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Mr. Cragin, Acting ASD (Reserve Affairs), Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Briefing

Presenters: Charles Cragin, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness
April 27, 1998 12:40 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. This is Charlie Cragin who is the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. He actually has a three-part title. He's also Under Secretary de Leon's principal representative to the Senior Working Group on the [Vietnam Unknown in the] Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. He has been for six years the Chief Judge at the Department of Veterans Affairs. So he's a man very experienced in dealing with tough issues like this. Charlie?

Mr. Cragin: Thank you, Ken. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me at the outset emphasize that Mr. De Leon and Jan Lodal, the Principal Deputy over on the policy side of the house, convened in January a Senior Working Group to conduct an investigation with respect to the issues surrounding the Vietnam Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Senior Working Group is in the process of coordinating its recommendations within the Department of Defense and the Military Departments.

We are in what I characterize as the third phase of our process. The first phase was the investigative phase; the second phase was the deliberative phase; and we're now in the consultative phase where we're consulting with Members and staffs of Congress, the veterans service organizations, the family associations and the military associations. No recommendation at this point has gone forward to Secretary Cohen, and obviously, Secretary Cohen has not reviewed our report and certainly has not made any decision at this juncture. However, Secretary Cohen felt that it was important because of the very profound and somewhat competing issues of the sanctity of the Tomb, and also our national commitment to a full accounting of the missing in action, that we engage in a consultative process so that as part of his deliberations he can understand and consider the comments and input that he receives from the associations as well as the Congress.

I believe you have a briefing packet . Let me tell you that this is the identical packet that we are briefing the Members and staffs today. I've been on the Hill since 8:30 this morning, and when I conclude with you all, I'll be heading on back over to continue our briefings.

As I mentioned, the primary issue at stake is the issue of the sanctity of the Tomb and our national commitment for a full accounting of missing in action. The key question that the Senior Working Group had to grapple with was the issue of do we disinter the remains currently ensconced in the Tomb of the Vietnam Unknown?

The senior working group assessed the circumstances surrounding the Blassie case, other possible cases, the mtDNA process, mitochondrial DNA, not to be confused with nucleic DNA, and then the legal implications involved with the disinterment at the Tomb of the Unknown.

As some of you are aware because you've been doing an excellent job of investigative reporting and have, in fact, been of assistance to the Senior Working Group in providing us with names and resources [sources], the story began on May 11, 1972 in An Loc at a period of time when An Loc was under siege, where the fire-fighting was hot, it was heavy, and it was sustained.

On that day in May of 1972, First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie of the United States Air Force was in a flight of two A-37 aircraft engaged in bombing runs on An Loc. His wingman had gone in, successfully dropped his bomb load, and Lieutenant Blassie was in at low altitude to do a napalm drop when his wingman observed fuel streaming from Lieutenant Blassie's aircraft. Lieutenant Blassie's airplane began [going] into a near inverted attitude. Radio calls were made by the forward air controller and by his wingman urging Lieutenant Blassie to eject. There was no response on the radio. They observed Lieutenant Blassie's aircraft impact in a near inverted attitude and an explosion immediately ensued.

Neither his wingman nor the forward air controller in an F-15 [correction: OV2] saw any signs of a survivor. A Cobra helicopter went in shortly thereafter to review the scene. I personally have interviewed the pilot of that Cobra helicopter who recalled the scene vividly and told me that he and his crew had, in fact, seen a parachute on the top of the tree canopy, and they went in very low level to inspect that parachute, and reached the conclusion that it was a flare chute. It had not penetrated the tree canopy and the shrouds of that chute were still on top of the trees. He said they also went into the crash site in an attempt to determine if there was a survivor, and to use his words, he said "all we could see was itty bitty pieces."

I asked him how he remembered that day so vividly. You know, we sit here in the confines of the air conditioned splendor of the Pentagon and sometimes have a tendency to forget what the fog of war was like in that era in 1972. He said he would never forget that day because he had expended 52 rounds of 17 pound rockets fighting his way in and out of there to be able to inspect that site and try to find out if there was a survivor, and he said he got all of the hydraulics of his helicopter shot out getting in and out of there. He said, "I will never forget that day."

The area of An Loc continued to remain under siege for many months. It was very, very difficult for people to make forays out into the environment to search for remains. A young man serving in An Loc at the time who I know a number of you have had an opportunity to talk to, was a fellow by the name of Chris Calhoun. Chris was a first lieutenant serving as an advisor to the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] in that area. Chris also had developed a friendship with the forward air controllers who flew overhead and vectored in aircraft.

The forward air controllers liked the relationship because they would encourage Chris Calhoun to go out and look for the remains of their compatriots who had been shot down. Chris Calhoun had, in October of 1972, late in the month, had gone out with his ARVN patrol, and they had dropped him off at a certain point, and they were dressed in VC attire, Viet Cong attire. They went further, for about 30 hours and conducted a patrol. At the conclusion of the 30 hours they returned to Chris Calhoun, and at that point delivered to him some remains as well as some personal effects. At no time was there a U.S. military verification of the location that these remains had been recovered from, however, Mr. Calhoun recalls his Vietnamese ARVN colleagues telling him that they had recovered the remains, in quote, "at an A-37 crash site."

Recovered with those remains were a number of effects, and I've listed them on the briefing sheet attached. Those included a military ID card which bore Lieutenant Blassie's name, dog tag, currency control cards, and things of that nature. Chris Calhoun in his recollection when we talked said he was phenomenally impressed by the wallet that he had seen because it appeared so new and totally unscathed as it came through this process.

You can see also in the briefing that a number of these items were lost in the process of transshipment. We do know from the testimony of witnesses that the personal effects were divided, that some of the effects were placed in a bag with the remains, and other effects were placed in a bag characterized as a chute deployment bag.

Chris Calhoun told me that he recalls taking the bag which contained the remains and some of the personal effects and delivering it to a helicopter. I asked him to describe that delivery process because keep in mind we're trying to develop a chain of evidence and continuity with respect to these remains. And he said, well, it isn't like a helicopter kind of saunters in and lands and people wander on down and have a chat with their buds and get a property receipt. What it was like was as soon as you heard the helicopter coming, and we were looking for a landing zone, you had refugees rushing the helicopter, you had deserters rushing the helicopter, and you had Vietnamese artillery walking down Thunder Road where they were bringing in this helicopter. And he said, "I don't really remember whether it ever landed. I do recall throwing the bag to the crew chief." And that was essentially a process of delivery of these remains.

The remains were taken to Tan Son Nhut, to the mortuary. The remains themselves, as I said, a portion of a pelvis, a right humerus, and four rib bones were determined not to be enough to provide any sort of conclusive ID. However, because of the recovered personal effects, and I would say in addition to the recovered personal effects, the personal effects that had not been recovered but had been recorded as identified by American military -- we knew there was an ID card, things of that nature -- as a result of those effects, the remains were designated "Believed To Be" or BTB, First Lieutenant Blassie.

CILHI, the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, continued its investigative and analytical process not only with these remains but with all of the remains that were returning from Vietnam. In 1978, they conducted anthropological and blood typing tests on these remains.

The anthropologists reached the forensic opinion that looking at the stature of Lieutenant Blassie when compared with what they considered to be the outer parameters of the stature of the individual whose right humerus bone they were evaluating that there was only a 1.1 percent probability that the stature of the individual who belonged to the right humerus could be First Lieutenant Blassie.

They also conducted blood type analysis, as you may note on the slide, with the personal effects as part of the flight suit that had been recovered. They also recovered what in some documents were characterized as leg hair, and in other documents as a small amount of light brown hair. But that hair in 1978 was subjected to blood typing analysis. The blood typing analysis, albeit essentially about 67 percent reliable in the best of laboratory conditions, but that blood typing came back with an O-negative grouping. First Lieutenant Blassie's blood type was A-positive.

It was on the basis of the circumstantial evidence of the personal effects going in one direction and the forensic evidence, the blood typing and the anthropological evaluation going in the other direction, that CILHI in March of 1979 recommended that the "Believed To Be" status be removed from these remains.

