Vietnam Remains To Be Removed
From Tomb of Unknowns
By Charles Aldinger - Reuters - May 7, 1988
WASHINGTON, May 7 (Reuters) - The mystery remains of a U.S. serviceman from the Vietnam War will be removed from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery next week to be tested for possible identification, the Pentagon said Thursday.
The unprecedented order by Defense Secretary William Cohen to open the military's most hallowed shrine on May 14 came on a plea from the family of Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, which believes his bones were buried there in 1984.
Blassie's jet was shot down in South Vietnam on May 11, 1972. Scant remains taken from the jungle were first identified as his, then changed to "unknown" based on tests at the time.
This time, the remains will be tested using modern DNA gene and bone technology in a process that could take three months or more. Experts said there was a good chance of solving the mystery, depending on the condition of the remains.
The marble and granite tomb, protected by marching troops and visited annually by throngs of tourists near Washington, represents tens of thousands of American military personnel killed and missing in past wars.
"If we can identify the remains now, we have an obligation to try," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters. He said Cohen had balanced the sanctity of the tomb against the need to identify as many missing U.S. troops as possible.
"I have concluded that we must honor our commitment to attempt to locate and identify the remains of all Americans lost in combat," Cohen said in a brief statement. Defense officials said the coffin would be removed May 14 after a privacy barrier was erected around the tomb.
The heavy marble top will be lifted off of the Vietnam crypt by a crane in a $20,000 operation and the remains will be handed over to military forensic and anthropological experts for a careful testing process.
Experts said a positive identification might not be possible, but that small pieces of bone would be tested using modern DNA skeletal technology. Those results would be matched against tests expected on maternal family members of Blassie and as many as eight other U.S. troops lost in the same area.
Testing will be done at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at nearby Rockville, Maryland.
The six bones buried in the Vietnam crypt were tentatively identified as Blassie's after they were found by South Vietnamese troops, but later reclassified as unknown when less sophisticated blood and other forensic tests at the time indicated they did not match his physical size.
Representatives of a Pentagon advisory panel which studied the controversy said last month the remains might be those of Blassie, of St. Louis; Army Capt. Rodney Stobridge of Torrance, Calif., or perhaps one of seven other servicemen also lost in the area in 1972.
Blassie's sister Pat said in an interview on the NBC "Today" program earlier Thursday that her brother's identification card and other items such as a parachute were found with the body in 1972.
"My mother has been waiting for 26 years to know where her son is and what had happened to him. It is so important for us to know the truth," she said.
"If we had been told that remains were found with Michael's ID card in 1972, this family would have reacted the same way it has now that we've been told just recently. It is important to know what happens to a serviceman," Pat Blassie added.
"We believe the circumstantial evidence is so strong that actually DNA testing is not necessary, its just in order that there would be no questions from anyone else," she said.