Pentagon Dealing With Possibility That Vietnam Unknown Is Not An Unknown – Tuesday, 20 January 1998

Pentagon officials said on Monday night that they were dealing with the possibility that an American killed in Vietnam and interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery might not be unknown at all.

The officials confirmed that they were trying to determine whether the Vietnam-era serviceman was Lt. Michael Blassie, a highly decorated Air Force pilot, whose attack plane was shot down near An Loc on May 11, 1972. There is a possibility that the remains will be exhumed for DNA testing, the Pentagon said.

While conceding on Monday night that she is not sure the Arlington shrine holds the remains of her brother, Blassie's sister Pat said, “The trail leads to the tomb.”

The controversy over the Arlington tomb was reported Monday night on the “CBS Evening News.” The network said the skeletal remains of an American flier were found on Oct. 31, 1972, along with an identity card, money and shreds of a flight suit.

Because the identity card bore Blassie's name, the remains were at first designated “believed to be” Michael Blassie, the network said. But the identity card and money disappeared under circumstances never made clear, the report said, and several years later, with pressure mounting on the Pentagon to find an unknown serviceman from the Vietnam War for interrment at the tomb, the remains were designated unknown.

Ms. Blassie said on Monday night that her family was notified in 1972 that Blassie, who was 24, had been shot down in flames and was presumed dead. But the family was not notified until about five years ago that an identity tag bearing his name had been found, she said.

A spokesman for the Defense Department office that handled matters pertaining to prisoners of war or servicemen missing in action cautioned on Monday night against assuming that the Vietnam casualty in the tomb is Blassie. But he said every effort would be made to retrace the paper trail involving the handling of the remains and that tests on the actual remains were a possibility.

“We're hoping we can do something to satisfy the family,” the spokesman, Larry Greer, said. “We're not sure what that is.”

Greer, who was an Air Force officer for 27 years before taking his present post, rejected any suggestion of deliberate deception.

He confirmed that the identity card and money found on the remains had vanished but said they could have been lost or stolen from the body's discovery by a South Vietnamese patrol until the remains arrived at a mortuary in Saigon.

Greer conceded that some records pertaining to the remains had been destroyed, as CBS reported, but he said that was standard policy, as was widely reported at the time, to “preserve the sanctity of the unknown.”

Unlike previous wars, the Vietnam conflict did not yield many bodies that could not be identified. In fact, because of DNA testing and other advances in forensics, the Pentagon had trouble finding an unknown serviceman from that war to honor.

But one was finally chosen, and in Memorial Day services in 1984 he was interred next to his brethren from earlier wars.

“As a child, did he play on some street in a great American city?” President Ronald Reagan asked, his voice choked with emotion. “Did he work beside his father on a farm in America's heartland? Did he marry? Did he have children?”

No, Ms. Blassie said on Monday night, assuming for a moment that the remains are her brother's. Michael Blassie grew up in St. Louis, was single, loved sports and graduated from the Air Force Academy. His father, now dead, was a meat-cutter.

Suppose, his sister was asked, that the remains in the tomb are not those of her brother. That will be all right, she said, because at least the family will know.

And if the remains are his? “We want to bring him home,” she said, adding that “home” could mean a cemetery in St. Louis or, perhaps, Arlington itself.

“Putting him to rest with a name on the headstone — that would be home,” she said.

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