by Joe Boyles
Today May 30th, is the date originally intended to be Memorial Day. The idea behind this popular holiday is that we are supposed to remember those servicemen that have died in service to our nation safeguarding the liberties we hold dear. In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, designated this date as “Decoration Day” when the graves of their fallen comrades would be decorated with flowers. Later, the name of the celebration was changed to Memorial Day and when Congress passed the Monday’s Holiday Bill in the early 1970s, the significance of the actual date was lost.
On June 3rd 1970, I was among 745 young men to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy. We had endured four tough years of military training, academics, character building, and athletics to qualify for our degree and a commission as a second lieutenant. We were poised and ready to strike out and conquer the world. Most of us headed off to flight school where we would “slip the surly bonds of earth.”
Within a couple of years, nine of our number had died in the skies over Southeast Asia. They are pictured here as the young men they will forever be — I don’t know that any of them reached their 25th birthday. Let me tell you about my classmates.
Of the nine, I knew “Rocky” Rovito the least. I believe he was a Catholic kid from Pennsylvania. He died in the summer of 1973 (all of the others died in 1972 during the last full year of the war) in a helicopter crash in northwestern Cambodia. The second paragraph of a poem by his name in our 1970 Polaris yearbook is prophetic: “I came to serve my country; to fight the enemy; to die the death – Old soldiers fade.”
Three of the dead were FACs or forward air controllers. They flew light, propeller-driven aircraft to direct fighters in close air support missions. Because their aircraft flew low and slow, they had a dangerous mission. Dick Christy was an Ohio farm boy, excellent athlete and natural leader. If he had survived, his career would have been marked by great distinction. I didn’t know John Haselton very well. He was from Vermont and another excellent athlete. Art Hardy was a married man. I’m not sure if his wife had a baby before Art was lost. My most enduring memory of Hardy was that I was once assigned to guard him in an intramural basketball game – I “held“him to 35 points. He wiped the floor with me. Art planned to become a test pilot — he would have made a good one.
Two of the fellows were in the same fighter squadron flying the A-37 Dragonfly from Bien Hoa. Steve Gravrock was killed in July. He was a quiet, introspective fellow as I recall. Two months earlier, Mike Blassie had been lost. His jet crashed behind enemy lines and his remains were unrecovered … or so we thought. Mike was from St. Louis, a great athlete, and another natural leader. The sky was the limit for this guy.
In a solemn 1984 ceremony, the remains of a Vietnam veteran were interred at Arlington in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. More than a decade later, Mike’s family learned there was a good chance that the remains in that tomb were those of their son and brother. The family waged a long and difficult fight with the Defense Department and Veterans Administration to have the remains exhumed and tested using mitochondrial DNA. When this happened in 1998, the tests proved they belonged to Mike. Today, he is buried in the National Cemetery at Jefferson Barracks near his hometown.
After graduation, I attended navigator training near Sacramento with the last three. Fran Townsend, Bud Hargrove, and Mike Turose were among about seventy students in Class 71-19. We were together in Nav School from August 1970 until May 1971. Fran was a Texan and his graduation assignment was in the reconnaissance version (RF-4C) of the Phantom. He was shot down over Bat Lake, North Vietnam in August 1972. His pilot, Bill Gauntt survived but Fran did not. I do not believe his body has ever been recovered.
Of all these fine fellows, I knew Bud Hargrove and Mike Turose the best. We were among 19 members of D section in Class 71-19. Bud was an easy going fellow from Harlingen, TX and a natural leader. We both took Phantoms for our next assignment and trained together in the first F-4 class at Luke AFB just west of Phoenix. His next assignment was to the famed Triple Nickel (555 TFS) at Udorn, Thailand where he scored two MiG kills before being lost in November returning from a combat mission.
Mike Turose was one of my closest friends at the Academy. He was a fun loving guy from the Cleveland area and smart as a whip. His major was electrical engineering and I swear, he never cracked a book – he aced everything he looked at. He loved muscle cars and baseball. We were both Eagle Scouts and were part of a team that welcomed new Eagles from the Colorado Springs area into the fraternity.
Mike wasn’t married so at Nav School, he was a frequent visitor at our apartment sampling Linda’s cooking. Mike stayed at Mather after Nav School to attend electronic warfare officer training – a natural progression for an electrical engineer. After training in the F-105G Thunderchief, he was off to Korat AB, Thailand. I joined him in June 1972 when my squadron came to Korat, and we resumed our old friendship.
I can still recall the time, place, moment on September 17, 1972 when Mike’s aircraft was reported missing over North Vietnam. Although I had just returned from flying myself, I quickly joined a group planning a rescue mission. The planning hadn’t gone very far when we learned that Navy divers had found the bodies of Turose and Zorn just offshore and confirmed they were dead. Fire from shore batteries prevented the recovery of their bodies. It broke my heart … still does.
These guys are part of my life experience, and I am a better man because I knew them. They are my heroes.