The Vietnam veteran in the Tomb of the Unknowns may be known after all. – Tuesday, 20 January 1998

Evidence that the Pentagon says it is carefully examining suggests the scant remains buried beneath a marble slab at Arlington National Cemetery may belong to Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie of St. Louis, whose A-37 attack plane was shot down over South Vietnam in May 1972.

The military is faced with the unpleasant prospect of digging up the remains to conduct DNA testing — and explaining why officials discarded records that may have linked the remains to the downed pilot.

“The gravesite would have to be disrupted if there were any action taken regarding this set of remains,” Navy Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. “We certainly have an obligation to family members of those individuals who are still missing. … We also have an obligation to all of those who have served in wars in the past and who view this site as very hallowed ground.”

Blassie's family, including his mother, three sisters and a younger brother, say the available evidence points to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns as their loved-one's resting place. But they said Tuesday they are willing to wait while the government inquires further.

“They are having to backtrack on the document trail,” said Pat Blassie, younger sister of the Air Force pilot. “We don't want them to do a quick job. We trust that they are really being serious about this issue.”

As far back as the original selection of the remains to be buried with unknown veterans of World War I, World War II and the Korean War, some have suspected that the Vietnam remains belonged to Blassie. A South Vietnamese recovery team found the remains in late 1972 near a crash site outside An Loc, 60 miles north of Saigon.

Media reports in 1994 stemming from the effort to document prisoners of war and missing in action from Vietnam examined the Blassie case. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch, a veterans' publication, reported in July 1996 that the clothing, parachute fragments and other circumstances surrounding the discovery of the remains pointed to Blassie. CBS News reported in detail on the issue Monday night, touching off the latest round of questions.

The problem now facing the Pentagon results in part from the increasing ability of forensic scientists to identify remains from bare fragments of bone. At the end of World War I, the military had 1,648 unidentified sets of remains, 8,526 after World War II and 848 from the Korean conflict.

Today, the number of unidentified remains “presumed impossible to identify is very, very small,” Doubleday said.

As of 1982 when the military was considering Vietnam War remains for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the government's forensic identification lab in Hawaii had only four sets of unidentified remains. One set might have been a foreigner; two others were eventually identified. The remains buried at Arlington consisted of six bones — so little that the military had to waive a rule requiring that 80 percent of a corpse be recovered for consideration for burial at the Tomb.

“The United States and many other countries have created a tradition whereby one unknown set of remains is going to be accorded the honor and respect that all of them are entitled to,” said Phil Budahn, spokesman for the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group. “We may be getting to the point where technology is outstripping the need for that ritual. If that's the case, that's not bad news.”

But Budahn said the Pentagon should think carefully before opening up the tomb.

“That is a major emotional action to open up that tomb and it ought not to be done unless we're very sure that there's no other way to resolve the issue,” Budahn said.

The decision about how to resolve the questions surrounding who is buried in the tomb probably will rise to the level of President Clinton. Doubleday said the administration would also consult with Congress, which passed the law in 1973 authorizing internment of a Vietnam War unknown at the tomb. The issue arises just weeks after Clinton fended off charges he helped political supporters get coveted burial plots at Arlington. Though the allegations proved false, the widow of a wealthy Clinton supporter and ambassador to Switzerland, Larry Lawrence, asked that the cemetery disinter her husband after reports he had lied about his military record.

For now, though, the four bodies at Arlington National Cemetery remain undisturbed.

A lone honor guard, in dress uniform, carried out the duty the military maintains 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, marching 21 steps in slow cadence, then turning smartly and repeating the process.

Beneath three marble tablets set in the pavement lie the unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Behind the three tablets stands the marble sarcophagus bearing the World War I unknown along with the inscription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

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