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In 1984 the nation officially laid to rest the remains of an unknown serviceman from the Vietnam War. By 1998 he was unknown no more.

After more than a decade of uncertainty, the nation was finally honoring the Unknown of the Vietnam War —the long conflict that continued to stir argument for years after the last U.S. troops had withdrawn from Southeast Asia. On May 28, 1984, some 3,000 guests took their seats in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, where President Ronald Reagan strode to the podium and launched into a long-overdue tribute to the Vietnam Unknown and those who had served with him.

“The Unknown soldier who has returned to us today…is symbolic of all our missing sons,” said Reagan. “Today we pause to embrace him and all who served us so well in a war whose end offered no parades, no flags and so little thanks.”

As Reagan spoke, a sultry breeze stirred American flags behind him; before him sat reminders of the war’s cost —a man with a black eyepatch, a squadron of young veterans in wheelchairs, a scattering of others sitting with crutches or canes at the ready. Several hundred others in the audience had never served in Vietnam but nonetheless carried deep wounds from the conflict; their loved ones were among the 2,500 men still missing in action, nine years after Americans ended their involvement in the war.

To reassure this last group, Reagan promised the government would continue searching for their lost brothers, fathers and husbands, no matter how long it took. “An end to America’s involvement in Vietnam cannot come before we have achieved the fullest possible accounting of those missing in action,” he said.

Coming full circle, Reagan turned back to the man of the hour, whose flag-covered casket occupied center stage. “Thank you, dear son,” said Reagan, his voice cracking, “and may God cradle you in His loving arms.” The president crossed the stage and draped the Congressional Medal on a velvet stand at the foot of the Unknown’s bier. Then the nameless hero of Vietnam was borne away by eight comrades who slow-marched him from the amphitheater out onto the terrace overlooking Washington, where Reagan joined mourners for final honors. The Army Band rolled the drums and sent “America, the Beautiful” sailing out over the cemetery. Pallbearers lifted the flag from the casket, folded it into a taut triangle and passed it down the line to Reagan, who accepted it as the Unknown’s next of kin. Reagan nodded his thanks, entrusted the flag to Arlington’s superintendent and turned for home, having put in a performance considered one of his most affecting.

Later that evening, cemetery workers lowered the Unknown into the ground, where he would rest beside his comrades from World War I, World War II and Korea. Just before midnight, a marble slab was hoisted into place over the new crypt and sealed flush with the plaza; its simple inscription, “1958– 1975,” was a reminder that the undeclared conflict in Vietnam had been the longest war in American history.

Reagan’s appearance at the cemetery was designed to smooth over raw memories of Vietnam and reinforce the pride of those who had served there. Since the time of his election in 1980, he had worked toward this symbolic moment at Arlington, which would not only bury an individual combatant, but also, with luck, the war’s divisive legacy.

By this time the number of unidentified war dead who might qualify for burial had been whittled down to just four candidates out of more than 47,000 killed in combat. Some specialists held out hope that each of those remaining four could have their names restored by further investigation. Though few candidates were available for Unknown honors by the 1980s, Vietnam veterans continued to press for a new tomb at Arlington, in part to justify their sacrifice, in part to ease the pains of the inhospitable homecoming so many had endured. Reagan sought to rectify those insults, which set him on the path to that unforgettable Memorial Day of 1984.

The journey might have ended there, with the Unknown resting forever in marble splendor. But just as the fighting for Vietnam was seldom predictable, so with the war’s aftermath. Fourteen years after Reagan’s appearance at Arlington, the unthinkable happened: The Tomb of the Vietnam Unknown was broken open, not to the rousing call of Gabriel’s trumpet, but to the prosaic shriek of a diamond-tipped saw biting through granite. Near midnight on May 13, 1998, workers made their way into the tomb, lifting the heavy marble marker, prizing the lid from the Unknown’s vault and bringing his steel casket up into the night. When the foggy morning of May 14 arrived, so did a military band, which struck up “Amazing Grace” to announce the next, wholly unexpected leg of the Unknown’s journey. Covered in a new flag and bundled into a hearse, he was driven to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where his meager remains were prepared for DNA testing. The analysis provided a name for the Unknown: He was 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, a 24-year old Air Force pilot shot down over An Loc, South Vietnam, in 1972.

The final chapter of Blassie’s story—from the Air Force Academy to a jungle war zone, to years of limbo in mortuaries and labs, to the ceremonial heights of Arlington and finally home to his native St. Louis—is a narrative spanning more than a quarter century, with enough twists and turns to make his experience seem like a work of barely plausible fiction. It is a story confused by the fog of war, the loss of crucial evidence, the misreading of forensic data and the well-meaning but poorly considered ministrations of a Reagan White House keen to enshrine an Unknown for political purposes, despite the sketchiness of the evidence, the objections of service families and the warning of a key Army officer who worried that the Unknown was being rushed to the grave.

That officer, Johnie E. Webb Jr., was a Vietnam veteran and a major commanding the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in the early 1980s when his Pentagon superiors began squeezing him to find an Unknown. “There was a lot of pressure to get a Vietnam Unknown,” recalled Webb, who still serves as a civilian in the Pentagon’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which oversees operations of the laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. “All the pressure was coming to bear on me,” said Webb. He described the tug-of-war over Michael Blassie as the most trying period of his long military career.

The chain of events that brought Blassie to Arlington was set in motion by the bleating of a Klaxon at Bien Hoa Air Base at dawn on May 11, 1972. Blassie rushed to his A-37 Dragonfly attack jet, strapped in and zoomed northwest toward An Loc in formation with Major Jim Connally, the flight commander, who piloted an identical Dragonfly. Each plane was equipped with two 500-pound napalm bombs; the napalm was meant for enemy antiaircraft emplacements near An Loc, a strategically situated city of 30,000 near the Cambodian border.

Under siege by North Vietnamese troops, An Loc held off its attackers, in part with air support from pilots like Blassie, a decorated veteran of 132 such combat missions. Connally led the attack on May 11, whizzing in low over enemy guns, releasing one bomb and pulling up to open the way for Blassie. Blassie put his jet into a dive but was hit by antiaircraft fire. His jet rolled over and slammed into the earth with a tremendous explosion. Connally circled but saw no sign of a parachute, no sign of life on the ground below. He summoned Cobra helicopters for search-and-rescue operations—to no avail. “The team pulled out after determining that Mike indeed had gone in with the aircraft,” Connally reported to Blassie’s family shortly after the crash. The helicopters, caught in a murderous hail of fire, pulled back. Connally continued circling “until the last hope faded and all other aircraft departed the scene.”

Fierce fighting around An Loc marooned Blassie’s wreckage for more than five months while his parents and four siblings in St. Louis grieved over his disappearance and hoped for some word regarding his fate. None was forthcoming. “We didn’t hear a whole lot for a period of time,” said Patricia S. Blassie, age 14 when her brother vanished. “They told us they couldn’t recover him, but they knew he was killed.”

Unable to reach An Loc by chopper, Blassie’s comrades finally dispatched allies from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to comb through the area. An ARVN patrol made its way to the coordinates of Blassie’s crash and found an A-37 wreck on Oct. 11, 1972. With it they discovered what remained of Blassie—four ribs, one humerus and part of a pelvis. From the same site the ARVN team recovered physical evidence—Blassie’s military identification card, remnants of his flight suit, an ammunition pouch, a parachute fragment, a holster for a signal marker, a piece of his pistol holster, a life raft, a wallet and a small amount of local currency.

Packing away the remains and evidence, the patrol trekked through the jungle to a rendezvous point, where Army Lieutenant Chris Calhoun and other American advisors were waiting. Calhoun, taking charge of the airman’s remains and other evidence, called for a chopper, which came in over the trees and dropped into a makeshift landing zone. Two bags, containing Blassie’s remains and the physical evidence, were tossed aboard. Army Captain Richard S. Hess, another advisor on the scene that day, witnessed their transfer to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. In a later statement, Hess recalled details from Blassie’s ID card: “Name: Blaisse (sic), Michael Joseph, 1LT, 6 foot 200 lbs picture showed with mustache, dark hair.” Hess’s recollection would later prove to be a critical clue. The reason? During Blassie’s journey from An Loc to Saigon, his wallet, identification card and money disappeared.

Thus began the St. Louis airman’s long descent into limbo. There was enough evidence to form a reasonable hypothesis that the bones and other material from the crash probably belonged to Blassie, but not enough to support a positive identification. Reliable DNA testing, still decades in the future, was unavailable when Blassie’s remains arrived at the Ton San Nhut mortuary in November 1972. Because mortuary specialists had insufficient proof for certain identification, they kept Blassie’s family in the dark. His parents, George and Jean Blassie, were not informed that remains and related evidence had been recovered from their son’s crash. George Blassie, a meat cutter in a suburb of St. Louis, kept his son’s memory alive by furnishing a basement room with photographs and other memorabilia from Michael’s career. And each morning George Blassie raised the Stars and Stripes in his front yard, dutifully reversing the ritual every evening.

With the Vietnam conflict’s end in sight, the military stepped up withdrawal of its remaining forces, along with the hundreds of unidentified combatants stored in wartime mortuaries. Blassie’s remains, evidence and related paperwork were shifted to Camp Samae San, Thailand, in 1973. They were moved again in 1976, a year after Saigon fell to Communist forces; this transfer took Blassie to the Army’s new forensic laboratory near Honolulu, where investigators methodically worked to provide names for unidentified servicemen—by poring over after-action reports, interviewing witnesses, scrutinizing debris from crashes and analyzing bone fragments. Like others caught between combat and final honors, Blassie awaited the one scrap of evidence that would end his war.

Instead of resolving the airman’s identity, though, investigators from the Hawaii lab sent his case deeper into the shadows as 1978 drew to a close. That is when Blassie’s box was taken from the shelf and his bones were spread out on a stainless steel table for inspection. Tadao Furue, a physical anthropologist with more than 20 years of forensic experience and a reputation for making osseous material give up its secrets, supervised the examination. Using time-honored anthropological identification methods, he measured the airman’s bones for comparison to averages derived from thousands of others to determine the likely age, height and sex of the person on his table.

Based on his analysis, Furue concluded that the bones labeled TSN 063-72 BTB Blassie did not match Michael Blassie’s physical profile. Instead, Furue suggested, the remains belonged to a man who was between 30 and 40 years of age. Blassie was 24. Furue guessed the height of his patient to be between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-11—a possible match, since Blassie stood between 5-foot-11 and 6 feet, but at the outer limit of the average. Finally, Furue discovered a small, light brown body hair on a fragment of the flight suit recovered with Blassie; this miniscule clue yielded another piece of evidence, fixing the dead man’s blood as type O. Blassie’s was type A.

Based on these three findings, Furue recommended, in a memorandum dated Dec. 4, 1978, that the remains previously associated with Blassie be reclassified as unidentified and that the airman’s name be stripped from the accompanying case file. A military review board declared Blassie’s remains as unidentified and rescinded his “Believed To Be” status on May 7, 1980. His bones were assigned a new file number, TSN 0673-72 X-26. The X-designation, which took the place of Blassie’s name, pushed him one step closer to the Tomb of the Unknowns. While Blassie remained on the shelf in Hawaii, political pressure increased in Washington, where a tomb had been prepared for the Vietnam Unknown at Arlington but remained empty.

By the early 1980s, key officials of the Reagan administration evinced little patience for more investigation, having satisfied themselves that suitable remains were available if only the Central Identification Laboratory could be prodded to produce them. “President Reagan…wanted to go forward with it, as a way to honor those who served and as a way to reach closure on the Vietnam era,” recalled John O. Marsh Jr., who as secretary of the Army became Reagan’s point man for the Vietnam initiative. “The process was held up because some of the people in the forensic area began to have second thoughts about it,” said Marsh. The former congressman from Virginia had no such qualms. “It’s what the American Legion, the VFW, the Congress and President Reagan wanted to do.…My role was to jump-start the process.”

Having borne more delay that he thought reasonable, Marsh made his move on June 16, 1982, declaring the time had come to bury the symbolic warrior from Vietnam. “We have remains which meet the legal requirements for the Unknown,” Marsh told Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense, that day. “After careful consideration, I have concluded that the interests of the nation are served best by proceeding with the anonymous selection and subsequent interment of a Vietnam Unknown from these candidates. This coming Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, 1982, would be an appropriate date, since the World War I Unknown was also interred on Armistice Day.”

Marsh’s proposal ignited howls of protest from the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, which believed the action was premature. “We are opposed to the interment of any remains now held,” Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director the National League, wrote Weinberger in July. She presciently warned against “interring an individual who may be identified at some point in the future.” Her note set off alarms in the Reagan White House, where Richard T. Childress, a Vietnam veteran and influential member of the National Security Council staff, sided with Griffiths. Pointing out that the Unknown contenders might be identified in the future, he cautioned against rushing the process, which could be perceived as nakedly political. “We simply can’t have the public believe we created an unknown for interment,” Childress told William P. Clark, Reagan’s national security chief. Faced with these objections, Weinberger delayed the selection so the forensics laboratory in Hawaii could narrow its list of Unknown candidates.

That list had been reduced to four contenders by June 1984. One by one, these prospects came off the list: Two servicemen were identified and sent home to their families; a third was disqualified because the circumstances of his death could not be verified, as required by the legislation that made provision for a Vietnam Unknown. That reduced the roster of candidates to just one—the man tagged as TSN 0673-72 (X-26). With no choices remaining, Weinberger informed Reagan on March 16, 1984, that the Pentagon was ready to bury X-26 as the Vietnam Unknown on Memorial Day. “In 1982 we began an intensive effort to determine whether any of the remains in our possession are qualified for the Vietnam Unknown,” Weinberger reported. “We concluded that we have one set of remains which cannot be identified and which, although not as complete as we would like, meets the legal requirements for the Vietnam Unknown.” Weinberger did not mention the doubts about X-26 or Blassie’s associations with the remains and crash site. “Reagan wanted his Unknown,” said a historian at Arlington. “Nobody was going to stop it.”

In Hawaii, however, Webb made one last try. “These remains should be disqualified for selection as the Unknown because of past and present name associations,” he wrote to Washington about the time of Weinberger’s announcement. Webb sketched out the tangled story of X-26. Without naming Blassie, Webb reminded his superiors the X-26 case had been linked to a particular pilot who had been formerly assigned BTB (“Believed To Be”) status. He listed the evidence found with Blassie, including the one-man-raft, the flight suit, the parachute and the vanished identification card. For good measure, Webb also mentioned another unnamed casualty associated with the X-26 remains; he was referring to Capt. Rodney Strobridge, a missing helicopter pilot who matched the anthropological profile from Blassie’s crash but not other evidence from the site. Webb’s note, sent to an assistant secretary of the Army, was supposed to be forwarded up the chain to John O. Marsh Jr. Marsh says he never saw the document. “If Johnie Webb had second thoughts, I never heard about it,” Marsh said recently. “He should’ve said something.” For his part, Webb avows that he did say something—and that Washington ignored his warning.

Within five days of Weinberger’s letter to Reagan, Webb received orders to certify that X-26 could never be identified, an action that would clear the way for Blassie’s entombment. Against his better judgment, Webb produced the required document on March 21, 1984, certifying that the remains of TSN 0673-72 (X-26) “failed to support a positive identification with any known casualty of Southeast Asia.” He swallowed hard, signed the statement and prepared Blassie for Arlington. In keeping with the tradition of the Unknowns, the Pentagon ordered Webb to surrender all original files relating to Blassie and to destroy all copies to guarantee the anonymity of the tomb. Webb obeyed the first part of this directive but not the second: He kept copies of the Blassie dossier in the belief they would be needed if the case was reopened. He also retained the life raft and other physical evidence linking Blassie to the crash—which meant that man and artifacts would be buried together at Arlington.

“These remains came in together with the material evidence,” Webb recalled. “I wanted to make sure everything stayed together. If the remains were going into the tomb, the artifacts needed to go to the tomb, so that at some point there was the historical perspective on what came in with these remains.” Webb watched as Blassie’s bones were folded into an army blanket with the life raft, the parachute fragments, and other physical evidence. Webb saw the blanket fastened shut all around with safety pins to form a woolen envelope. He watched as it was eased into a polished steel casket. He saw the lid shut and heard the lock click in place. Blassie was ready for the next stage of his journey, which commenced on May 17, 1984.

For all the indignities Blassie had suffered, his passage from Hawaii to Washington constituted a sort of restitution. At Pearl Harbor he was presented with flowers by a Medal of Honor winner and given a place of pride aboard USS Brewton, the frigate that conveyed him past all the ships in Pearl Harbor while all rendered passing honors. On May 24, he sailed past the hills of San Francisco and into moorings at Alameda Naval Air Station, where further honors awaited: a 21 gun salute, a flyover of fighter jets and more eulogies. These preliminaries were but a warm-up for the state honors in Washington, where Blassie lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, thousands turned out to pay their respects and Reagan delivered his famous Memorial Day speech—all for the forgotten war that had finally earned its place at Arlington.

This, at least, was the plan, and to a large degree it succeeded. While Blassie slept in anonymity on the grand plaza of the amphitheater, dead comrades were found and restored to their families; old enemies shook hands and made peace at home and abroad; new wars boiled up; Reagan departed for California and the shadowy world of Alzheimer’s. George Blassie died in St. Louis, never knowing his son had come home. Jean Blassie carried on. Pat Blassie took her brother’s place in the Air Force and worked her way up the ranks, earning her captain’s bars by 1994. Then, all of a sudden, the old ghosts of Vietnam came rumbling back.

That year, for the first time since Michael Blassie’s death in 1972, his family learned that the airman’s remains had been found and, further, that he was most likely in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington. This revelation came from an unlikely source, a Vietnam veteran named Ted Sampley, the scrappy publisher of the U.S. Veteran Dispatch in Kinston, North Carolina. Rooting through his extensive POW/MIA files and poring over Pentagon documents, Sampley independently pieced together his own version of Michael Blassie’s chronicle, publishing his findings on July 14, 1994.

Under the headline “The Vietnam Unknown Soldier Can Be Identified,” Sampley described the recovery of Blassie’s remains and identity card and the suggestive evidence linking Blassie with the Tomb of the Unknowns. “Many facts pertaining to 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie’s shootdown closely match those of the Unknown Soldier,” Sampley reported. Noting recent advances in forensic technology, Sampley urged authorities to open the tomb and establish the airman’s identity through DNA testing.

His revelation stirred up old feelings for the Blassie family, who relived the anguish of Michael’s death. “It was shock and disbelief,” Pat Blassie recalled. “I still marvel at it after all these years. They knew it was Michael. They didn’t tell us because of the political expediency. They took his name away. We felt betrayed.” Discouraged and numbed, the family let the matter drop for two years. Then Vince Gonzales, a producer from CBS News, read the Veteran Dispatch report, collected Sampley’s extensive files and called the Blassie family. The Blassies gathered in St. Louis. They talked for hours until Jean Blassie signaled she had made a decision. “I want to bring my son home,” she said. The family rallied around. She granted CBS access to her son’s files. Pat Blassie agreed to speak on camera. Gonzales wrapped up a seven-month investigation, and CBS Evening News broadcast the results on Jan. 19, 1998.

Blassie was “almost certainly” buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns, the report said. His identity had been known for decades, and the government had deliberately hidden this information from his family and the public, CBS reported. The report, which suggested the Tomb of the Unknowns be opened to establish its occupant’s identity, sparked outrage from the VFW and the American Legion—the same groups that had lobbied for selection of a Vietnam Unknown, now complaining that the Blassies threatened to violate the most sacred site at Arlington. “It’s not sacred if we know the name of the person you have there,” Pat Blassie retorted. “That’s not what the tomb was meant for.…Either put his name on the tomb or disinter him for DNA testing.”

William Cohen, secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, moved quickly to quell the controversy. He ordered a high-level task force to examine the case, naming Rudy deLeon, respected undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to head up the study group. “The last thing we expected was that we were going to exhume the remains from Arlington,” deLeon said recently. “That was the last resort.”

Instead, deLeon mounted a fact-finding mission with three goals: to establish that the casualty known as X-26 was indeed entombed at Arlington; to find a paper trail and evidence linking him to the 1972 crash in Vietnam; and to determine if new DNA testing could provide a foolproof identity. DeLeon met privately with Johnie Webb, who helped fill gaps in the record with the purloined papers he had copied in 1984. Webb also dropped the bombshell that he had placed relevant physical evidence in Blassie’s casket. From John Marsh, deLeon learned of the political pressures that mounted within the Reagan administration as Unknown candidates fell by the wayside, leaving six tiny bone fragments to stand for all who fought and died in Vietnam.

“I felt that, indeed, all of the data we had on X-26 told us those were the remains at Arlington,” deLeon said. “Then the next question was whether the DNA testing could be conclusive. We were satisfied it could be.” So on April 23, 1998, deLeon recommended the tomb be opened. “By taking action to resolve this controversy,” he wrote, “we can preserve the integrity of the Tomb and fulfill our responsibility to the families.”

A few weeks later, on May 14, 1998, the Unknown of the Vietnam War was exhumed. William Cohen presided at the Arlington ceremonies, saying the disinterment was undertaken “with profound reluctance” but for good cause. “If advances in technology can ease the lingering anguish of even one family, then our path is clear. We yield to the promise of science, with the hope that the heavy burden of doubt may be lifted from a family’s heart.”

By this time, Pat Blassie had no doubts. “I knew it was Michael before they opened the tomb. I knew the DNA would prove it. It was the only conclusion you could reach based on the evidence.” By June 28, 1998, DNA tests confirmed a match. Michael Blassie was flown home to St. Louis for a military burial with full honors at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. This time, his name was inscribed on his tombstone.


Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here