“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 email@example.com.