Vietnam Unknown Exhumed

A historic moment unfolded at Arlington National Cemetery Thursday morning when the remains of a Vietnam veteran were removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The remains were disinterred shortly after midnight and weren taken from the cemetery after a midmorning ceremony.

The six bones, entombed 14 years ago, are on the way to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There, they will undergo a sophisticated form of DNA testing to try to determine the soldier's identity.

CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg, reports that crews, working behind a wall of privacy erected to shield the disinterment from the tourists that visit the Tomb daily, opened the crypt before daylight and removed the casket. Covered with a flag, the casket sat outside the Tomb during the the brief removal ceremony no one ever thought would happen. The privacy wall around America's most hallowed war memorial had been removed.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen presided over the 10 a.m. ET rites. Among those attending were the family of Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie.

Family members believe the remains are Blassie's, although the Pentagon says they could be from any one of nine servicemen who died near each other in Vietnam on the same day in 1972.

Blassie was killed near An Loc, Vietnam, when his A-37 attack plane was hit by ground fire. Months later, his wallet and identification papers were found by South Vietnamese troops, along with a few skeletal remains and wrecked equipment from a plane like the one Blassie was flying.

Based on documents and eyewitness accounts uncovered by CBS News, Blassie's family asked the Defense Department to disinter the remains for scientific testing.

The main test, which was not available in 1972, is mitochondrial DNA testing. The U.S. military operates the largest laboratory for such testing in the Washington area.

Scientists there will attempt to find whether whether the remains are Blassie's, and if not, to which of the eight other servicemen do they belong.

CBS News has lesrned it will be 60-90 days before the test results are known because, to insure impartial results, the military is asking technicians and doctors to test several samples from several sets of remains. They will not be told which one is from the tomb.

Doctors are not yet sure whether there is enough DNA material in the bones to make a good test possible. The odds are good, the doctors told CBS News. In 85 percent of the cases tested previously, they have been able to find the DNA to run the test.

If the identification is successful, it is unclear whether another set of remains would replace Blassie's in the Tomb of the Unknown. The military admits it still has more remains than names.

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment