Colonel (Ret.) Donald E. “Don” Bliss, 87, of Palmyra, passed away peacefully on Sunday, November 17, 2019, at the Lebanon VA Medical Center. Born Thursday, May 12, 1932 in Newkirk, Oklahoma, he was the son of the late Harmon E. and Erma C. (Parks) Bliss. He was married to Lois A. (Collins) Bliss in 2000.
Growing up in Newkirk, Don demonstrated leadership tendencies early in life. He was a leader on his High School football team, the President of the Oklahoma 4-H Club, and won the State title for best sheep shearer in Oklahoma his senior year of High School. However, it was the sight of an airplane that would capture his attention, and he knew from the time he was a young child that his calling was in the sky as an aviator. Upon graduating from Newkirk High School, Don enrolled in Oklahoma A&M University, now Oklahoma State University. As a college freshman, Don joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps, beginning his life in service to his country as a career Army aviator and infantryman. At OSU, he was a member of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity, and received a degree in Animal Husbandry.
Upon graduation from Oklahoma A&M in 1954, Don received his commission in the US Army as a Second Lieutenant. His career in the Army provided many possibilities for Don, including the opportunity to fly rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft. Upon receiving his aviator wings, he was stationed in various places throughout the world, including Germany, Iceland and Okinawa.
It was during his time in Okinawa that Don experienced a pivotal turn in his career as a leader and Army infantry aviator. He was the original Commander of the Casper Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a rotary and fixed wing group which was deployed to Vietnam in May 1965. During his first tour in Vietnam as the Commander of the Casper platoon, he was involved in a number of significant engagements, including “Operation Hump.” During that operation, Don was able to save many of the infantry soldiers that were engaged in heavy combat with the Viet Cong on a battlefield known as “Hill 65.” Many soldiers made it to Don’s Huey aircraft and as the already overloaded helicopter was taking off, a soldier came running out of the jungle. Don was alerted, “Wait there is one more!” and he touched back down and brought the soldier onto the aircraft, as he would not leave anyone to die in the field. Through expert flying and much bravery, the severely weighted down helicopter was able to take off to safety. Many years after Don retired, he received a call from that last soldier from “Hill 65” saying “I’ve been looking for you for 47 years.” Don said, “Do I owe you money?”. The soldier said, “No, but I owe you my life.” Had it not been for the bravery of Colonel Donald Bliss and his skill as a pilot, many would have been lost that day, including, and most certainly that last soldier. For his actions that day, he was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross.
Don’s bravery was once again tested during his second tour to Vietnam. In a surprise attack on the US Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968, Don commanded the first helicopter to arrive at the US Embassy. In the night-long battle he was able to bring combat troops into the Embassy and rescued civilian workers fleeing for their lives. For his bravery, he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Returning from Vietnam, his combat action completed, Don was stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he commanded the 5th Student Battalion (Officer Candidate School), an infantry basic training battalion. Following his time at Ft. Benning, Don became one of a select few to attend the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Upon graduating from the War College in 1973, Don was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. His final assignment before retiring from the Army was as the Senior Army Advisor to the Pennsylvania National Guard at Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA. After his career in the military, Don spent more than a decade as a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch, retiring in 1994.
Don was known for his strong handshake and quick-witted, upbeat sense of humor. He could make friends, acquaintances, and strangers laugh in an instant. Don was extremely active in his retirement including holding leadership positions on the Palmyra Public Library Board, Military Liaison Committee of the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce, Military Officers Association of America, and the University of Shippensburg Foundation. He was also active as Chairman of the Church Council and taught Sunday School at First United Methodist Church in Palmyra, and was President of The Oaks Homeowner’s Association in Palmyra. He was a former member of The Hershey Country Club where he enjoyed golfing and Quentin Riding Club where he was involved in Pennsylvania Quarter Horse shows. Don was enthusiastically involved with his family, his friends, his community, his church and his golf game until his passing.
While Don was very proud of his professional accomplishments, he was most proud of his family, always speaking highly about them and clearly showing his love for each. In return, his extended family loved him dearly, appreciating Don for always being there for them when they needed him most. Despite the pressures over the years of deployments, war, and the demands of his subsequent assignments and career paths, Don always put the needs of his family first, and tried to maintain an even keel, despite the early challenges of raising four very active and headstrong boys. As one of Don’s sons recently said, “He bailed me out so many times; I would not be where I am today had it not been for him.” Each of his family members will attest to the love he gave them, and all will miss him dearly.
In addition to his wife of over 19 years, he is survived by four sons: Russell E. Bliss, (wife, Kris), of TN; Gary D. Bliss, (wife, Hollis), of FL; Marshall “Chip” J. Bliss, (wife, Michelle), of TN; Marvin “Skip” D. Bliss, of FL; and two step-children: Luann, (husband, Patrick Miorin), of VA; and Brian D. Fonner, of Palmyra. Also surviving are 8 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, as well as Don’s extended family and caring friends.
Don was a member of United Methodist Church in Newkirk, OK and an active associate member of Faith United Church of Christ in Grantville, PA. A funeral service will be held at 11 AM on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 at Faith United Church of Christ, 117 North Faith Road, Grantville, PA 17028, with the Reverend George E. Robertson officiating. There will be a viewing held at the church on Tuesday from 9 AM until the time of the service. Private interment will take place in Arlington National Cemetery at the convenience of the family. Arrangements have been entrusted with the Rothermel-Finkenbinder Funeral Home & Crematory, Inc., 25 West Pine Street, Palmyra, PA 17078, 717-838-9211.
Kindly omit flowers. Memorial contributions may be made in Don’s honor to a Veteran’s organization, Faith United Church of Christ of Grantville, United Methodist Church of Newkirk or charity of one’s choice.
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