The saga of the Vietnam crypt of the Tomb of the Unknown is perhaps the darkest chapter of the US Department of Defense’s long-running effort to account for POW/MIAs. Though discovered in South Vietnam at the crash site, along with personal effects and survival gear, the remains of US Air Force pilot 1st Lt. Michael Blassie got labeled “Unknown.” It took the hard work of an eccentric Vietnam veteran activist, an investigative reporter, and the Blassie family to cut through years of bureaucratic bungling, official stonewalling, and government deceit to rescue Blassie from the Tomb and bring him home.
St. Louis native Michael Blassie was the picture of an ideal young Air Force officer: tall, handsome, with a hospitable grin and approachable demeanor. A 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy, Mike qualified on the A-37B Dragonfly (“Super Tweet”) Cessna attack aircraft. Then, in January 1972, he joined the 8th Special Operations Squadron of the 377th Air Base Wing at Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon.
Michael flew as an Air Commando, probably running covert missions into Laos and Cambodia, in addition to his official duties as forward air controller and counterinsurgency operations pilot in South Vietnam.
On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a massive surprise attack on the South. The Easter Offensive was the largest and most conventional ground invasion of the Vietnam War. Over 130,000 NVA with their tanks and artillery swept into South Vietnam along three separate fronts, from the DMZ to Saigon. By taking towns and cities in the South, the North Vietnamese sought to gain territory and improve their bargaining position at the Paris Peace talks underway.
Two weeks after the offensive began, combined NVA and Viet Cong forces laid siege to the provincial capital of An Lộc, located 100km north of Saigon. Over the next month, enemy forces cinched the noose, pounding the city with artillery and attempting to starve out the population. Western reporters called it a “mini-Stalingrad,” the ugliest kind of siege warfare.
On May 11, Communist forces unleashed an all-out assault to take An Lộc. The US Air Force responded with aerial counterattacks. Michael Blassie’s C-37 Dragonfly was part of that defense flying support for allied South Vietnamese ground units. It was his 138th combat mission.
Blassie dropped in low for a bombing run on attacking forces when enemy anti-aircraft fire boomed from the ground. A fellow airman saw tracer rounds directed toward Mike’s A-37. The accompanying shells found their mark.
Major James Connally, Blassie’s flight commander, described the tragic incident in a letter to Michael’s parents:
Mike’s plane was hit and began streaming fuel. He must have been killed instantly since he did not transmit a distress call of any kind. The aircraft flew a short distance on its own and then slowly rolled over, exploding on impact in enemy-held territory.
Out of the fog of war comes another version of the incident, one in which Michael’s Dragonfly inverts upside down, and Michael ejects from the stricken aircraft. Flying at a low altitude to drop napalm, he would have been propelled into the ground.
Whatever the case, other aircraft were dispatched to the area to provide cover for an Army chopper rescue team, all for naught. The enemy threw up what was described as a “murderous hail of fire” which prevented any rescue or recovery attempt.
Michael Blassie had become a cold statistic of war.
The Air Force told the Blassie family in St. Louis all they knew: their son had been killed in action, but his remains could not be recovered since he went down in enemy-held territory.
That simple, tragic explanation would be the only one that Blassie’s parents ever heard for 26 years. They never got updates on recovery efforts. And they never learned the truth: that their son Michael’s remains were discovered some five months after his death.
It was a South Vietnamese Army patrol that scoured the crash site and came back with six bone fragments, a Beacon radio, two compasses, an American flag, a parachute, remnants of a pistol holder, a one-man life raft, fragments of a flight suit, a wallet with family pictures, and an ID that read: “1st Lt. Blassie, Michael Joseph.”
The discovery of personal effects at the crash site should have converted Michael Blassie from a Vietnam MIA to a KIA, closing his case.
But instead of giving closure, the remains endured one of the most baffling episodes of misidentification in military history.
The chain of custody began with Captain William C. Parnell, an operations officer at An Lộc. Parnell wrapped the remains with the effects and held them overnight. The next morning, he handed the package to a helicopter crew, which delivered it to the Saigon Mortuary.
There, Captain Richard S. Hess of Mortuary Affairs inventoried the package and added a skeletal chart showing the bones’ locations on the body (right humerus, right pelvis, and four rib bones). He also added the critical notation: “BTB [Believed to Be] Lt. Blassie, Michael Joseph.”
From there, the remains and effects went to Camp Samae San, Thailand, where the US ran a search and recovery center. In 1976, they were shipped to Hawaii to be analyzed by the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory (CIL-HI).
By the time the package arrived in Hawaii, the wallet and ID were missing, presumed stolen during storage or transit.
The Army lab in Hawaii removed the “BTB” designation and, through a later discredited technique called “morphological approximation,” declared Michael Blassie’s remains as belonging to “Unknown.”
Morphological approximation presumed that one could determine personal characteristics like age and height by careful examination of bone fragments. Scientists at CIL-HI estimated the deceased’s age to be between 26-33 years and height between 65.2-71.5 inches.
Michael was 24 years old and 72 inches tall when he died. That is, he fell outside the approximated ranges on both counts. In addition, a single strand of hair found in the flight suit yielded an estimated blood type O negative. Blassie’s was A positive. To Army scientists, these findings superseded any other evidence, such as documents or personal effects. Michael Blassie was therefore ruled out as a possible match.
DNA testing was in its infancy in 1972. Remains identification bordered on guesswork. The pressures of war put a premium on closing cases and moving on, getting the job done even if that meant rushing lab reports. Morphological approximation, worthless though it was, provided quick answers and a veneer of scientific validation.
No one knows how many remains from Vietnam and elsewhere were buried in the wrong graves because of these flawed identification procedures.
The Blassie family in St. Louis didn’t know Michael had been misidentified because they were never told there’d been remains and effects recovered in the first place. The Pentagon had kept them in the dark, probably with the good intention of not getting the family’s hopes up until Michael’s identity could be confirmed. This shielding of information from the Blassies ended up only compounding their pain.
As an “Unknown,” Michael Blassie’s bone fragments were put in storage at the Hawaii laboratory. There they would rest for eight years in a file labeled X-26 until their date with destiny arrived.
That destiny was already in motion. The year after Michael Blassie’s death, Congress directed the Department of Defense to select the remains of an Unknown Vietnam servicemember to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown. Those who fell in the Vietnam War would thereby be honored alongside the three other Unknowns from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
Arlington got to work building a special new crypt for the Tomb, one designed to hold the Vietnam War remains.
That crypt would remain empty for over a decade. It turns out that, unlike previous wars, the Vietnam War didn’t produce many Unknowns. Improvements in evacuation, recordkeeping, and forensic science meant that almost all US remains recovered from combat zones were identified. The six fragments in file X-26 were the exception.
In 1983, Congress and the Reagan administration, under pressure from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, agreed to move the remains of X-26 into the Tomb of the Unknown as a healing gesture for a country still traumatized by the Vietnam War. The goal was to schedule the ceremony before Election Day 1984, which is why Memorial Day, rather than Veterans Day, was selected.
* * *
Major Johnie Webb was the officer in charge of the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. In order for the X-26 remains to be interred in the Tomb of the Unknown, Webb had to sign a statement confirming that they would never be identified.
Webb refused. He knew morphological approximation was a flawed identification technique, and he suspected that someday, X-26 might be identified, especially given the personal effects and documents associated with the bone fragments.
Signaling its determination to have its Vietnam Unknown, the Pentagon gave Webb six months to make a positive ID of X-26. If he couldn’t do it, Webb would be ordered to sign off on the burial. On March 21, 1984, Webb reluctantly signed.
Then, according to Webb, the Pentagon issued a second order: destroy any evidence linking file X-26 to Michael Blassie, including the personal artifacts from the crash site.
Webb would later call his grappling with that order “the struggle of my life.” On the one hand, he’d risk court-martial by not destroying the evidence. On the other, if he destroyed Blassie’s personal effects, he might condemn Blassie’s remains to permanent oblivion.
Webb devised an ingenious solution: hide the crash-site artifacts where no one would ever find them, in the casket with the remains of X-26.
* * *
On May 28, 1984, a Third Army Old Guard horse-drawn caisson moved slowly along Constitution Avenue. Over a quarter million people lined the route to Arlington National Cemetery. An Army band played mournfully while 21-gun salutes cracked in the distance. Trailing the procession were Vietnam veterans, comparatively disheveled with beards, long hair, and jungle fatigues.