The United States Air Force mortuary concurred in that recommendation and in April of 1979 [1980] the [Armed Services] Graves Registration [Office] board, ASGRO, approved the disassociation of the BTB status. The remains were then relabeled as X-26. At that point in time, any documents that were in the file relating to those remains that had any reference to Michael Joseph Blassie were then transferred to the file that was in existence for the killed in action/body not recovered file of Michael Joseph Blassie.

To a great extent, it is because of the integrity of the process and the retention of those documents that the Senior Working Group has been able to trace this entire process, because one of the precepts of interment of remains in the Tomb of the Unknowns that started with the World War I Unknown, was that once a decision is made to inter remains in the Tomb, any and all records relating to that set of remains and the decisional process that led up to it are, in fact, destroyed. Consistent with that precept, that is what occurred. So that the only way that we in the Senior Working Group knew as a matter of fact that the remains in the tomb are the same remains that originally were designated as believed to be Blassie was because of the documents that were kept behind and inserted in the Blassey file and the personal recollection of individuals that were involved in the selection process.

Now as part of the analysis that took place in and at the period of the late '70s, early '80s, a circle search of the area was conducted in a 25 mile radius of these crashes in order to try to identify any other potential candidates, for lack of a better word, with respect to these remains. We knew, for example, that a Cobra helicopter had been shot down the same day, May 11th, and let me show you on the chart here.

This is where Michael Blassie's aircraft was reported shot down. This is a Cobra helicopter that was shot down the same day as Michael Blassie, about four kilometers distant. This is a C-130 aircraft that was shot down in the period between May and October, the period between Blassie's crash and when the remains were recovered. And this is another Cobra helicopter that was shot down in that same period. Essentially what we end up with, in addition to Michael Joseph Blassie as a killed/body not recovered, is eight other American servicemen who fell within this 25 mile radius in An Loc.

One of those nine servicemen met all of the physical characteristics of X-26, and if you look at the slide that says "physical comparison," you will see that the individual making that match was case number two, which fell within all of the parameters including a blood type of O-negative. It has been reported [in the media], and there is no privacy McCain Bill requirement not to disclose it, so inasmuch as it has been a matter of public discussion I will tell you that case number two is Captain Rodney Strobridge of the United States Army who was the pilot of the Cobra helicopter.

The analysts then had to take a look at a lot of competing information. They had testimony that the remains had been collected through -- at the site of an A-37 crash. At the same time they had blood grouping and anthropological data that suggested it was a Cobra helicopter pilot. The personal effects, as you can see, included an individual life raft, included parachute remains, things that are generally not carried on either a Cobra helicopter or a C-130. So essentially, they had a set of remains that were unidentifiable.

As you know, in 1973 Congress passed legislation mandating the criteria for the selection and interment of a Vietnam soldier in the Tomb of the Unknowns. It had to be an American serviceman, and it must be unidentifiable. The search for the candidate began in earnest in 1981. Four sets of remains were identified as potential candidates for interment.

I can tell you, and if Chris Calhoun were here he would tell you, that the American government at that point in time began a substantial investigation in an attempt to identify each of the sets of those remains. In fact Mr. Calhoun, or Colonel Calhoun as he was when he retired from the Army, told me that he recalled in 1981-1982 period being on board the USS TARAWA on a joint tour, and they pulled into Honolulu, Hawaii. He was getting ready to go on liberty when he was called to come up to the quarter deck where he was met by three Army officials who he said were senior in rank to him, who identified themselves as being from the Central Identification Laboratory. He characterized it as the CIA, but I'm confident that he was talking to people from CILHI, the Central Identification Laboratory, who, to use his term, "interrogated" him for five hours about what he knew about the remains, etc. They also presented him with his staff journal from An Loc, a document he had not seen since he left An Loc, and queried him with respect to that journal. He also reported to me that he had been placed on a speaker phone with someone who he said he thought was a Senate staffer from Washington, and they continued what, as I say he characterized as an interrogation. They reported to him that they were in the process of attempting to identify remains as part of the process of selecting remains for the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The Senior Working Group has tried to ferret out that staff log, and I can tell you that our conclusion is, is that became part of the X-26 files and therefore, was destroyed at the time all of the files relating to X-26 were destroyed. But that is a conclusion based on supposition and nothing more.

