Last soldier buried in Tomb of the Unknowns wasn’t unknown

November 8, 2012

Air Force Col. Patricia Blassie rolls a black suitcase into the living room of her neatly furnished home near Denver. She opens it and pulls out a piece of nylon flight suit.

“This was Michael’s,” she says, carefully placing it on the coffee table before reaching back into the suitcase.

Out comes part of a pistol holster, followed by a portion of parachute, then a flattened one-man life raft that she unfolds on the floor. After all this time, the rubber raft is stiff and cracked.

These reminders of the last seconds of her brother’s life were found in South Vietnam, where his plane crashed in flames 40 years ago. Surprisingly, none appears burned. Patricia Blassie thinks she knows why.

After her brother’s A-37 jet was hit by enemy fire, it went into an inverted nosedive. “He probably ejected upside down, and the parachute and life raft went with him.”

The survival gear and a few personal belongings were found months later, not far from the crash site. Also recovered were six human bones, originally identified as her brother’s, then reclassified as “unknown.” It would take decades, but eventually those bones would do more than provide answers the Blassie family had been waiting for; after years of official bungling and denial, they would help solve one of the U.S. military’s longest-running cases of mistaken identity.

Advances in science mean there will likely never be another American soldier lost in battle and “known but to God,” as the famous inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery reads. But during the Vietnam War, families of unaccounted-for casualties were often left in the dark, hoping for information that never came.

In post-Vietnam Washington, what began to matter most was putting the divisive conflict to rest, moving debate about Vietnam from politics to history by honoring an anonymous soldier killed in the war. The problem was finding one.

“In the end, all you have is your name,” says Patricia Blassie, as she packs away her brother’s things. “When that’s taken away, you’re left with nothing. We just wanted Michael’s name back.”

***

May 11, 1972

Lt. Michael Blassie, a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy, learned to fly A-37s at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. When he took off from the American base in Bien Hoa that May morning, Blassie, who had arrived in South Vietnam less than four months earlier to join the 8th Special Operations Squadron, had already flown 130 combat missions.

Shortly after starting his initial strike on an artillery position outside An Loc near the Cambodian border, a burst of tracer rounds was seen coming toward Blassie’s plane. His flight commander, Maj. James Connally, described what happened next in a letter to Blassie’s parents: “Mike’s aircraft was hit and began streaming fuel. He must have been killed instantly, because he did not transmit a distress call of any kind. The aircraft flew a short distance on its own and then slowly rolled over, exploding on impact in enemy-held territory.”

Other planes were dispatched to provide cover while an Army helicopter rescue team went in to inspect the wreckage. The team encountered such “a murderous hail of fire” it was forced to leave, wrote Connally.

The day following Blassie’s death, his parents in St. Louis were visited by an Air Force chaplain who informed them that their son had been killed in action, but his body could not be recovered.

That would be the same official explanation the Blassie family would hear for the next 26 years.

“My father, who served in Normandy during World War II, never got over losing Michael,” says Patricia Blassie, who was 13 years old when her brother, the oldest of five siblings, died. “He and Michael were very close. Dad set up a little memorial in the basement and would go down there all the time and just sit.” George Blassie, Michael’s father, died in 1991.

***

Nearly six months after Blassie’s plane was shot down, a South Vietnamese Army patrol located the crash site. A short distance away it made another discovery, reported in a radio log: “1 U.S. pilot’s body with ID Card, 1st LT BLASSIE, MICHAEL JOSEPH, and one Beacon radio and two compasses and one US flag and one parachute.” A rubber raft, portions of a holster and a flight suit were also found. The “body” consisted of six bone fragments.

Among the personal belongings recovered was a wallet. Inside was a photograph of Blassie’s family. The American operations officer in An Loc, Army Capt. William Parnell, kept the remains with him that night.

The next morning, the bones and other items were placed in a plastic bag and handed to a departing helicopter crew chief.

On Nov. 2, 1972, they were turned over to the Saigon Mortuary, where Army Capt. Richard S. Hess signed off on the list of items received, including the wallet and Blassie’s ID, stating his height (6 feet) and weight (200 pounds). From South Vietnam, the bones — and a skeletal chart with the notation: “BTB [Believed to Be] Lt. Blassie, Michael Joseph” — were sent to a search and recovery center at Camp Samae San, Thailand, and then, in 1976, to Hawaii for analysis at the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory (CIL-HI). In the mid-1970s, the main responsibility of the laboratory was identifying Vietnam War dead, a task sometimes complicated by sparse supporting evidence. Missing from the items listed as received in Vietnam were the wallet and ID, which had been lost or stolen between there and Hawaii.

Tadao Furue, chief physical anthropologist at the Hawaii facility, began identifying Korean War casualties in 1951. In cases with little to go on, Furue, now deceased, would attempt to calculate age, height and other characteristics from bone fragments — a controversial technique he developed called “morphological approximation.” Results were then compared with medical records to establish identity.