Serving as next-of-kid, President Ronald Reagan received the folded flag and made brief remarks. “Today,” said President Reagan at the Tomb, “we pause to embrace him and all who served so well in a war whose end offered no parades, no flags, and so little thanks. Placing a Medal of Honor on X-26’s flag-draped casket, the President concluded, “Thank you, dear son, and may God cradle you in his loving arms.”
The Blassie family wasn’t in attendance. They had no way of knowing the remains so caringly committed to the Tomb were that of their son and brother.
* * *
Michael’s younger sister, Patricia Blassie, was seven years old when her big brother with the gentle smile left for the Air Force Academy in 1966. “We were all so proud of him. It was so exciting,” she says.
Patricia was proud also when he headed off to Vietnam six years later.
“The last day we took him to the airport, Michael looked back at us and waved. I never dreamed I’d never see Michael again.”
Patricia was 13 years old when the Air Force chaplain knocked on their door to deliver the news of Michael’s death.
“That day changed the Blassie family forever,” she says.
“I’d left school early that day, and I looked out the window when I heard a car door slam. I thought, ‘What is that?’ I went into the backyard and waited, I mean, everything seemed so strange. A neighbor came over to get me, saying, ‘Pat, you need to go inside.’ So I did and knew something was horribly wrong. They said Michael had been killed. They had a letter from his flight leader, James Connally, who recapped what had happened.”
Still, without remains, there was a terrible sense of open-ended grief. “We wanted to know the rest of the story. We wanted the entire truth, but they couldn’t tell us that.”
The official designation was KIABNR—”Killed in Action, Body not Recovered.”
“My father served in Normandy during World War II and he never got over losing Michael,” Patricia recalls. “He and Michael were very close. Dad set up a little memorial in the basement and would go down there all the time and just sit.”
“When something like this happens in a family, [it] can bring a family together or tear it apart. My parent’s marriage did not survive. You grow apart sometimes during this kind of tragedy. My father went to his grave in 1991 not knowing the rest of his son’s story.”
Meanwhile, Patricia herself joined the Air Force. “I didn’t have any direction, and the family was lower-middle income. I didn’t even know how to go about college. Mike always knew what he wanted, I didn’t. The recruiters said if I joined the Air Force, I’d travel, get excellent training, and an education. I signed up the next day. In my 17-year-old mind, that sounded like a good deal.”
By 1994, Patricia had risen from Airman Basic to Captain and was working in the Pentagon in Public Affairs. (She would retire in 2018 as a full-bird Colonel).
That’s when a Vietnam veteran and former Green Beret named Ted Sampley called Patricia’s mother out of the blue.
“Mrs. Blassie,” said Ted, “I believe your son is in the Tomb of the Unknown.”
The Blassies didn’t know Sampley. If they had, they might have hung up on him. Ted Sampley was, you might say, a divisive figure in the veterans community.
No one doubted his commitment to the cause of POW/MIAs. He was constantly researching, protesting, and pressuring the Pentagon to resolve open cases. But his tactics were confrontational and often involved outrageous claims and conspiracy theories. He believed, for example, that Senator John McCain had been brainwashed at the Hanoi Hilton and was sent back to the US to orchestrate official coverups of living POWs in Southeast Asia.
When it came to tracking MIAs, Sampley was shrewd and tireless. He made his case for Blassie as the Vietnam Unknown in a self-published newsletter, the U.S. Veteran Dispatch. He connected the dots for the Blassies over the phone.
Sampley told them that remains had been discovered near Michael’s crash site, along with items belonging to an Air Force pilot. No other MIA or KIA even remotely near the An Lộc location would have possessed a life raft, parachute, and pistol holster. A simple process of elimination made clear that the remains had to be a small fixed-wing pilot like Michael.
Sampley’s words landed like a percussion grenade in the Blassie household. Even the thought that remains had been discovered near the crash site seemed preposterous. That Michael might be in the Tomb of the Unknown . . . well, that was simply too much to believe.
Just to eliminate doubt, Patricia traveled to the Air Force Casualty Office at Randolph AFB in San Antonio to ask if there might be any truth to Sampley’s claims.
“By no means,” the office reported back, “is there anything to substantiate that your brother is in the Tomb of the Unknown.”
That was enough for Captain Patricia Blassie. As far as she was concerned, the case was closed.
And so it would have remained if a rookie CBS reporter named Vince Gonzalez hadn’t run across Sampley’s article about Blassie on the Internet. A hunch told him there might be something to Sampley’s claims, and he began his own investigation.
