A Name for the Unknown
For Michael Blassie's Family, Arlington's Tomb May Hold a Long-Sought Answer
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 1998
Mo.—The six bones -- four ribs, a pelvis and a humerus -- have lain in
their honored resting place for nearly 14 years.
When they were placed in Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day 1984, it marked a belated gesture of national closure after the Vietnam War. There the matter lay, at least officially, until last month, when the Defense Department acknowledged that the bones had been found with money, shreds of a pilot's flight suit, part of an ejection seat -- and two ID cards belonging to Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie. The 24-year-old pilot was shot down in May 1972, five months before the remains were recovered.
The announcement, accompanied by the news that the Pentagon is considering digging up the bones for DNA tests, has embarrassed the department, provoked a congressional outcry -- and transformed Michael Blassie's mother and siblings as they gather here in an effort to bring him home.
For Jean Blassie, grief is an old and strict acquaintance. "My younger son said, 'Mom, you never cry,' " she recalls, sitting in her apartment dining area with a picture of her firstborn. "I told him, 'I don't cry. I almost cry, but I don't cry.' "
That resolve has been tested in the two weeks since news reports suggested strongly that the Vietnam War remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns are Michael's.
"It's as if he just died," says her daughter Pat Blassie, who drove from Atlanta to be with her mother in this St. Louis suburb.
"It's really been a bad week," allows her mother, a widow since 1991. "Like a funeral."
A funeral with a particular purpose. "We want the truth," she says. "We want to bring him home."
The Blassie family had heard speculation for several years that the bones in the Vietnam crypt were actually Michael's.
"But we never had any proof," says Pat, 39.
For eight years after the remains were discovered, they were officially listed as "believed to be Michael J. Blassie," although the family was never told that. But for reasons that are unclear, the bones were ultimately reclassified as unknown.
When the news was about to break, Jean Blassie called a family meeting. Her other children, Judy Cozad, 46, Mary Hart, 43, and George Blassie, 36, all live in the St. Louis area. Pat, a public affairs officer in the Air Force Reserve and the family's chief press representative, packed up her laptop, printer and fax machine before heading home.
"My mother said she wanted to bring him home, and every family member agreed," Pat says. "Every member has to agree."
Their decision has sent them careering through a maze of unexpected discoveries, unfamiliar questions and surprisingly fresh pain. Still, each of them calls it a blessing.
"I feel that knowing -- it's given us a little peace," Jean says. "It's always been in the back of your mind -- where is he? Even though he was reported killed in action . . . you wonder if he really was." Pause. "I didn't dwell on that. I couldn't."
Her voice has grown a little tight. She turns to her daughter and asks, "Was that all right?"
Michael Blassie's A-37 attack plane went down on May 11, 1972, near An Loc, 60 miles north of Saigon. Because of an ongoing North Vietnamese offensive, it wasn't until October that the bones were found by South Vietnamese troops, together with the IDs and the other articles. "But between the time those remains were found and the time they arrived at the U.S. mortuary in Saigon, those identifying remains became separated from the skeletal remains," says Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office.
The IDs have never been recovered. But in any case, for the Pentagon, their proximity to the six recovered bones doesn't prove anything. "If you had an auto accident and there were unidentifiable remains with a driver's license, that obviously wouldn't be enough to ID the body," Greer says, adding that some American soldiers gave their IDs to others. "Why people would want to give up their IDs I can't imagine. But it did happen in Vietnam."
From Saigon, the remains were shipped to the Central Identification Laboratory -- Hawaii. It was there that in 1980 their classification was changed from "believed to be Michael Blassie."
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration was being pressured to add a set of remains from the Vietnam War to the Tomb of the Unknowns. The move was seen as an overdue gesture of reconciliation, as well as a display of support for the families of those still missing in action. Lawmakers and MIA activists have suggested that the Pentagon, unable to find an unidentified body, destroyed documents identifying Michael Blassie's remains.
Not so, says Greer. He acknowledges that documentation relating to the selection process was destroyed, but says that is traditional in the designation of Unknown Soldiers -- they are, after all, supposed to remain unknown.
The remains were sent to Washington on May 25, 1984, and lay in state for three days at the Capitol. An estimated 250,000 people filed past the coffin to pay their respects. On May 28 the bones were transported by caisson to the cemetery, stopping briefly at the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
There is something at once romantic and comforting about the Unknown Soldier. He stands for all, paying the considerable price of his own identity. His lost dream, his weeping mother, his fatherless child -- these are invisible to us.
