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War, Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C. A total of 1,661 remain missing across Southeast Asia, according to the office.
In 2005, a Laotian citizen turned over an identification card bearing Blanton's name along with bones purportedly found at the base of the mountain, the department announced Monday.
Circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools — including mitochondrial DNA which matched that of Blanton's sister — convinced scientists the remains belong to Blanton.
Norma Blanton said when the officer brought the ID to her last December, he told her they could not prove the remains were those of her husband.
She begged him to try again to match the recovered bone fragments to the family DNA. After a second attempt the suspicions were verified.
“I said, ‘Could we maybe try again?' And he went back and he happened to be in a room with a scientist and two other people from the laboratory in Hawaii,” she said. “He said, ‘Can you help her out, can you give this a try?' And it worked. I didn't think it would work, but I needed to rule it out.”
On Thursday, while Blanton drove from Arkansas to El Reno to prepare for the weekend services, Daughety — her stepdaughter, 21 at the time of her father's death — received the urn at the Oklahoma City airport.
Karen Daughety said burying her father's remains will bring closure.
For years the shroud of secrecy over her father's death at Lima Site 85 prevented her from fully accepting his death. Now, she said, she can move on.
“Sit and wait, sit and wait — 44 years, sit and wait,” she said. “The first couple years I had a little hope, mainly because of his rank. But the older I got, the wiser I got. It's been such a long, slow process and we were informed like a month ago and now everything is so fast, it's really hard to tell what your emotions are.”
Her daughter, Lauri Bone, said the event closes a chapter of her life as well. Though she never knew her grandfather, he has maintained a heavy presence in the daily lives of her family.
Lt. Col. Blanton is the second of 11 to be returned home, she said, but hopefully he's not the last.
“We'll continue hoping and praying for all the other families — that they will at some point have the closure that we have, that we're going through right now,” she said.