Weighing the sanctity of one of the country's most hallowed grave sites against the military's obligation to identify its war dead, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen yesterday ordered the exhumation of remains of the Vietnam veteran buried at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns.
The decision to open the crypt was made to allow for DNA testing that Pentagon authorities said stands a good chance of confirming the veteran's identity.
Relatives of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, who was shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, have pressed for the disinterment, believing the bones in the tomb belong to the missing pilot. A Pentagon panel concluded last month that the remains could indeed be those of Blassie or Army Capt. Rodney Strobridge, both of whom disappeared on the same day near An Loc.
While laboratory tests several years before burial in 1984 proved inconclusive, the panel said that advances in forensic techniques have since increased the likelihood of identifying the remains. It recommended exhumation.
“If we can identify the remains now, we have an obligation to try,” Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters yesterday. “The families of fallen service members deserve nothing less.”
The move may do more than simply solve the identity mystery. By allowing modern science to probe further, it could well mark the end of the whole military tradition of unknowns. With recent Pentagon rules requiring all soldiers to provide DNA samples, defense officials say the chances of body fragments remaining unidentifiable after future wars are approaching zero.
Plans call for construction of an eight-foot-high, white plywood “privacy fence” around the marble and granite crypt starting the night of May 13, followed by removal of the steel casket the next day. A crane will be used to lift the crypt's top during the $20,000 operation. The remains will be handed over to forensic and anthropological experts from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory and transported for examination to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda.
Defense officials who briefed reporters on the procedure stressed that the exhumation would not disturb three separate nearby crypts for other unknown soldiers from World Wars I and II and the Korean War. Since establishment of the first tomb for unknowns on Armistice Day in 1921, the area has become one of the most visited sites in Washington. Graced by a full-time honor guard, it is meant to memorialize all the nation's unidentified war dead.
Military forensic experts cautioned that DNA testing may not solve the mystery of the remains in the Vietnam tomb. They said the odds are better than 50 percent that enough genetic material can be extracted from the bones in the crypt — four ribs, a pelvis and a right upper arm — to establish a match with relatives of Blassie or Strobridge. But much will depend on the condition of the bones.
“It's biological evidence, and like all other biological evidence — bone, soft tissue — the DNA itself is held together by chemical bonds, and if these chemical bonds are exposed to environmental insult — ultraviolet sunlight, acidic soils in the ground, intense heat, bacteria, which are involved in the degradation process, all these things can degrade the DNA,” said David Rankin, a U.S. Army forensic anthropologist who will take part in the examination. “And so you don't really know in this case, until you try it. So that's why I say it's not a guarantee, but it's a good attempt.”
Military authorities have identified seven other servicemen missing from Vietnam whose bones may lie in the tomb. But Blassie, who was 24 when he vanished, and Strobridge, who was 30, are considered the most likely candidates.
Blassie's A-37 attack plane was shot down on May 11, 1972, about 60 miles north of Saigon. Strobridge's Cobra helicopter suffered the same misfortune in the same area on the same day. The bones now in the Vietnam crypt were recovered five months later by South Vietnamese troops.
For eight years, the remains were labeled “believed to be” Blassie's because they had been recovered with his military identification card, parachute, remnants of a life raft and other effects suggesting they had come from an A-37 crash. But laboratory testing in Hawaii found the remains did not match Blassie's height, age or A-positive blood type. The results of the blood type test — O-negative — did fit with Strobridge, although not enough other evidence did to declare a positive identification.
So the remains were reclassified as unknown and interred in the Vietnam crypt during an emotional 1984 Memorial Day ceremony presided over by then-President Ronald Reagan.
Pat Blassie, the pilot's sister, expressed delight yesterday at the decision to reexamine the remains. “We're one step closer to bringing our family member home,” she said.
But while Blassie's family has pushed for opening the tomb, Strobridge's parents have said they would prefer if the crypt remained undisturbed. Six years after the helicopter aviator was listed as missing in action, his family had him declared dead and held a memorial service. They have little interest now, they said, in stirring up the past.
Veterans groups have sided with the Blassies, expressing support for disinterment provided it is done with dignity. Blassie's relatives, most of whom live in St. Louis, have said that if the remains belong to their missing pilot, they want to bring the bones home for burial.
If the remains are identified, a senior defense official said there has been no decision on whether to put another unidentified set in the Vietnam crypt. Nor has a decision been made to restore the remains to the tomb if no match is found.
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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