In a letter dated Dec. 4, 1978, Furue wrote that after “processing” the remains in the Blassie case, the age was estimated to be 26 to 33 years. “Blassie was 24 years 1 month 7 days at the time of his death and this is outside the estimated age bracket,” he wrote. The “living stature at the time of death” was estimated to be between 65.2 and 71.5 inches. Blassie’s height was 72 inches. It was also determined, by testing a single hair found in the portion of flight suit, that the “blood type of the remains disagrees with the recorded blood type ‘A’ for Blassie.”

Disregarding the official chain-of- custody documents, Furue recommended that the bones be reclassified and “designated unknown.” In 1980, the Armed Service Graves Registration Office accepted his recommendation.

But the laboratory’s procedures, which frequently seemed like guesswork, according to Samuel Dunlap, employed at CIL-HI in the 1980s, were beginning to raise questions in the Defense Department and the scientific community.

Dunlap, now an anthropologist in Northern Virginia, says there was constant pressure to close cases by changing lab reports. The poorly equipped facility had no X-ray machine or other basic tools of the profession, and Furue’s methods were “completely worthless,” he says. “He would take a bone fragment a couple of inches long and estimate the guy’s height. That’s impossible.”

After a dispute in 1985 over laboratory findings in the case of a plane shot down over Laos, the Army commissioned an independent report that cited CIL-HI’s “failure to exercise proper standards of identification.” At a follow-up congressional hearing, Furue’s “morphological approximation” was dismissed by several forensic experts, with one witness calling it “not a correct or logical technique.”

The Hawaii lab discontinued the procedure, yet the fact that it had been used to identify so many combat casualties leaves open the possibility that untold numbers of American war dead were buried in the wrong graves.

Blassie’s family in St. Louis was never informed by the military that the wreckage of his plane had been located or that remains were recovered, the same remains that were stored at the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in a file labeled X-26.

***

Other 20th-century conflicts had left no shortage of unidentified American dead; there were 1,648 after World War I; 8,526 after World War II; and 848 after the Korean War. Vietnam was different. In 1973, Congress passed a law authorizing the Defense Department to bury a Vietnam Unknown in Arlington Cemetery. A gravesite was prepared, but it stayed empty for 11 years.

Better battlefield medical care, speedier evacuation of the wounded and a more thorough accounting of the dead meant that by the early 1980s, there were only four sets of unknown Vietnam-era remains. Two were subsequently identified; a third was considered to be non-American; and a fourth set — X-26 — was only 3 percent complete, far less than the customary 80 percent deemed suitable for burial in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“Some very powerful people” wanted a Vietnam Unknown buried in Arlington, says John Marsh, secretary of the Army at the time and now an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University. “The president wanted it done. Congress had authorized it. And we had the assurance of the person in charge that the remains in Hawaii were unknown.”

Many POW/MIA advocacy groups, however, were opposed to the idea. Ann Mills Griffiths, then executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, expressed her concerns in a letter to Marsh. If the entombment were to take place, Griffiths wrote, it might end the military’s effort to account for thousands of personnel still missing in action: “Congressional interest in waiving the existing criteria, largely for political purposes, is unworthy of those whom we all rightfully wish to honor.”

But 1984 was an election year. With the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars lobbying Congress and the White House, and the Reagan administration eager to honor those who fought and died in Vietnam, the decision was made to go ahead with the burial.

In an April 13, 1984, memo to all the service secretaries and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger wrote: “In our public relations on this matter” it’s important to emphasize that the burial “will not result in a diminution of efforts to resolve the fate of those Americans still missing in Southeast Asia.”

Army Secretary Marsh had favored Veterans Day, Nov. 11, for the ceremony, but that would be five days after the election. The interment date selected was May 28, Memorial Day, 1984.

The set of remains Weinberger chose was the only one available: X-26.

***

Army Maj. Johnie Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran, took charge of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii in 1982. He was familiar with the Blassie case. He also understood the signals Washington was sending.

For years, the White House and Pentagon had been pressuring the lab to find an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War. In 1983, Webb was presented with papers to sign, certifying that the X-26 remains could not be identified. He refused. “The remains weren’t identified,” he says. “That didn’t mean they would never be.” The Pentagon gave him six months to identify X-26 or sign the certification.

Webb, a retired lieutenant colonel, says he’s tired of being blamed for mistakes that were made. Although he had doubts about the X-26 designation, “that was the scientific judgment, and I had to go with the scientists.”

Furue, the senior anthropologist who had recommended the reclassification to “unknown,” held out hope that if more remains were found, the identity of X-26 could be known. He, too, was adamantly opposed to the Arlington burial.