In the early 1990s, the Armed Forces [DNA] Identification Laboratory [AFDIL] in Rockville began working in close collaboration with the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii to utilize a developing forensic technology -- mitochondrial DNA analysis -- to assist in the identification of skeletal remains. Nucleic DNA dissipates very rapidly. Mitochondrial DNA, although not as precise, remains for a long time. They have been able to take mtDNA with some success out of prehistoric skeletal remains.

In 1992 a situation arose questioning the validity and reliability of mtDNA testing. As a result, the Secretary of Defense tasked the Defense Science Board to do an in-depth analysis, and ascertain whether mtDNA testing was appropriate. The Science Board in 1995 issued its report. It said, among other things, that the protocol had to be rigorous, there had to be zealous assurance of non-contamination of the skeletal remains. But they essentially approved of the AFDIL protocol and AFDIL since 1995 has been utilizing this forensic evidence and assisting CILHI which I must point out has made phenomenal strides in being able to account for our missing in action. mtDNA was clearly more reliable than blood typing.

As part of our deliberations in the Senior Working Group we inquired of the scientists at CILHI as well as the scientists at AFDIL as to whether they believed initially that the remains -- the humerus, the pelvis, and the four ribs -- whether they believed there was sufficient bone structure available for them to extract DNA. They opined that they felt there was. The people at CILHI who were familiar with these remains at the time they were interred in the Tomb and who have worked with AFDIL on a continuing basis with many, many cases expressed the opinion that they felt there was a greater than 50 percent probability of being able to extract mtDNA from these remains.

Having received those opinions, the Senior Working Group inquired of General Counsel as to whether there were any legal implications with respect to disinterring the remains. As you may be aware, Congress passed legislation mandating the interment of remains. There is no statute, however, that deals with the disinterment, and to a great extent, we follow the precedent of state law which is essentially that you disinter when good cause is shown. The official in this case who is responsible for the jurisdiction of the Tomb is, in fact, the Secretary of Defense.

As I said at the outset, these are merely the recommendations of the Senior Working Group and a report on our investigatory and deliberative phases. We reached a number of conclusions. We concluded that there was no reason to question the 1984 selection of the Vietnam Unknown. We had no evidence and had been unable to acquire any new evidence which would in any way contradict the decision in 1979 to remove the BTB designation from the remains.

We concluded that DoD scientists could probably extract mtDNA from the remains, and therefore at the Senior Working Group level, it was our recommendation, and this is the recommendation that is currently being coordinated within the Department, that the Secretary disinter the remains of the Vietnam Unknown for mtDNA testing, and that at such time and if the remains were to be disinterred, and if the scientists were able to extract mtDNA from the remains, then we would then go to the maternal representatives of the nine families which I mentioned, and solicit reference samples from each of those maternal representatives of the nine MIAs.

What are the possible outcomes were the Secretary to decide to disinter? First is that mtDNA testing could conclusively identify the remains as one of the nine which I've mentioned here today. Secondly, that mtDNA could determine that there is not a match with any of the nine candidates. Or thirdly, that the testing would be inconclusive, and we'd essentially be left with a historic record and the facts as we know them today.

I believe I mentioned but let me reiterate that we expect the input during our consultative phase will be received by Monday, the 4th of May, and that the Senior Working Group will then be in a position to transmit its recommendations and the input from this phase to the Secretary for his consideration.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'd be happy to answer any of your questions.

Q: You mentioned that the Captain Strobridge was the Cobra helicopter pilot. Which of the two...

A: Right here.

Q: The one of the same day then?

A: That's correct. He went in on May 11, 1972.

Q: But you don't have the other IDs of the other seven?

A: We do have the IDs of the other seven. Some of them are governed by the McCain Bill, the privacy requirements, and we felt inasmuch as none of them at this juncture have become a matter of public discussion and/or debate, that we would protect the privacy of those families.

Q: Would it be fair to conclude from what you've said that Blassie and Strobridge are the two most likely candidates for a match?

