Tomb of Unknowns Opened With Solemn Hope

The military unearthed a grave at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery yesterday, looking to science to reveal the identity of a Vietnam War soldier who, according to the inscription, is “Known but to God.”

The exhumation was the first ever at the hallowed site, the nation’s symbolic and honorary resting place for all war casualties. A hearse took the remains to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District, where officials hope DNA testing will identify the serviceman.

The tomb was disturbed with “profound reluctance,” said Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, but in keeping with the military’s commitment to identify its fallen soldiers.

“If advances in technology can ease the lingering anguish of even one family, then our path is clear,” Cohen said during a brief hillside ceremony in which a military band played “Amazing Grace,” with the flag-draped coffin set on a cart.

“We yield today to the promise of science,” Cohen said, “with the hope that the heavy burden of doubt may be lifted from a family’s heart.”

Relatives attending the solemn ceremony expressed a similar hope.

“We are convinced it’s Michael Blassie,” said Pat Blassie, referring to the brother who was shot down near An Loc in 1972.

“However, it doesn’t matter who it is,” she said, speaking for six other Blassie family members who traveled to Arlington for the exhumation. “That is someone . . . and that person will be identified.”

The coffin, bearing four ribs, a pelvis and a humerus, was carried to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed. Military scientists there will conduct sophisticated DNA tests used since 1991 to identify the remains of soldiers who served as long ago as the Civil War, said institute spokesman Christopher Kelly.

Within three weeks, personnel from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii will determine whether DNA can be extracted from the bones. If so, pathologists at the institute will determine whether the DNA matches that of any of the families of nine servicemen that military authorities believe may correspond to the remains.

“If it be your holy will, make known the identity of this unknown Vietnam serviceman and bring peace of mind to an American family,” Col. Leo Joseph O’Keeffe, an Army chaplain, prayed at the beginning of the ceremony.

“But if the answer we seek is not ours to know, let us hold fast to our belief that this serviceman’s name is known to you, O God.”

The ceremony took place at midmorning as the sun broke through the fog. But the coffin had been disinterred at 12:29 a.m. after 4 1/2 hours of cutting through marble covering the interment site and through a reinforced-concrete burial crypt.

The coffin was removed from its vault, dusted off and immediately draped with an American flag. It was kept under honor guard throughout the chilly early-morning hours in anticipation of the ceremony.

The lifting of the coffin by eight pallbearers from the five military services — the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard — and its placement into the hearse represented a private memorial of sorts for some families.

“This may be the closest to a funeral for my father that I’ll ever have,” said Steve Amesbury, of Sterling, whose father, Air Force Maj. Harry A. Amesbury, was piloting a C-130 transport plane shot down over An Loc on April 26, 1972.

Darlene Soroka, the sister of Air Force Staff Sgt. Calvin “Grady” Cooke, of Washington, described how she felt when she stepped onto the plaza and gazed upon the coffin:

“I just got chills all over, just like it could be him,” she said.

Officials believe, however, that the two most likely candidates for the unknown Vietnam War soldier are Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose identification cards were recovered with the body, and Army Capt. Rodney Strobridge, the only missing man whose blood type was matched in previous testing done on the remains.

Blassie’s family lobbied strongly for the tomb to be opened, convinced that evidence disclosed recently by the Defense Department pointed to a connection between the remains and the young pilot, killed when he was 24. “We want to bring him home to St. Louis, and we want to bring him to rest,” Pat Blassie said.

Also attending the ceremony was Strobridge’s former wife and her husband, who chose not to speak to reporters.

In a telephone interview, Strobridge’s mother, Althea Strobridge, of Perry, Iowa, said she does not believe her son’s remains are in the coffin. She also said she did not support the unearthing of the coffin or the testing of the remains.

“As far as the whole thing being a mystery, this took it away from all the MIA [missing in action] mothers who think of it as their son might be there,” Althea Strobridge said. “This takes a lot of hope away from a lot of them.”

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