Laying To Rest The Last of the Unknown Soldiers

Presiding over the ceremony adding the remains of a soldier killed in Vietnam to the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1984, President Reagan vowed that the nation would never abandon its efforts to account for all those still missing from that divisive war.

“We write no last chapters,” he said. “We close no books. We put away no final memories.”

Just as well.

Last week the Pentagon recommended reopening the tomb at Arlington National Cemetery, having concluded that DNA tests will very likely prove that the remains buried 14 years ago belong to one of two American pilots who were shot down over Vietnam on the same day in 1972.

If Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen approves the recommendation, as expected, the Pentagon may do more than close the book on the soldier known, officially, as the Unknown Serviceman from the Vietnam Conflict. It may also signal the end of a tradition of collective mourning as old as modern warfare.

The unknown soldier has always been much more than a memorial to those who died in war, stripped not only of life but of identity. Ever since the United States dedicated its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day in 1921, the remains have come to symbolize the nation's suffering as a whole.

The Tomb of the Unknowns itself has become one of the nation's most hallowed sites — infused with symbols and ritual, pathos and, at times, political meaning. When Reagan authorized the burial of an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War — some say he created a rush to find one — it was in an attempt at national reconciliation. “Let us, if we must, debate the lessons learned at some other time,” he said, his voice cracking.

The United States created the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a year after its allies from World War I unveiled similar memorials. In Britain, it was said the idea came from a chaplain at the front who spotted a crude wooden cross with “An Unknown British Soldier” scrawled across it.

The United States followed, but the American tradition was not new; in fact, there was already a tomb of the unknowns at Arlington. There, on a hill overlooking Washington, a granite sarcophagus marks the unidentified remains of 2,011 soldiers killed during the Civil War in the battles around Bull Run, only a few miles away. When they were buried in 1866, it was impossible to say if they were Union or Confederate soldiers, but the nation honored them together, as the memorial says, as a “noble army of martyrs.”

Thomas L. Sherlock, the cemetery's historian, said it was the first burial of unknowns meant to honor something larger. They represented all soldiers who died in all battles. “It became more of a symbolic burial,” he said.

The Civil War left an astonishing number of unknown soldiers — a third of the 350,000 who died. But the difficulty in identifying remains had as much to do with the paucity of records as the horrors of battle.

By World War I, record keeping got better, but war got worse. Weapons on the battlefields of France included machine guns and poison gas.

The selection of an unknown soldier became a ritual. Four sets of remains were disinterred from different American cemeteries in France. A highly decorated soldier selected one of the four by placing a white rose on the coffin. The unknown was given a state funeral and awarded the nation's highest medals for valor, even though his death could have been less than valorous.

After World War II, unidentified remains were chosen to represent both the European and the Pacific theaters. They were taken aboard the USS Canberra off the coast of Virginia, where one was chosen at random. Along with an unknown from Korea, chosen from among more than 800 unidentified graves at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii, the unknown soldier of World War II was buried on Memorial Day 1958.

By then, the unknown soldier had become such a part of American lore that elaborate efforts were taken to insure that the identities would never be known. The soldier not chosen aboard the Canberra was buried at sea, unknown in a still more profound way. And after each selection of an unknown, all records have been destroyed, something that has haunted the Pentagon ever since questions arose about the identity of the Vietnam remains.

Modern science and modern sensibilities have overtaken the tradition of the unknowns. In Vietnam, extraordinary efforts were made to retrieve bodies from battlefields and, to this day, to identify them. The Pentagon announced just last week that it had three more Americans who died in Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s.

Death in war has become less symbolic, the country less willing to accept the idea that some who die will simply never be known.

Announcing the Pentagon's recommendation, Charles L. Cragin, an acting assistant secretary of defense, said officials had to face “the very profound and somewhat competing issues of the sanctity of the tomb and also our national commitment to a full accounting of the missing in action.”

The remains of the Vietnam unknown — four ribs, the right humerus, part of the pelvis — were at first tentatively identified as those of First Lt. Michael J. Blassie, a fighter pilot shot down near An Loc on May 11, 1972. In 1978, however, forensic analysis and blood tests suggested the remains could have belong to another pilot, Capt. Rodney L. Strobridge, whose helicopter crashed nearby on the same day.

New methods of testing DNA, approved by the Pentagon in 1995, should be able to be conclusive. With all soldiers now giving blood samples when they join the military, officials say it almost certain there will never be another unknown.

Whatever the outcome of the tests, however, Sherlock said the tomb will retain a hallowed place in the nation's psyche. “Because,” he explained, “it honors sacrifice.”

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment