NOW THAT the 58,000 Americans killed in the vietnam War are to be honored by a national memorial in Constitution Gardens, it is worth asking why no unknown soldier from this war is buried in Arlington Cemetery at the Tombs of the Unknowns honoring those who gave their lives in two world wars and Korea.

A Tomb of the Unknown of the Vietnam War was in fact authorized by Congress in 1973 and the crypt was completed on Oct. 4, 1974. On March 28, 1975, a 21/2-ton white marble cover was installed over the crypt, and remained in place until April 23, 1975, when, after the fall of Saigon, it was removed and stored in an underground room of the Arlington Amphitheater.

On July 29, 1975, red granite was set in place where the marble cover had been, completely concealing the presence of the Tomb of the Unknown of the Vietnam War. Since then, President Carter and other officials, including Veterans Administrator Max Cleland, a triple amputee from Khesanh, have been photographed on top of the hidden Vietnam tomb while laying wreaths at the other Tombs of the Unknown.

Why has the tomb been concealed? According to the Pentagon, the marble cover was removed because no unidentified body could be found for burial in the tomb. Replying to a letter I sent President Carter, Army Col. W.J. Winter Jr. wrote me in June 1978, that "there has not been any effort to conceal the presence of the crypt, but it is important that the public not be misled." Winter explained:

"The adoption of highly sophisticated procedures has resulted in a high incidence of positive identification for those Americans whose remains have been recovered from Vietnam. Up to this time, it has not been possible to select an Unknown from the Vietnam War . . .Therefore, a decision was made in the Department of the Army that the marble cover over the crypt prepared for a Vietnam Unknown should be removed to preclude any impression or speculation that an Unknown was actually entombed in that location."

But is that sufficient reason not to honor the Vietnam dead at Arlington? There is a way to make use of the hidden tomb. Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., has been told that the Pentagon has a number of unidentifiable, incomplete bodies from Vietnam. Why not cremate those partial bodies and put their ashes in the crypt? Then the marble cover could be restored and those who died in Vietnam would no longer be ignored at the Tombs of the Unknowns. w CAPTION:

Picture 1, The marble cover marking the Vietnam tomb is installed on March 28, 1975.; Picture 2, Masons finish covering the site in red granite. Photos by Willy Arnheim; Picture 3, Lines show hidden tomb's site between World War II and Korea tombs. By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post.