In 1997, Gonzalez contacted Patricia. “I know about Ted Sampley’s past,” he told her, “but I believe it’s true.”
“Well, my mom can’t get these kinds of phone calls,” responded Patricia. They’re too upsetting. Michael, after all, was her first born.
But Mrs. Blassie also had a hunch. She permitted Vince Gonzalez to access a trove of new documents through the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to the selection and entombment of the Vietnam Unknown’s remains.
These sources reinforced the probability that Michael Blassie’s remains were in the Tomb. More disturbingly, they also suggested a concerted effort to conceal any links between Blassie and the remains.
CBS Evening News went public with the explosive story in a broadcast on January 19, 1998.
“A seven-month CBS News investigation has revealed,” reported correspondent Eric Engberg, “that the identity of the unknown serviceman is almost certainly known, and that some military officials, for whatever reason, knew it all along and tried to hide it.”
The report triggered a speedy response from the Department of Defense which, after its own investigation, ordered the Tomb to be opened and the Vietnam Unknown’s remains to undergo DNA testing at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
Blood samples were collected from Patricia’s mother and older sister.
Institute staff later reported their surprise when they opened the casket to retrieve the DNA and saw the crash-site artifacts Major Johnie Webb had enclosed with the remains back in 1984.
The DNA testing resulted in a perfect match with the Blassies. Michael was no longer Unknown.
* * *
On July 11, 1998, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie finally came home to St. Louis.
Instead of moving Michael’s remains to the burial ground at Arlington, the family decided to have Michael re-interred at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery along the Mississippi River just south of the city. Secretary of Defense William Cohen was on hand for the somber burial. So were dozens of Michael’s old friends, classmates, and comrades in arms, along with thousands of others, including Vietnam veterans, who came to commemorate the return of a lost brother.
* * *
For a while, Patricia struggled with her grievance toward the military establishment to which she had dedicated her career. She grew bitter and even considered quitting the service.
“I thought, ‘Wait just a minute here, a South Vietnamese scout team with American advisors discovered the remains, found an ID and artifacts, put them on a chopper and considered their job done. I don’t care what happened, but the documents showed that patrol went into Michael’s crash site to find him, and they did. But for whatever reason, the first bad decision was not telling the family. The government does not have the right to keep such information from the family.”
“When I looked into all the documents and from my personal research, it was obvious that improper decisions were being made, and all of sudden Michael is the Unknown representing the missing from the Vietnam War. So they finally took him off the shelf, file X-26, and for that I’m thankful. At least he went into a place of honor.”
Hurtful also were the objections she and her family received from Vietnam veterans, who resented the Blassies for taking away their Unknown. They saw the identification of Michael’s remains as a loss for them.
“To many Vietnam veterans, “ Patricia explains, “it was pretty upsetting to have the Vietnam Unknown disinterred. I talked with many of them and they would say, ‘But this is the one honor we received, and the Blassie family is disrupting that honor.’ I would reply, ‘All the Vietnam Unknowns should be accounted for by the government.’ I would remind them of that, and I’d tell them our family story. I’d also remind them that Michael was never an Unknown Soldier. He was made one.”
Whenever Patricia’s mother received criticism for requesting Michael’s removal from the Tomb of the Unknown, she would simply shrug and say, “He’s not your son.”
* * *
Given the advance of DNA technology, there may never be another US Unknown. Every recovered American service member killed in action since the Vietnam War has been identified and buried.
Om 1992, the Defense Department started collecting and holding blood samples from all inductees for possible future DNA comparisons. Those vacuum-sealed samples now number some 8 million, sitting ready for a “self-reference” analysis in case of battlefield death.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, as of this writing, there are still 1,584 US service members unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Of those, 470 are considered “non-recoverable.” That is, death has been determined, but no remains can be recovered.
The Vietnam crypt of the Tomb of the Unknown, the one that contained Michael Blassie’s remains, has been empty since the exhumation on May 14, 1998. Vacant, it will likely remain.
Pete Mecca is a speaker, author, and Vietnam Air Force veteran who runs VeteransArticle.com and hosts VBC’s A Veteran’s Story every second Thursday online. You can watch his conversation with Colonel Patricia Blassie on A Veteran’s Story on the VBC’s YouTube channel, youtube.com/veteransbreakfastclub.