But two months before the Memorial Day burial date, waiting was no longer an option. On March 21, Webb, calling himself “the last holdout,” signed the certification.

Soon afterward, Webb says, Army headquarters in the Pentagon took steps to make sure the remains destined for Arlington would never be identified. On April 4, he says, he was ordered to remove from the X-26 file any information connecting Blassie to the Vietnam Unknown. All laboratory documents associated with the selection process were ordered destroyed, as were the crash-site artifacts.

It was at this point, in what he describes as “the struggle of my life,” that Webb decided to stop following orders. He began writing memos for his personal file, and instead of destroying the crash-site items — some of which, such as the life raft, could be tied directly to Blassie — he hid them in the one place no one would ever look.

“I’m a Vietnam vet,” Webb says. “I had to do what was right. I put the evidence in the casket ... with X-26.”

***

May 28, 1984

A horse-drawn caisson bearing the Unknown Soldier moved slowly along Constitution Avenue on its way to Arlington Cemetery. An estimated 250,000 people lined the Memorial Day procession route. Military bands played, and a series of 21-gun salutes sounded in the distance. Because of low clouds, an Air Force flyover had to be canceled.

“More than 100 rumpled, often bearded war survivors, some pushing friends in wheelchairs, marched out to claim their place in the parade,” read an account in The Washington Post. “Clothed in camouflage jungle hats and outgrown fatigues, they latched onto the end of the cortege. ... The improvised demonstration echoed [many] others that surged through the same streets over the tumultuous Vietnam years.”

“Today, we pause to embrace him and all who served so well in a war whose end offered no parades, no flags, and so little thanks,” said President Ronald Reagan at the burial ceremony.

Reagan assured the families of soldiers missing in action that the effort to find their loved ones would not end. “We write no last chapters,” he said. “We close no books. We put away no final memories.”

Then, placing the Medal of Honor on the flag-draped casket, the president said his final emotional farewell: “Thank you, dear son, and may God cradle you in his loving arms.”

Reagan’s words captured the mixed feelings Americans had about the war and its aftermath. Like many conservatives, he was not a supporter of the Vietnam Memorial, which opponents saw as a tribute to the antiwar movement, not to those who died for their country. But according to White House chief speechwriter Tony Dolan, “Reagan cared deeply and profoundly about the burial and the issue of POWs and MIAs.”

For some families touched by tragedy during the long years of conflict, the interment of the Vietnam Unknown may have provided consolation, but for others, such as the Blassies, it was only a reminder of things they might never know.

***

In 1994, Patricia Blassie was a captain in the Air Force and living in Marietta, Ga., when she received a phone call from Ted Sampley. The former Army Green Beret told her he had just written an article for the Vietnam veterans’ newsletter he published proving that her brother was buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

As Blassie listened in disbelief, Sampley said he had recently read a book about investigating wartime plane crashes. It mentioned that one of the few sets of unknown remains after the Vietnam War was once believed to be an Air Force pilot shot down in 1972. Sampley explained how he began combing through military records, eliminating one missing pilot after another who went down in the same area where her brother’s A-37 crashed.

“The remnants which were found with the bone fragments ... are important pieces of the puzzle,” Sampley wrote in the article. “The piece of a flight suit indicates that the Vietnam Unknown was an airman, and evidence of the existence of a parachute rules out the possibility of a helicopter crew. ... A one-man inflatable raft can be argued as a strong reason to rule out the crews of the C130s, leaving only the pilot of the A-37, who would have been equipped with a one-man life raft.”

What remnants and bone fragments was he talking about? Blassie’s family had never been told the wreckage of her brother’s plane was located. Did the Pentagon know about any of this?

“I thought this couldn’t be true,” says Patricia Blassie, who heard that Sampley, a founder of the Rolling Thunder rally in Washington, had a reputation for stirring up trouble. She took the information to the Air Force Casualty Office, where officials assured her there was nothing on file to support Sampley’s theory. Blassie and her family accepted the Air Force’s answer. “We couldn’t imagine the U.S. government would actually bury a known soldier in the Tomb of the Unknowns. It didn’t make sense.”

***

Vince Gonzales was a young CBS correspondent-in-training in Los Angeles in 1997 when he came across Sampley’s article, “The Vietnam Unknown Soldier Can Be Identified,” on the Internet.

Gonzales spent his spare time in the next months collecting documents through Freedom of Information Act requests before contacting the Blassie family. “I think I know where Michael is,” he told them, laying out a paper trail that led to Arlington Cemetery. He eventually showed them a folder full of information about the selection process that the Army had ordered destroyed.

“We wanted to know what happened to Michael,” Patricia Blassie says. “But finally finding out was a shock.”