In a widely quoted speech at the Tomb of the Unknowns, President Reagan asked, "As a child, did he play on some street in a great American city? Did he work beside his father on a farm in America's heartland? Did he marry? Did he have children?"
Ten years after the burial, Pat Blassie read an article in the U.S. Veteran Dispatch by Vietnam vet Ted Sampley, who has devoted years to POW-MIA activism, which said that the remains in the tomb were those of her brother. She contacted the Air Force but was told there was nothing to substantiate the claim.
Then came the news of last month. The Blassie family now hopes the government will agree to exhume the coffin for a mitochondrial DNA test, which can establish identity through genetic markers in the maternal line. If they get the okay, Jean Blassie will allow a few drops of her blood to be drawn. Should the test go as the family expects, she will be told that the few bones from the tomb are indeed those of her older son.
If not, Pat says, "At least we'll know the truth. Obviously it will be disappointing because we'll still wonder, 'Where is Michael Blassie?' "
The two world wars and Korea had hundreds, even thousands, of unidentified remains, far more than Vietnam. But the bones of U.S. service members continue to be recovered there to this day. "There are currently a number of skeletal remains yet to be identified" at the Central Identification Laboratory, says Greer.
So if the Vietnam soldier's remains were exhumed and turned out to be Michael Blassie's, would there be another set to place in the tomb? "That's not really something I can address," says Greer, pointing out that identification efforts are ongoing at the laboratory. As if to prove it, on Friday his office announced the identification of two more previously unaccounted-for Vietnam casualties.
There is no word on the Pentagon's timing. "We're under no timetable pressure to do this because we've made the decision, and the family concurs, that this has to be done right, not fast," says Greer. "The decisions that are made here . . . are ones that the country will have to live with forever."
It's said that when you bury a parent you bury your past, and when you bury a child you bury your future. Jean Blassie's face at times reveals the scars of a woman whose future was once, if not destroyed, then grotesquely mutated.
For 10 years after Michael was killed, she was unable to discuss it with outsiders. "It was very hard," she says. "People would ask about it. I might give them a sentence, but I really couldn't talk about it."
The family learned the news the day after the crash. "Two Air Force officers came to my husband's work," Blassie says. "I was notified at work. I was working in a bank."
Tensely, she adds, "I wouldn't even want to describe how I felt."
As she composes herself, she looks across the living room where, perched above a chair with a pillow that bears the words "Love One Another," her canary has resumed its periodic screeching.
Jean won't tell her age, but whatever it is, it doesn't seem to have slowed her down much. She works part time as a department store sales clerk, plays golf and bowls.
By common consent Pat became the chief organizer of the family's drive to have the remains exhumed. She produced a map to help reporters find Jean Blassie's home. A fax cover sheet from "1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie Family" lists fax and phone numbers, as well as an e-mail address (finalrestp @aol.com).
"Maybe this will bring Pat home for good," Jean says. Pat just smiles. The mother concludes, "I would like it, but I doubt it will happen."
Members of Missouri's congressional delegation have been sympathetic and very attentive. Rep. James Talent (R), Jean Blassie's congressman, came to the house to offer his support, and Republican Sens. John Ashcroft and Christopher Bond telephoned and have spoken out on the family's behalf.
Rep. William Clay (D) said that if Pentagon leaders falsified records of Michael Blassie's remains, they behaved like "common thugs."
"We haven't talked to him," Pat says.
And they don't agree with him.
"We just want the truth, and we want to move forward," says Jean. "Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody."
Pat: "We have a great government. People were making decisions. We weren't there. It's hard to know the thought processes they went through."
Jean: "Anger? Not from me. Not from Pat."
A Frozen Future
George Blassie was 5 when his big brother left home for the Air Force Academy and 11 when he died. Yes, he says, he feels cheated.
"There's an emptiness," he explains. "Not having that man in your life, helping you through. I remember him coming home for Christmas and making me do multiplication tables while everybody else was doing Christmas decorations. I was going crazy. Finally he let me go.
"If I'd had somebody like that more -- it would've been really great."
George, the customer service manager at a grocery store, and his other two sisters, Judy and Mary, have come to their mother's apartment to remember Michael and to spend some time with Pat, who's returning to Atlanta. Together the four have formed a protective phalanx, screening their mother's phone calls and responding to media inquiries.
"Pat does national news so we don't look dumb, and we do local news," laughs Judy, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "She's the big sister now all of a sudden."
