Twenty-six years ago, his attack plane hit by gunfire and bursting into flames, Michael Blassie died in the violent closing chapter of the Vietnam War.
But his death was a mystery, his body, according to the official version of events, never identified among the hundreds of nameless Americans killed in the war.
The Pentagon on Tuesday reopened the case, prompted by complaints from Blassie’s family that he might mistakenly be buried inside the 8-ton marble crypt that Arlington National Cemetery reserves for selected unidentified soldiers from the century’s wars.
Now it’s possible that one of the nation’s unknown heroes might have been known all along.
Adding another layer of intrigue is a hint of conspiracy: Some POW and MIA activists believe the Reagan administration rushed a body into the crypt to show its concern for the missing in action. They claim the White House was hoping to hush demands for a full accounting of the 2,099 servicemen still declared missing in Southeast Asia.
A St. Louis native and a freshly minted pilot, Blassie, 24, was shot down May 11, 1972, over Song Be province in what then was South Vietnam, according to Air Force and Library of Congress records. Because of fierce fighting during a North Vietnamese offensive, his body remained near the wreckage of his A-37 plane.
When South Vietnamese troops reached the body in the fall of 1972, they also found personal effects including a military ID card, according to Capt. Mike Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman. But these items never reached Saigon, Doubleday said, and for eight years, the body never was conclusively identified. Doubleday would not say whether the personal effects were stolen or lost.
In 1980, a military inquiry board declared that the remains could not be positively identified as the young pilot.
Seeking to close the wounds of the Vietnam War, President Ronald Reagan in 1984 added an unknown Vietnam veteran to the solemn crypt at Arlington, where four service members are buried, memorializing all the soldiers killed but never identified in each of this century’s major wars.
Then, in 1994, Ted Sampley, a POW-MIA activist in North Carolina, began probing Pentagon records of Blassie, comparing them to what was known about the unknown Vietnam veteran. Based on what was found near the wreckage - a parachute and a life raft - Sampley concluded that the veteran in the crypt wasn’t unknown at all. And he phoned the pilot’s mother, Jean Blassie, in Missouri.
“I told her what I had discovered,” Sampley said. “And she said she had not known anything about her son other than the Air Force had a dog tag of his they wouldn’t give her.”
Sampley’s findings quickly became grist for members of the POW-MIA community, many of whom believe their government is neglecting their calls for a full accounting of those missing in Southeast Asia. “It is known among the POW activists that in 1984 there was a big political move by the White House” to satisfy the activists, said Sampley, who wants the government to try to identify the soldier in the tomb. But he suspects “it was just a political move.”
The family wants the Pentagon to determine whether the body in the crypt is their son, and if so, to give him a marked grave. On Monday, CBS reported Blassie might have been wrongly buried because the Reagan administration was pressing the military for a body to bury in Arlington.
As yet, the military is unconvinced it buried the wrong man, Doubleday said. The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the identity of the remains in Arlington. But because records surrounding the 1984 burial have been destroyed, the military is trying to round up officials from more than a decade ago.
Doubleday refused to say how long the investigation would take, or what might be done to determine whether Blassie is the unknown soldier, such as exhuming his body to perform DNA tests.
There are at least 400 other sets of remains from the war believed to be American and as yet unidentified.
After the war ended in 1975, Vietnam returned 500 bodies. Since 1992, a U.S. task force has brought back another 400 remains. Of the nearly 1,000 sets of remains, 486 have been identified.
Today, DNA testing, extensive dental records and teams of anthropologists make unknown casualties increasingly rare. Even the 400 unidentified sets of remains from Vietnam pale when compared with previous conflicts, in which soldiers were declared missing or buried in mass graves, without further examination.
One example is the sheer number of missing in action from the century’s conflicts: 2,099 in Vietnam, more than 8,000 in Korea, and more than 78,000 in World War II.
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