Pentagon Mulls Mystery in Tomb of the Unknowns – 21 January 1998

The Pentagon says it's weighing the possibility that modern DNA science may let it identify Vietnam-era remains buried at the hallowed Tomb of the Unknowns and supposedly known only to God.

The issue arose because of relatives' concerns that the Vietnam “unknown” may in fact be 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, whose Air Force A37 attack plane was shot down near An Loc on May 11, 1972 and who is listed as killed in action, body not recovered, Defense Department officials said.

Pentagon officials said they were carrying out a painstaking review to curb the potential fallout on the Tomb of the Unknowns, one of the most famous spots in Arlington National Cemetery.

“What we want to do is to determine, does the current science enable us with confidence to conclude that remains in the tomb could be identified?” said Navy Capt. Mike Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman.

“And secondly, if we have a possible association with a specific individual, is it in the best interest of all concerned that we go ahead and do so?” he added.

“We certainly have an obligation to family members of those individuals who are still missing. We have an obligation to family members who have unresolved questions. 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,” Doubleday told a regular news briefing.

He declined to spell out a time frame for the review, which he said was being handled by those dealing in personnel and readiness issues as well as prisoner of war and missing in action matters.

Unlike previous U.S. wars, the Indochina wars centered on Vietnam yielded only a “very, very small” number of remains that could not be positively identified, Doubleday said. Many have said that that the United States probably will “never again have an unknown as a result of war,” he added.

Thanks to DNA testing and other forensic advances, the Pentagon had some difficulty finding a Vietnam-era veteran to honor beside the unknowns from the two World Wars and Korea.

But a set of remains was eventually chosen from those at the U.S. Government Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. They were laid to rest at Memorial Day services in 1984 attended by President Ronald Reagan.

POW/MIA activists have long accused the Pentagon of entombing someone prematurely in a rush to help close the books on the issue of the 2,100 or so Americans still listed as missing from the wars, about 1,570 of them in Vietnam.

Doubleday said records of the deliberations that led to the choice of the unknown had been destroyed in keeping with Defense Department policy.

This was to “protect the sanctity of the site and in keeping with the overall philosophy that the remains are known only to God,” he said.

Many facts pertaining to Blassie's remains closely match those of the Vietnam-era unknown soldier, according to Ted Sampley, a longtime POW activist and publisher of the U.S. Veteran Dispatch in Kinston, North Carolina.

The Central Identification lab determined the unknown to be a male Caucasian who was 26 to 33 years old. Blassie was a male Caucasian who, at the time he became missing in action, was 24 years old, Sampley wrote in the July 14, 1994 edition of the Veteran Dispatch.

Remnants found with the remains of the Unknown Soldier indicated he was a fighter pilot. Blassie, from St. Louis, was the only fighter pilot listed killed in action, body not recovered within a 2,500 square mile area of where the remains of the Unknown Soldier were found, Sampley said.

Doubleday suggested the executive branch would consult Congress before any testing of the remains with a newer form of DNA “sequencing” that did not exist in the 1980s.

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