Dispute on Tomb of Unknowns Pits Policy Against Heart
By David Stout - The New York Times - February 15, 1988
WASHINGTON -- Sometime soon, a construction crane may lift several tons of granite, concrete and marble at one of the nation's most hallowed sites, the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, so scientists can try to name the serviceman interred there most recently.
If the tomb is opened, it is quite possible the scientists will find that the man laid to rest in 1984 was Michael Blassie, a highly decorated Air Force lieutenant who was killed on May 11, 1972, when his attack plane was shot down near An Loc, South Vietnam. He was 24.
The Lieutenant's relatives believe that his remains, just a half-dozen bones, are in the tomb and wrongly labeled "unknown." If science proves them right, they want what is left of him buried elsewhere, under a headstone with his name on it, most likely in St. Louis, where he grew up.
"That's all I want, for them to open the tomb," the pilot's mother, Jean Blassie, said recently. "If it's Michael, I want him to be brought home."
Whether to open the tomb is a decision so serious -- some say solemn -- that it is being discussed at the highest levels of the Defense Department. Ultimately, Congress and the White House may become involved, because there is no provision for disinterring any of the four sets of remains at the shrine, a Pentagon spokesman said.
"This is new territory," said the spokesman, Larry Greer, who works in the office that handles matters pertaining to servicemen missing in action.
All this is happening now because, for reasons that are not clear, the remains of an American pilot recovered in 1972 were at first labeled "believed to be" Blassie and later classified as "unknown."
Though no one is saying for sure now that the bones in Arlington are those of Blassie, no one denies the strong possibility that they are. And science can identify remains in ways undreamed of only a few years ago.
With Blassie's mother and four siblings available to give blood samples for DNA testing, "it would not be a big problem" to establish whether the remains are those of Blassie, said Haig Kazazian, the chairman of the genetics department at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Blassie's relatives are adamant in wanting the tomb opened. "Absolutely," said his sister, Pat Blassie, who lives in Atlanta. "The trail leads to the tomb."
The trail began when a South Vietnamese patrol found the skeletal remains of a pilot near An Loc on Oct. 31, 1972, along with money, shreds of a flight suit and an identity card with Blassie's name. The discovery jibed with the recollection of another pilot, who had seen Blassie's A-37 falling in flames the previous May 11. Ground fighting had blocked any search for the body by U.S. forces or their South Vietnamese allies until autumn.
The remains were kept in the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and for eight years designated "believed to be Michael Blassie." The flier's family was notified in May 1972 that he was missing and presumed dead, but was not told that remains believed to be his had been found, nor that an identification tag had been discovered, the pilot's sister said.
For some reason, a military review board in 1980 changed the designation on the remains to "unknown." By that time, the identification card found with the body, and the money, had vanished, likely lost or stolen between An Loc and a mortuary in Saigon, Greer speculated recently.
CBS News, which investigated the case extensively last month, suggested that the review board had changed the designation because the Pentagon was under pressure from veterans' groups to honor a casualty from Vietnam in the Tomb of the Unknowns, which already enshrined the remains of dead from the world wars and Korea.
Greer said that the 1980 board that reclassified the remains to "unknown" consisted of an Army colonel and three civilians, and that the Pentagon would not release their names. Their deliberations will be studied in the Defense Department review of the case, Greer said.
The review may be more difficult because many of the records related to the selection of the Vietnam Unknown were destroyed, as were those of the earlier Unknowns, "to preserve the sanctity of the tomb," as Greer put it.
Greer, who was an Air Force officer for 27 years, rejected any suggestion that the reclassification of the body remnants was an answer to the need for a body for the tomb. He said that retrieving the dead from combat zones is often perilous and confusing, and that the handling of the remains before they even got to the Saigon mortuary might have created uncertainty.
The original Unknown Soldier of World War I was chosen at random in 1921 from some 1,600 remains that were not only unidentified but, by the science of the day, unidentifiable.
In 1958, the serviceman from World War II was picked from about 8,500 unidentifiable remains and the Korean War unknown from 800.
Congress authorized the enshrinement of a Vietnam War casualty in 1973. A crypt was built at the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1975. For years, it stayed empty.
The administration of President Ronald Reagan wanted to honor a Vietnam veteran on Memorial Day 1984. But with the approach of the ceremonies, there were only a few sets of unknown remains from Vietnam in the Army laboratory in Hawaii. Most of the Americans killed in the war died from small-arms fire rather than being blown apart by artillery shells or bombs. And science had come a long way.
Some people familiar with the laboratory said there were only four unknown remains from which to choose. Capt. Mike Doubleday of the Navy, a Pentagon spokesman, said at a recent briefing that he did not know how many there were. But he conceded that in recent years the number of remains that were not only unidentified but presumed to be unidentifiable "is very, very small."
Johnie E. Webb Jr., deputy to the commander of the Hawaii laboratory, declined to comment on the change in classification to "unknown" on the remains found in 1972. But Bill Bell, who for many years worked in the Defense Department unit that investigates the cases of military people missing in action, said Webb told him that the designation was premature, that with enough time the laboratory might give every set of remains a name.
"There was no reason for an unknown soldier, just for the sake of a ceremony," said Bell, now an investigator for the Arkansas court system. Six weeks before the 1984 ceremony, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger designated a set of remains -- those that Blassie's family thinks are his -- for enshrinement.
Reagan's voice broke at the ceremony. "About him we may well wonder, as others have -- as a child, did he play on some street in a great American city? Did he work beside his father on a farm...?"
As if in answer, Pat Blassie said that Michael loved music and sports, stayed in top shape and encouraged his brother and sisters to do the same, and majored in psychology at the Air Force Academy, where he played soccer and tennis.
One Pentagon official sympathetic to the Blassie family said that opening the tomb might seem like "sacrilege," regardless of the motive. He spoke of those whose sons or brothers or husbands never came back from Vietnam. For those survivors, the Tomb of the Unknowns offers the hope, however tiny, "that their loved ones could be buried in sacred soil," guarded 24 hours a day.
But the cemetery superintendent, John C. Metzler Jr., himself a Vietnam veteran, said that if there was a chance the newest Unknown was not unknown at all, exhumation might be appropriate. "I hope we do the right thing -- the right thing for the family, the right thing for the country," he said.
Speaking privately, several people close to the case wondered what would happen if the latest remains were found not to be those of Blassie. Would other families come forward, hoping to find their missing soldier or marine or flier?
And if the Vietnam Unknown is Blassie, what then? Although more than 2,000 servicemen are still missing from the war, it will not be easy to find another suitable "unknown" to inter. It is not clear whether the Hawaii laboratory has any remains that cannot be identified eventually.
Some people fear that something solemn and mysterious may be lost forever if the tomb is opened, for whatever reason.
"Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God," reads the inscription on the marble monument to the first Unknown Soldier.
"Alone, he lies in the narrow cell of stone that guards his body; but his soul has entered into the spirit that is America," read an Associated Press account of his burial. "He was home, the unknown, to sleep forever among his own."
Jean Blassie, who lives in St. Louis, has received many kind letters. One was from a man who served with her son. When he heard that Michael Blassie might be in the tomb, the letter writer said, "There was a river's rush of emotion, and I don't mind telling you I wept."
No matter what happens, Blassie's relatives are left with an eternal paradox, one that both saddens and consoles. He was the oldest of five children, the big brother in life and now in memory, yet his three sisters and brother have all lived longer than his 24 years.
"He's frozen in time," Pat Blassie said. "He's very fortunate."