On a rainy Memorial Day 14 years ago, six gray horses slowly pulled a black caisson from Capitol Hill to Arlington National Cemetery, where the remains of an unidentified American killed in Vietnam were laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknowns, as an emotional President Reagan looked on.
The tomb, inscribed after World War I to honor the original Unknown Soldier, reads, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” But Monday officials at the Pentagon recommended reopening the tomb after concluding that in all likelihood, new tests will show that the latest remains belong to one of two American pilots shot down over South Vietnam on the same day in 1972.
The final decision will be up to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who said it could come as early as next week. But the officials spent much of the day outlining their recommendation to members of Congress, representatives of veterans' groups and relatives of nine Americans still missing in action from Vietnam whose remains could, at least theoretically, lie in the tomb.
It was a measure of the emotional sensitivity of the issue that the Pentagon announced the preliminary recommendation so a “consultative phase” could begin on whether to open the tomb, one of the nation's most revered sites.
Although the announcement was greeted with solemn understanding on Capitol Hill, a decision to remove the remains — and probably identify them — is sure to revive deep and conflicting emotions about the war.
Althea Strobridge, the mother of Capt. Rodney L. Strobridge, an Army helicopter pilot shot down in 1972 and one of the two whose remains the Pentagon now believes may lie in the tomb, said Monday she was not certain she wanted all the answers.
“If he is in there, what good is it going to do?” Ms. Strobridge said in a telephone interview from her home in Perry, Iowa. “My son is — I couldn't hug him or anything.”
Monday's announcement followed a four-month investigation ordered by Cohen after news reports that the remains in the tomb had at one time been identified as those of 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, an Air Force pilot whose attack jet crashed in flames near An Loc, South Vietnam, on May 11, 1972, the same day that Strobridge died.
Blassie's family had appealed to the Pentagon to disinter the remains and conduct mitochondrial DNA tests that would establish that the set of six bones, resting in a crypt next to the unidentified remains of soldiers from the two World Wars and Korea, belongs to him.
“All we ever wanted was an answer: Is that Michael Blassie or not?” Pat Blassie, the lieutenant's sister, said in an interview from her Atlanta home. “And we truly believe it is. We are very encouraged that we're at this point.”
Blassie's family and their supporters have suggested that the Pentagon deliberately obscured the identity of the remains in a rush to declare an unknown soldier from Vietnam during the Reagan administration.
At the Pentagon, however, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, Charles Cragin, said Monday that an investigation by a group of senior officials had concluded that the decisions first to identify the remains as Blassie's and then in 1978 to reclassify them as unidentified were honest ones made with the best information and technology available. He also said there “no reason to question” the decision in 1984 to place the remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“We found nothing in our evaluation that led us to conclude they'd made anything but the right decision, given the facts as they knew them at the time,” Cragin said of the analysts who classified the bones.
Witnesses had reported watching Blassie's A-37B attack jet crash, and a helicopter rescue mission found no signs that the pilot had survived; but the area remained under intense siege, thwarting a thorough search for remains.
It was not until five months later that South Vietnamese soldiers found remains and personal items — including Blassie's identification card and remnants of a flight suit — from a single site near An Loc. Although some of the personal items were lost in Saigon, officials still identified the remains as Blassie's.
In 1978, however, the Pentagon's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii found that the blood type of the remains (O negative) did not match Blassie's and that the size of one of the bones (a right humerus, or upper arm) did not correspond to his height. That led the laboratory to reclassify the remains as unknown.
The Pentagon has since concluded that the remains could belong to any one of eight other Americans who are listed as missing in action, all of them pilots or crew members of two aircraft and two helicopters that crashed in the same area around the same time.
But Cragin said the blood type and humerus largely rule out all but Strobridge, who was 30 when the Cobra attack helicopter he was piloting crashed during the same siege. Other evidence found with the remains, however, points to Blassie, including an ejection seat and life raft, which helicopters did not routinely carry.
Cragin said only the DNA tests, which can match remains to living maternal relatives, were likely to resolve the matter.
Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., who has called for testing the remains, said Pentagon officials had ignored evidence over the years that raised questions about the unknown soldier's identity. But he said he supported the recommendation to test the remains.
“If the Tomb of the Unknowns is going to remain sacred,” Smith said, “the remains should be unknown.”
If the remains are removed and identified, the Pentagon would face another daunting decision: whether to replace them. There are still 2,093 Americans missing from the Vietnam War, and the laboratory in Hawaii slowly continues to identify them.
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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