Tuesday, January 20, 1998
ST. LOUIS PILOT MAY BE `UNKNOWN SOLDIER'
REPORT SAYS U.S. KNOWS ID OF BODY AT ARLINGTON
By Michael D. Sorkin Of The Post-Dispatch
|At Jefferson Barracks
National Cemetery in south St. Louis County is a grave dedicated to Lt.
Michael Joseph Blassie, a decorated Air Force hero whose plane was shot
down during the Vietnam War.
Michael Blassie isn't in that grave; no one is.
Now a new investigation strongly indicates that some U.S. military officials knew where Blassie's body was but concealed the information.
The reason: They needed an unidentified body to bury at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns.
"The trail leads to the tomb," Pat Blassie, one of Michael Blassie's sisters, said Monday. "He might be unidentified, but he's not unidentifiable."
She said the family, which grew up in St. Louis, "wants to bring Michael home and put him to rest. That's what any family would want."
Her comments came after a seven-month investigation by "The CBS Evening News" said remains in the national memorial "almost certainly" are those of Blassie, who died in 1972. He was 24.
To date, the government has classified Blassie as "killed in action, body not recovered."
Why did the government conceal the identity of Blassie's body?
A CBS reporter says Congress and then-President Ronald Reagan put pressure on the military to find a suitable body of a Vietnam War soldier to place in the memorial with unknowns from previous wars: World War I and II and the Korean War.
"The idea that a war that many people see as being founded on lies could be memorialized by a lie just stuck in my mind," said the reporter, Vince Gonzales.
The key to his investigation: Documents showing that the commander of a military lab had agreed, apparently under pressure, to remove records identifying Blassie by name and replace them with records identifying the remains only as those of "X-26" - an unidentified soldier.
Gonzales says the government apparently meant to destroy all the documents, including those he recently obtained under a Freedom of Information request.
SLU High graduate
Pat was 14 when her brother was killed in the Air Force, a half a world away from the family's home in the 2100 block of East College Avenue, near West Florissant Avenue.
Michael left three sisters, a brother and their parents. His father, George C. Blassie, died in 1991 without ever finding out what became of his son's body. Michael's mother, Jean F. Blassie, lives in Florissant.
Michael went to grade school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in St. Louis. In 1966, he graduated from St. Louis University High School. From there he went to the Air Force Academy and to Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi for flight training.
In January 1972, the Air Force sent him to Vietnam. There, he flew an A-37 attack plane.
In May, in what came to be called the Easter Offensive, the North Vietnamese invaded the south; tanks and troops swooped across the boarder engaging their U.S. and South Vietnamese foes.
In a nearby aircraft, Blassie's wingman flew in at 500 feet to drop napalm on the jungle where he believed enemy troops were hiding. From the ground, an anti-aircraft gun fired at Blassie's plane, blasting off a wing.
His wingman saw Blassie's plane crash and burn.
The fighting was so fierce, it took nearly six months for ground troops to return to the battlefield.
Near the crash site,a searchers found shreds of a pilot's flight suit, a military ID card with Blassie's name and photo, a pilot's compass, a holster, survival gear, an ejection seat and $1,000 in Vietnamese currenc y. They also found the skeletal remains of a body.
They bagged the remains, called in a radio report on their findings and sent everything to a military mortuary in Saigon.
By the time the body arrived, the $1,000 and the military ID were missing and presumed stolen.
Nevertheless, two American officers and a medic who had been at the scene reported their findings: the ID had belonged to Michael Blassie.
But because of military policy, that report never reached Blassie's family in St. Louis.
The military had misidentified several other bodies. As a result, without dental records or fingerprints, the military would not reveal the identity of a body to the family.
So, as far as his family knew, Blassie was one of the "killed in action, body not recovered."
Inside the military, however, the CBS investigation found, the remains continued to be classified as "believed to be" Blassie's.
That's where it stood for eight years, as pressure grew for the Pentagon to add the body of a Vietnamese War vet to those of the unknowns from the previous wars.
Meanwhile, over time, the science of identification had progressed so fast that only three or four sets of American Vietnam War bodies remained unidentified.
In 1980, an Army review board, "for unknown reasons," declared that the bones believed to be Blassie's were not his and renamed them "X-26".
Johnny Webb, head of the Army lab in Hawaii that identified Vietnam remains, indicated in a 1984 memo obtained by CBS that all documents referring to Blassie had been removed from the X-26 file on orders of the Pentagon.
On Memorial Day 1984, Reagan spoke at a ceremony in which the "X-26" remains were buried with the other unknown soldiers.
Now a former investigator of missing-in-action cases for the military is calling for the remains to exhumed for DNA testing. "If it's not him, it may be identified as some other serviceman," said Bill Bell, formerly the Department of Defense's chief investigator in Southeast Asia for missing-in-action.
Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Department's POW-MIA office, told The Associated Press that all records regarding the selection process behind the Tomb of the Unknowns are destroyed "so that these remains would be known only to God."
Greer said, "That is a long-held tradition. It seems that would have been a logical way to protect the sanctity of the `unknown' designation."
Military officials now have to decide whether they should conduct DNA testing on the remains buried in the tomb.
Blassie's family also wants the remains exhumed. "We are waiting on the government to bring back Michael," Pat Blassie said. "We are just like 2,000 other families who are still waiting."