In 1952 the U.S. was embroiled in a war with North Korea. On a classified military mission in Alaska, a 22-year-old from Kansas named Daniel Blasi flew aboard a C-119, known as a flying boxcar, when it crashed into Mount Silverthrone in the Alaska Range, 11 miles east of Denali.
It was one of several military flight crashes in Alaska. There were no survivors among the 19 passengers, and recovery was deemed unrealistic. The report on the crash was filed away as classified material.
But to a large Catholic family in Kansas, the death of Daniel Blasi — one of 17 children — remained a deep well of sorrow, loss and mystery spanning 65 years.
That is why this fall, Father Leo Blasi, a newly ordained priest from the Diocese of Salinas, Kansas, who entered the seminary after his wife’s death, and who wasn’t even born at the time of his uncle’s mountainside crash, came to Alaska with his mother and father (Frank) — Daniel’s younger brother — to get an aerial look at the crash site.
“It’s important to me because it’s important to my dad (Frank),” Father Blasi told the Catholic Anchor last month. “My dad is 84, and he and my mom were still healthy enough to make the trip.”
Among the 17 children in the Blasi family, three older brothers served in World War II, all of whom returned safely. Their example left an impact on Daniel, whose younger brother, Frank, was a teenager when Daniel later died in the mountain crash. Frank idolized his older brother.
But the Blasi siblings were part of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” a group known for its stoicism and quiet resolve in the face of loss.
“Dad and his brothers didn’t talk about Daniel much,” Father Blasi recalled. “I imagine my dad had developed a close relationship to Daniel, but in those days, you locked those things away.”
The family history, however, remained imprinted on Leo Blasi’s mind. The young man with strong family military roots joined the Kansas National Guard in 1985, and altogether spent 29 years in the service, 11 years in either active duty for deployment or in the full-time civil service. The future priest was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina for a year, and flew a Blackhawk helicopter as a medevac pilot in Iraq.
During his service he discovered, via an internet search, that most of those classified reports from his uncle’s death had been declassified. He discovered geographical details and even pictures. As early as 2003, the military publication “Stars and Stripes” ran an article on Blasi’s plans to visit Alaska in the hopes of finding his uncle.
Then, the harsh reality of what it would cost to mount not just the necessary flights but also an expedition to the mountain hit home.
The plan remained but a hope. Meanwhile, Leo Blasi, father of six adult children and grandfather to seven, began to look into the permanent diaconate. When his wife Lynn passed away in 2011, he and his bishop discussed the priesthood. Father Blasi entered Sacred Heart Seminary in Wisconsin in 2013 and was ordained this past June.
During Father Blasi’s priestly formation, his Uncle Daniel’s crash site and his father’s advancing age pulled at him. Then, an unexpected person spurred the long delayed project forward.
Michael Rocereta is a retired geologist and pilot from Eagle River who had developed a passion for investigating military accidents in Alaska. He had self-published a book on one of his investigations: “Letters from the Globemaster Families: The Lost C-124 of Mount Gannett, Alaska.” The book recalled the crash of a troop transport carrying 52 servicemen.
Rocereta also was intrigued by the Mount Silverthorne crash, and he reached out to Father Blasi. By 2014, Rocereta believed he had found the debris field from the crash. In 2016 he obtained specific helicopter low altitude photos. The National Park Service, on whose land the crash site sits, was able to identify the data plate in the wreckage, yielding specific identification for the downed aircraft.
“The next week the Air force requested the permit for the recovery op to begin in 2018,” Father Blasi explained.
This recovery operation may also mean that the Blasi family will be able to bury Daniel’s remains with military honors back in the little rural enclave of St. Leo, Kansas — the name of both the town and the Catholic parish. Seven of Daniel Blasi’s siblings still survive. His parents, of course, are long dead. Daniel’s father died of a heart attack 14 years to the day after his son’s crash.
After all these years, “remains” take on a new and stark meaning.
“The Air Force will do DNA testing on all remnants,” Father Blasi said, “and even if all they find is a fingernail with his DNA, they will do a military funeral service.”
When Father Blasi and his parents arrived in Alaska this summer, they were greeted not only by Rocereta but also by Father Arthur Roraff at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, who invited Father Blasi to celebrate Mass at the parish.
On Aug. 20, when Father Blasi’s parents flew to the crash site with Rocereta, the Kansas priest was celebrating Mass back at St. Andrew and he told his uncle’s story, weaving into it the need for perseverance and the virtue of patience.
There wasn’t enough room for Father Blasi to go on the actual flight with his parents, but he knew the trip wasn’t for or about him. It was all about an aging man, a former farmer and carpenter, who long ago lost a beloved older brother.
“Dad is usually a pretty talkative guy,” Father Blasi observed, “But Mom said he probably didn’t say 15 words on the entire flight. There was just a deep feeling of connection.”