Vietnam Unknown To Be Removed On May 14, 1998
Courtesy of CBS News
The Defense Department plans to remove the casket of the Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns one week from Thursday. 

The remains will be moved to a military laboratory where two to three months of tests will be conducted in an effort to establish identity. 

In making the decision, Secretary William Cohen considered the sacred character of the Tomb but decided the government's responsibility to identify war dead was paramount. 

Plans call for construction of a temporary wall to screen the actual disinterment from the public. Work will begin Tuesday night and continue for 24 to 36 hours. A crane will lift marble and concrete covers from the crypt in order to remove the casket and then replace them. 

The request to open the Tomb was made by the family of Michael Blassie, an Air Force pilot killed in Vietnam in 1972.

A CBS News investigation uncovered evidence that Blassie was the Unknown, prompting a Pentagon inquiry that concluded the remains in the tomb could be Blassie or one of eight other servicemen. 

Scientists who will conduct DNA and anthropological tests cautioned that they can't be sure of making an identification. Much depends on the extent to which bones were damaged before recovery by such things as water, sunlight and acid in the soil. 

"All these things can degrade the DNA, and so you don't really know in this case until you try it," said forensic anthropologist David Rankin. 

The Blassie family gathered in a St. Louis suburb, was pleased by the news. 

"I think we're almost to the end of it because I believe he's in the Tomb. I've believed that since we saw all the evidence," said Blassie's mother Jean. 

Veterans groups applauded the decision. Said one official, "It shows that the need to account for all our war dead and missing doesn't stop, not even at the gates of Arlington Cemetery."