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.”