ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Using a diamond-tip blade, workers sliced through granite slabs of the Tomb of the Unknowns on Wednesday, beginning exhumation of remains for possible identification of a pilot from the Vietnam War.
The remains were sealed in the Arlington National Cemetery monument 14 years ago with the intention that they never be removed. But Defense Secretary William Cohen last week ordered the exhumation to clear up suspicions of a downed pilot's family who think he's buried there.
A military honor guard, which normally patrols directly in front of the tomb 24 hours a day, marched instead on stairs behind crypts and the sarcophagus that contains the remains of a World War I unknown.
“We want to make sure the activities are carried out with the greatest respect,” Charles Cragin, acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said at the site honoring the nation's war dead.
Just two weeks ago, a panel headed by Cragin recommended that the Vietnam unknown's remains — including a pelvis, right upper arm and four ribs — be examined to see if the identity could be determined. Cohen agreed to disinter the remains.
Work crews planned to spend nearly 12 hours to cut meticulously through 10 inches of granite. The remains were to be disinterred overnight, when the cemetery is closed to the public, to maintain the dignity of the site, and then transferred to a casket covered by an American flag. The casket will remain on a four-wheel cart under guard in preparation for a ceremony Thursday morning.
Cohen will preside at that ceremony, after which the remains will be taken by hearse to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for forensic examination.
The Pentagon expected some relatives of the nine servicemen who are regarded as possibly buried in the Tomb to attend, including Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie's family, which requested the exhumation. Of the nine remains collected from the same area of Vietnam around the same time, Capt. Rodney Strobridge, a 30-year-old Army helicopter pilot most closely matches the forensic evidence.
On Wednesday, a white wall was placed around the crypt containing the Vietnam remains and two adjacent crypts containing World War II and Korean War unknowns. A camouflage-colored net covered the wall to ensure the process remained private.
“This is somewhat of a challenge,” said John C. Metzler, superintendent at the cemetery grounds. “We want to do this very neatly, very quickly, very quietly.”
Todd Brunori, a sentinel who oversees the changing of the guard, said patrols continued as usual, with tourists witnessing the changing of the guard every half-hour.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard