Remains of "Unknown Soldier" From Vietnam Are Identified
30 June 1998
remains of an unidentified American serviceman from the Vietnam War, buried
beneath the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery 14 years
ago, are no longer unknown.
They belong to First Lt. Michael Blassie, an Air Force pilot whose attack jet crashed on May 11, 1972, near a village in South Vietnam called An Loc. He was 24 at the time and ever since has, officially, been considered missing in action.
A new type of genetic test -- not available when President Ronald Reagan honored the "unknown soldier" from the Vietnam War at a symbolic state funeral on Memorial Day 1984 -- has matched DNA taken from the remains with DNA from Blassie's mother, officials at the Pentagon said on Monday.
The Pentagon removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns last month after a lengthy investigation ordered by Secretary of Defense William Cohen concluded that the remains very likely belonged to one of nine Americans killed in Vietnam, including Blassie. The lieutenant's family had urged the Pentagon to conduct the DNA tests after news reports raised questions about the identity of the Unknown Soldier.
Cohen, who presided over the disinterment at what is one of the nation's most revered memorials, just across the Potomac River from Washington, is scheduled to announce the results at the Pentagon on Tuesday, but the families of the nine missing Americans were notified by telephone on Monday.
The lieutenant's family declined on Monday night to comment until it received official confirmation of the Pentagon's findings.
The Blassies have said they wanted to take Blassie's remains home to the suburbs of St. Louis, where he was reared. They have said they want to bury him at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, near the grave of his father, George, a veteran of World War II who died in 1991.
The identification of the remains, which until last month lay with unknown soldiers from the two World Wars and the Korean War, has now raised the possibility that there will not be another set of remains put in the tomb.
Officials at the Pentagon have already begun to ask whether there should even be a new search for an unknown soldier. Although 2,087 Americans remain missing from Vietnam and unidentified remains have been gathered, the advances in genetic testing have made it highly unlikely that any set of remains can be called "unknown" with absolute certainty.
If a new set of remains were placed in the tomb, one official said, "you'd have to relive this chapter over and over."
Blassie, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, died when his A-37B attack jet crashed in flames outside An Loc, a hotly contested village near the border with Cambodia. Because of the intense fighting, the site of the crash could not be searched and his remains recovered.
It was not until five months later that a South Vietnamese patrol reached the spot and recovered four ribs, the right humerus and part of the pelvis, as well as a collection of personal items, including Blassie's identification card and remnants of a flight suit.
According to the Pentagon's investigation, the remains were tentatively identified as Blassie's based on that evidence. In 1978, however, the Pentagon's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii found that neither the blood type of the remains nor the size of the humerus matched Blassie's. By then, some of the personal items were lost, and the remains were reclassified as unknown.
The Pentagon's investigation then reviewed the records for all known casualties near An Loc, concluding earlier this year that the remains likely belonged to one of nine Americans, all pilots or crew members.
Using the new tests, which were approved for use only in 1995, the Pentagon compared a sample of mitochondrial DNA removed from the pelvis last month with samples from maternal relatives of eight of the nine. (There was no maternal relative of the ninth.)
The sample matched Blassie's mother, Jean.
For the other families, the uncertainties remain. Althea Strobridge, the mother of Capt. Rodney Strobridge, said in a telephone interview on Monday night that while she was happy for the Blassies, for her at least, nothing had changed.
The Pentagon's circumstantial evidence, including the blood type, had made Strobridge the most likely other match. The captain, a 30-year-old Army helicopter pilot, was shot down in the same area and on the same day in 1972.
At first Mrs. Strobridge said she did not really want to open the Tomb of the Unknowns to test the remains. Six years after Strobridge disappeared, his family, including his mother and his wife, Pat, held a memorial service and officially accepted his death. A white gravestone was placed in his memory at Arlington, not far from the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Still, Mrs. Strobridge, who lives in Perry, Iowa, agreed to give a sample of her blood for the tests.
"It brought it all back so vividly," she said.