Pentagon officials recommended today that the remains of a Vietnam casualty be removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns to see if they can be identified as those of a downed Air Force pilot.
The recommendation will go to Defense Secretary William Cohen within the next couple of weeks for a final decision.
“My position is to wait until I get some counsel from the general counsel,” Cohen said, indicating he wanted to ensure there were no legal obstacles.
Charles Cragin, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said that a senior working group of Defense Department officials made its recommendation to remove the remains after conducting a four-month investigation.
Circumstantial physical evidence found with the remains indicates they could be those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie of St. Louis, whose A-37 attack plane was shot down over South Vietnam in May 1972, Cragin said. But other evidence, including blood type and physical characteristics, weren't conclusive, he added.
In theory, the remains could belong to eight other Air Force or Army fighter and helicopter pilots who went down in the area during the same period, but whose bodies were never found, according to the Defense Department.
As a result, Cragin said that Pentagon officials determined that the only way to be certain whether the remains were those of Blassie was to remove them.
“There are concerns about the sanctity of the Tomb, … but on balance we came down to what is right,” he told reporters at a briefing.
Cragin said the government's forensic identification lab in Hawaii has several more unidentified remains in custody that could conceivably be buried in the Tomb if Blassie is identified. He noted that decision would be made much later.
Cragin said the Defense Department has been in touch with members of the families of all nine service members whose remains could in theory be involved. But he said Pentagon officials still believe Blassie remains the most likely candidate based on circumstantial evidence.
Capt. Rodney Strobridge, a 30-year-old Army helicopter pilot from Ohio, crashed the same day and in the same region as Blassie and his physical characteristics are similar, but Cragin said the remains were found with an A-37 ejection seat, a parachute and a life raft — things that Strobridge's AH-1 Cobra was not equipped with.
Cragin didn't name any other pilots, citing privacy of the families.
The investigation into the Tomb of the Unknowns began in January after evidence surfaced questioning the Pentagon's original decision to bury the unknown Vietnam remains at the Arlington National Cemetery monument. Blassie's family noted that his identification and some personal effects were found with the remains, for example.
But Cragin said the current investigation showed that defense officials were correct to originally rule that the remains didn't seem to belong to Blassie because of other physical evidence, including a blood type that didn't match. New technology, however, may be able to match the remains' DNA with Blassie's family, he explained.
Pat Blassie, a family spokeswoman and Michael's sister, said she was pleased with the Pentagon's investigation and plans to remove the remains if Cohen approves.
“I believe our question will be answered about whether that's Michael Blassie or not,” she said in a phone interview from Atlanta. “That's all we've ever wanted was the answer.”
Defense Department officials this week are briefing members of Congress, veterans and family groups about their findings before handing the recommendation to Cohen.
So far, Cragin said, veterans' groups haven't objected.
The Vietnam remains were placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1985. In separate crypts are unidentified warriors from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.
Questions first arose about the possibility the Vietnam remains were those of Blassie's back in 1994, stemming from an effort to document prisoners of war and those missing in action from Vietnam. 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 in January, touching off the latest round of questions.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard