Pentagon identifies Tomb of Unknowns exhumed remains Air Force pilot killed in Vietnam War named after DNA analysis

June 30, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The remains of an unidentified American serviceman from the Vietnam War, buried beneath the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery 14 years ago, are no longer unknown.

They belong to 1st Lt. Michael Blassie of the Air Force, a pilot whose attack jet crashed on May 11, 1972, near a village in South Vietnam called An Loc. He was 24 at the time and ever since has, officially, been considered missing in action.

A new type of genetic test -- not available when President Reagan honored the "Unknown Soldier" from the Vietnam War at a solemn, symbolic state funeral on Memorial Day in 1984 -- has matched DNA taken from the remains with DNA from Blassie's mother, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

The Pentagon removed the remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns last month after a lengthy investigation ordered by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen concluded that the remains very likely belonged to one of nine Americans killed in Vietnam, including Blassie. The lieutenant's family had urged the Pentagon to conduct the DNA tests after news reports raised questions about the identity of the Unknown Soldier.

Cohen, who presided over the disinterment at what is one of the nation's most revered memorials, is scheduled to announce the results at the Pentagon today, but the families of the nine missing Americans were notified by telephone yesterday.

The lieutenant's family declined last night to comment until it received official confirmation of the Pentagon's findings.

The Blassies have said they wanted to take the lieutenant's remains home to the suburbs of St. Louis, where he was raised. They have said they want to bury him at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, near the grave of his father, George, a veteran of World War II who died in 1991.

The identification of the remains, which until last month lay with unknown soldiers from the two World Wars and the Korean War, has raised the possibility that there will not be another set of remains put in the tomb.

If a new set of remains were placed in the tomb, a Pentagon official said, "You'd have to relive this chapter over and over."

Blassie's family has suggested that the Pentagon deliberately obscured the remains' identity in a rush to declare an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War.

Blassie, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, died 26 years ago when his A-37B attack jet crashed in flames outside of An Loc, a hotly contested village near the border with Cambodia. Because of the intense fighting, however, the site of the crash could not be search and his remains recovered.

It was not until five months later that a South Vietnamese patrol reached the spot and recovered four ribs, the right humerus and part of the pelvis, as well as a collection of personal items, including Blassie's identification card and remnants of a flight suit.

According to the Pentagon's investigation, the remains were tentatively identified as Blassie's based on that evidence. In 1978, however, the Pentagon's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii found that neither the blood type of the remains nor the size of the humerus matched Blassie's. By then, some of the personal items were lost, and the remains were reclassified as unknown.

The Pentagon's investigation then reviewed the records for all known casualties near An Loc, concluding earlier this year that the remains likely belonged to one of nine Americans, all pilots or crew members.

Using the new tests, which were approved for use in 1995, the Pentagon compared a sample of mitochondrial DNA removed from the pelvis last month with samples from maternal relatives of eight of the nine. (There was no maternal relative of the ninth.) The sample matched Blassie's mother, Jean.

For the other families, the uncertainties remain. Althea Strobridge, the mother of Capt. Rodney Strobridge, said last night that while she was happy for the Blassies, nothing for her had changed.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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