Dispute on Tomb of Unknowns Pits Policy Against Heart

Sometime soon, a construction crane may lift several tons of granite, concrete and marble at one of the nation's most hallowed sites, the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, so scientists can try to name the serviceman interred there most recently.

If the tomb is opened, it is quite possible the scientists will find that the man laid to rest in 1984 was Michael Blassie, a highly decorated Air Force lieutenant who was killed on May 11, 1972, when his attack plane was shot down in flames near An Loc, South Vietnam. He was 24.

The lieutenant's relatives believe that his remains, just a half-dozen bones, are in the tomb and wrongly labeled “unknown.” If science proves them right, they want what is left of him buried elsewhere, under a headstone with his name on it, most likely in St. Louis, where he grew up.

“That's all I want, for them to open the tomb,” the pilot's mother, Jean Blassie, said recently. “If it's Michael, I want him to be brought home.”

Whether to open the tomb is a decision so serious — some say solemn — that it is being discussed at the highest levels of the Defense Department. Ultimately, Congress and the White House may become involved, because there is no provision for disinterring any of the four sets of remains at the shrine, a Pentagon spokesman said.

“This is new territory,” said the spokesman, Larry Greer, who works in the office that handles matters pertaining to servicemen missing in action.

All this is happening now because, for reasons that are not clear, the remains of an American pilot recovered in 1972 were at first labeled “believed to be” Blassie and later classified as “unknown.”

Though no one is saying for sure now that the bones in Arlington are those of Blassie, no one denies the strong possibility that they are. And science can identify remains in ways undreamed of only a few years ago.

With Blassie's mother and four siblings available to give blood samples for DNA testing, “it would not be a big problem” to establish whether the remains are those of Blassie, said Haig Kazazian, the chairman of the genetics department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Blassie's relatives are adamant in wanting the tomb opened. “Absolutely,” said his sister, Pat Blassie, who lives in Atlanta. “The trail leads to the tomb.”

The trail began when a South Vietnamese patrol found the skeletal remains of a pilot near An Loc on Oct. 31, 1972, along with money, shreds of a flight suit and an identity card with Blassie's name. The discovery jibed with the recollection of another pilot, who had seen Blassie's A-37 falling in flames the previous May 11. Ground fighting had blocked any search for the body by U.S. forces or their South Vietnamese allies until autumn.

The remains were kept in the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and for eight years designated “believed to be Michael Blassie.” The flier's family was notified in May 1972 that he was missing and presumed dead, but was not told that remains believed to be his had been found, nor that an identification tag had been discovered, the pilot's sister said.

For some reason, a military review board in 1980 changed the designation on the remains to “unknown.” By that time, the identification card found with the body, and the money, had vanished, likely lost or stolen between An Loc and a mortuary in Saigon, Greer speculated recently.

CBS News, which investigated the case extensively last month, suggested that the review board had changed the designation because the Pentagon was under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from Vietnam in the Tomb of the Unknowns, which already enshrined the remains of dead from the world wars and Korea.

Greer said that the 1980 board that reclassified the remains to “unknown” consisted of an Army colonel and three civilians, and that the Pentagon would not release their names. Their deliberations will be studied in the Defense Department review of the case, Greer said.

The review may be more difficult because many of the records related to the selection of the Vietnam Unknown were destroyed, as were those of the earlier Unknowns, “to preserve the sanctity of the tomb,” as Greer put it.

Greer, who was an Air Force officer for 27 years, rejected any suggestion that the reclassification of the body remnants was an answer to the need for a body for the tomb. He said that retrieving the dead from combat zones is often perilous and confusing, and that the handling of the remains before they even got to the Saigon mortuary might have created uncertainty . . .

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