No Truer Friend or Tougher Foe.

Ted Sampley, a founder of Rolling Thunder, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Green Beret who was best known as an unyielding activist for American prisoners of war and missing servicemen, died in May 2009 of complications from heart surgery just weeks before Rolling Thunder XXII. Ted was 62.

He became a fervent POW/MIA activist in the early 1980s after the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His passion for this issue knew no bounds and over the years captured much public attention.

It was only natural that he would combine forces with three other Vietnam veterans to found Rolling Thunder, First Amendment Demonstration Run in Washington, D.C.

But Ted’s biggest claim to fame came in 1994, when he presented evidence that the Vietnam-era remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery were not anonymous after all.

Through painstaking analysis of service records and maps, he concluded that the remains were those of missing Air Force pilot Lt. Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972. But Ted faced many obstacles, including Lt. Blassie’s incredulous family. In the end, however, the Blassie family assisted

Ted in his research and, in 1998, U.S. military officials confirmed Lt. Blassie’s identity through DNA analysis. Indeed, it was Air Force Colonel Pat Blassie, Lt. Blassie’s sister, who delivered the most heartfelt eulogy at Ted’s funeral.

Ted Sampley gained notoriety for his rabble-rousing activism, including chaining himself to the White House gates, several trips to jail for acts of protest, and displaying bamboo cages holding mock POWs. But a kinder, gentler side of Ted was revealed at his memorial service by those who loved and knew him best—his family and friends from his hometown of Kinston, N.C. Few beyond Kinston knew that Ted was a master potter and skillful painter until they saw his pottery and paintings that were on display in the funeral home.

Ted was a leading civic activist as well and the people of Kinston credit him for helping to revitalize the downtown area, especially Heritage Street, which had become outdated and forgotten. He helped build a replica of the Confederate warship CSS Neuse II and to establish a museum of Confederate history. He also co-founded the Salute to Veterans festival and had begun work on the National Walk of Honor at Neuseway Park in tribute to veterans. “Ted had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I have ever met,” said festival co-founder Mary Beth Dawson. “He would put up a very gruff exterior, but if anyone ever broke through it, he had a heart of gold.”

Among the more than 1,000 at Ted’s standing-room-only funeral were dignitaries from the Vietnam Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the city of Kinston, former U.S. congressman and author Bill Hendon, members of Rolling Thunder and countless family and friends. A large screen TV flashed images of Ted, the father, the activist, the potter and the civic leader.

Many of the speakers conceded that Ted Sampley was controversial and could often be a friend and a foe. But all also agreed that they were there to honor a great American patriot.

We all will miss you Ted.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here

Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder Legislative Director