Vietnam Unknown May Be Air Force Pilot – Tuesday, 20 January 1998

The Pentagon is trying to decide how to deal with the possibility that one of the men buried in Arlington’s National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns is really not unknown at all — and with calls for the body to be exhumed and examined with modern identification methods.

The furor erupted Monday night with a CBS News report that the remains probably are those of Vietnam-era Air Force pilot Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis. His plane was shot down in 1972.

“Everything leads to the tomb,” Blassie’s sister, Pat, said. “If it’s Michael, he is not unknown. He might be unidentified, but he’s not unidentifiable. And we want to bring him home.”

CBS reported that Pentagon officials operated for eight years on the belief that the skeletal remains eventually buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns were “believed to be” Michael Blassie’s.

His identity card, some money and pieces of a flight suit were found along with the remains, and at least three American soldiers saw the card, the report said.

But in 1980, an Army review board said the remains were not Blassie’s, according to CBS, and four years later they were buried at Arlington alongside the bodies of unidentified soldiers from previous wars.

The network reported that the incident may have been driven by the fact that evolving identification techniques were so advanced by the time of the Vietnam War that no more than three or four of those killed in the conflict, and whose remains were recovered, were not positively identified.

It suggested Blassie was in that small group and that pressure to come up with someone from the Vietnam War to be placed in the tomb with the other unknows led to his remains eventually being declared officially unidentified.

But with identification techniques even further advanced now — specifically with developments in DNA matching — Blassie’s family wants a more definite answer once and for all.

Pat Blassie said the family would support exhuming the remains inside the tomb.

“It is the Tomb of the Unknowns, and yes, it is an honorable place to be, but not for a known soldier,” she told The Associated Press on Monday night. “That’s not what the tomb was meant for.”

Blassie’s mother, Jean, said she just wants to know the truth.

“I’d like to have my son … with his own tombstone,” she said. “I would like him brought home.”

Larry Greer, spokesman for the Defense Department’s POW-MIA office, told The Associated Press Monday night that all records regarding the selection process behind the Tomb of the Unknowns are destroyed “so that these remains would be known only to God.”

“That is a long-held tradition. It seems that would have been a logical way to protect the sanctity of the `unknown’ designation,” Greer said.

But he indicated careful thought will be given to DNA testing.

“We’re going to do this in a very purposeful and methodical way. We’re going to be very deliberate. We’re not going to be rushed,” Greer said. “After we gather all the information we believe is available, we’re going to be passing it up to appropriate officials to see what level such a decision might be made.”

Greer said the Defense Department has stayed in contact with the family.

“From time to time, Blassie’s name would pop up in a rumor about the Tomb of the Unknowns, just as there have been other rumors of other people,” Greer said.

Lt. Col. Diana Lawhon, another Defense Department spokeswoman, told The AP the Pentagon was reviewing the Blassies’ claim.

“If we find anything out, the family will be the first to know,” she said.

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