After getting the family’s promise to cooperate, Gonzales set up a meeting at the CBS bureau in Washington. He arrived with a suitcase full of research not knowing what to expect. “It was like defending a master’s thesis,” he says, recalling how nervous he was. The bureau bosses were interested in the story but realized that Gonzales lacked the Washington connections to pull it off. They teamed him with veteran newsman Eric Engberg, who would do the on-air reporting.

For Patricia Blassie, then working in the Air Force Office of Public Affairs in the Pentagon, the latest turn of events had serious implications. Would her new role as the family spokeswoman put her on a collision course with the Air Force? If the evidence, as she now believed, pointed to the Tomb, the remains would have to be exhumed for DNA testing. What would she do if the Pentagon resisted?

“I never wanted to embarrass the military or the country,” she says. “I just wanted to know the truth. We all did. And there was only one way to do that.”

The Blassies weren’t in agreement about going public on national television. George, the youngest son, said: “Michael is buried in a place of honor. Maybe this is where we should leave him.” Mary, the middle daughter, who always thought her older brother would someday walk through the door, said: “If I were lost, Michael would come find me. Why wouldn’t we do all we could to find him?”

After hours of discussion, Jean, Michael’s mother, looked at her children and said: “For 26 years, we have been told that Michael was never found. Yet, he was found five months after he was shot down and then buried without our knowledge in the Tomb of the Unknowns. ... I want to bring my son home.”

***

On Jan. 19, 1998, the CBS Evening News aired the story. Air Force Lt. Michael J. Blassie was the Vietnam Unknown buried in Arlington Cemetery, Eric Engberg reported. The military for years had used the secrecy of the selection process, he claimed, to hide Blassie’s identity from his family and the public.

“If it is Michael, he’s not unknown,” Patricia Blassie said in the interview. “He’s not identified, but he isn’t unidentifiable.”

By publicly demanding a DNA test of her brother’s remains, Blassie was not only challenging the defense establishment she served, she also was threatening its most sacred shrine. But as more became known, not even the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, which broke the same week CBS aired its original story, could overshadow the evidence. Defense Secretary William Cohen directed Rudy de Leon, undersecretary for personnel and readiness, to study the case and make a recommendation on DNA testing.

On May 7, 1998, based on de Leon’s findings — the most compelling being the inventory of items from the Saigon Mortuary that listed Blassie’s missing ID — Cohen announced the Vietnam Unknown would be disinterred and DNA-tested. About the same time, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Carie Parker, analysts from the Defense POW/Mission Personnel Office concluded that if the remains were exhumed, they could likely be identified. A week after Cohen’s announcement, the Defense Department staged an elaborate ceremony at the Tomb, inviting the Blassies and the families of eight other pilots killed in action in the same area Michael Blassie’s plane was shot down. Also in attendance was Ted Sampley, sporting a ponytail, business suit and his Army beret.

Tests were performed at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The results showed a perfect match with DNA samples provided by Blassie’s mother and his oldest sister, Judy. The institute’s scientists also reported that, when the casket was opened, they found the crash-site artifacts that Central Identification Laboratory Commander Johnie Webb had put inside 14 years before.

***

July 11, 1998

George Blassie Jr. accompanied his older brother’s remains on the flight to St. Louis, where hundreds of veterans, family members and friends gathered for the burial ceremony at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. An Air Force honor guard carried Blassie’s casket to the gravesite. As four low-flying F-15s passed overhead, one pulled out of formation and headed skyward in a “missing man” salute.

Retired Col. William Parnell, the American operations officer in An Loc who had kept Blassie’s remains with him overnight, also came to the burial service. Parnell, who died in 2009, told a reporter: “Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine knows that if they are killed in combat, somebody will find their remains and bring them home. We thought we had — I touched that boy’s bones. We put them in a helicopter taking out the wounded. But a series of administrative errors were made, and it created a disaster. Now finally, this young man has come home to Missouri.”

Still at Arlington, on display at the cemetery’s museum, was the Medal of Honor awarded on Memorial Day 1984 by President Reagan. Patricia Blassie thinks the medal given to the Vietnam Unknown, since in all likelihood there will never be another, should be with her brother in St. Louis. It’s only symbolic, she says, “but Michael served as that symbol for 14 years.”

She agrees there are probably those who wonder why she and her family went through everything they did for six bones. She often asks herself the same question. What was so important about burying just six bones?

The answer, she says, comes from her heart and is always the same. “It’s my brother.”

If political pressure led to a known soldier being buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns, it was her family’s determination that “helped us find Michael,” Blassie says. “We had the opportunity to rebury him in Arlington Cemetery, but we wanted to bring him home. Someone gave us a handful of dirt from Arlington, though, and after the service, as we walked past Michael’s new grave, my mom sprinkled it on the lid of his casket.”

***

Bill Thomas, an author and journalist in Washington, is a regular contributor to the Magazine. His last story was about Los Angeles literary landmarks. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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