Though Judy, only three years younger than Michael, allows that "I can remember him doing stupid stuff," for the most part their recollections of him are sealed in the amber of a sibling crush. When they speak of him, they seem almost to become their former selves.
"When he'd come home from the academy, everybody'd want his attention," says Mary, who works at a church school. "There wasn't enough of him." She smiles. "This just brings back a lot of really good memories."
Pat's eyes widen. "It's funny," she says. "We've all gotten 25 years older, but he's frozen. He just sort of stops there."
Flanking an arrangement of tired flowers on a table are four frames, each containing a medal awarded to Michael Blassie: Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, Air Medal With Four Oak Leaf Clusters. The first two salute extraordinary or heroic action while in a combat zone, the third is in recognition of wounds suffered while in a combat zone, and the fourth is for making many flights in combat zones.
All were bestowed posthumously. But "this was more than a simple fact of his perishing," says Greer. "He was witnessed doing some heroic things while in combat."
Michael arrived in Vietnam in January 1972, and when his one-man fighter crashed four months later, he was flying his 132nd mission. "It must have been hectic over there," his mother says.
Retired Col. Mel Ledbetter was his commanding officer. "It was a very active time for us because the North Vietnamese had crossed the border on Easter Sunday of '72," he says from his home in Tennessee.
"We had an abundance of targets. "They threw up a lot of antiaircraft fire. Mike was killed attacking a gun site."
Ledbetter remembers the young fighter pilot as "a fellow that always had a smile" and "a very good, aggressive pilot. . . . You could tell he was a comer."
Michael grew up in St. Louis and attended Catholic schools, excelling in languages, music and sports. Then, in 1966, he was off to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
"He was the oldest, and we all looked up to him," says Pat, who was 14 when he died. "He'd always motivate us to do our best."
A look comes over her face, and her warm, buttery voice rises a bit. "He was real easy to be around," she says. "He was this big important pilot, but I always felt regular around him."
In an autobiographical sketch he was assigned to write after being transferred to Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., Michael noted the pleasure his "middle class family" took in his having attended the academy.
"Even more important to them was the fact that they knew I was not associated with any so called peace movement," he continued. "My father would rather see me dead than to 'cop out' on my country."
Of the war, Jean Blassie says simply, "He believed those people needed help over there."
In the short time since their story found its way into the headlines, the Blassies have heard from several people who knew Michael -- an old girlfriend who says he changed her life, an admiring underclassman from the academy, a couple of people who named sons for him.
"We have learned so much," says Pat. "No matter what, it's been a good thing."
She brings two pictures of Michael over to the table. In one he's perched on the side of a fighter plane, in the other he poses with his kid brother, then 9 or 10. He's a handsome, mustachioed six-footer who looks happy and proud and confident about the future he turned out not to have.
"He'd probably be a general by now," his mother said earlier. "He'd probably have a family. . . . He had such a terrific education. He could have done anything.
"In April he'll be 50 years old."
At the stone plaza of Arlington Cemetery's white-columned Memorial Amphitheater lie four servicemen, the unknown soldiers of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They are guarded 24 hours a day by a sentinel from the 3rd U.S. Infantry.
The centerpiece of the sacred shrine, opened in 1921, is the magnificent raised sarcophagus over the grave of the World War I unknown. On it are the words "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." That was of course the War to End All Wars, but history had other ideas. The military elected to bury the remains from the next three conflicts in the plaza itself, next to the sarcophagus.
The guards work in one-hour shifts -- 30 minutes in warm weather -- marching 21 steps down a mat that is laid in front of the four graves, pausing 21 seconds and returning. The plaza is cordoned off, keeping observers at a stately distance. Signs admonishing visitors to show "Silence and Respect" seem superfluous.
When Congress, borrowing the idea from the British and French, called for the burial of an unknown World War I soldier, four bodies were taken from graveyards in France, each representing a different theater of operation. They were placed in identical caskets, and a highly decorated infantryman made the selection by placing a white rose on one of them.
Decades later, two unknowns from World War II, one from the Pacific theater and one from the European, were selected, and again a much-honored soldier chose one of them. Three days later the same process went on with four Korean War unknowns. Both final choices were buried at the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.
Through the seasons they rest there, a hallowed symbol of a nation's refusal to forget its lost warriors. Year after year the living come, quietly and somberly. They watch the lone sentry, they pay their respects, they reflect on the reasons young men sometimes have to die. And in a few cases, they wonder whether the bones in this grave or that one are those of someone they love.