A: Of the nine, I would say that would be a fair conclusion, based on what we know to date.

Q: If I can understand the nine. The nine are missing, MIAs that were known to be shot down in this area during this period?

A: Yes. The nine are the missing MIAs from two Cobra crashes, one A-37 crash, and one C-130 crash.

Q: But you said there's still a possibility that the remains could end up being somebody else entirely.

A: I'm a lawyer. Possible is the gamut, probable is precision. Yeah, it is possible. We're looking for an American, so Mongoloid remains [in the circle search area] that determine Mongoloid would be discounted, but keep in mind that there has been fighting in An Loc since the '50s. We could have French remains. We could have Australian remains. All we're saying is that in doing our circle search of this 25 mile radius, looking at the precise period of May through October, these are the crashes that occurred at that point in time that generate and continue to generate missing in action. Trust me, there were a lot more airplanes that were shot down over An Loc. We just happen to have recovered those remains, so they're not part of our equation as far as this investigation was concerned.

Q: The maternal representatives are the mothers of the missing?

A: It can be anybody in the maternal line, but mitochondrial DNA is transported through the maternal line, whereas nucleic DNA is the mix of your mother and your father.

Q: So it could be a cousin or something from the mother's side of the family?

A: From the mother's line, that's right.

Q: You said there was a 50 percent chance of being able to recover mitochondrial DNA. What's the accuracy of it, assuming that you were able to recover a good sample to test and you get a match? Is that match virtually 100 percent?

A: I'm not a scientist and I don't profess to be. There is a distinction drawn between the ability to include and the ability to exclude. They have a 100 percent ability to exclude, but because it is maternal only, there are some situations in which you have a sequence where it may be the same sequence for more than one individual. That's the contrast between it and nucleic DNA where, aside from identical twins, I guess you have an individual...

Q: If you have a match and then you have other circumstantial evidence such as you've cited in here, the whole totality of the evidence could then cause you to conclude...

A: And I think that was the point I was trying to make, that it becomes compelling when combined with other forensic evidence. I know that some of you have taken advantage of the opportunity to visit AFDIL and to get a briefing from AFDIL, and I'm confident that if any of you want to take advantage of that opportunity Mr. Bacon and his staff would be happy to arrange that for you. They're out at Rockville. They have a very impressive record and I'm sure they'd love to share it with you.

Q: You say you're still in the consultative phase. This is not going to change. Your recommendation is not going to change between now and May 4th. It's going to go forward then.

A: That is correct.

Q: On the question of recommendations, you said that the recommendation of the working group is that they be disinterred for the DNA testing, right?

A: That's correct.

Q: But what will be the, you know, a ... After the consultative phase ends, what further recommendation would there be left to make?

A: The recommendation will go forward, but the Secretary has always done the most thorough process. This is the way the Secretary operates. And inasmuch as this is an issue that a number of people have been involved in -- the National League of Families, for example, in I think 1982 instituted litigation to have the interment enjoined because of their concerns -- the Secretary wants to have his Senior Working Group engage in a consultative activity with people who have specific interests.

Q: If the remains are positively identified, then what happens?

A: If the remains are positively identified, they'll be returned to the next of kin.

Q: In the course of your inquiries at CILHI, did you inquire whether any of the technicians or officials at CILHI had opposed X-26 being placed in the Tomb during the 1984 time period? And if you made that inquiry, what did they say?

A: We did have inquiries, Eric, and there were people who expressed a concern that they felt they were being rushed to make a decision. There was no question in our mind that there were a lot of people who were interested in interring remains. However, we felt after evaluating all the evidence, in spite of personal perceptions, that they had done a scientific job. And as I said, we found nothing in our evaluation that led us to conclude they'd made anything but the right decision, given the facts as they knew them at the time.

One of the things being involved in judicial activities is, you have to look at the facts that were in existence, not the facts as you know them later. That's what we tried to do as part of that facet of our analysis.

Q: Do you, in your consultative process you apparently already have been in touch with many of the veterans groups. Have you been in touch with the families of the other nine? Have you met any resistance doing this so far? Give us sort of a temperature taking.

A: I can't buy into your premise. We have not been in touch with many of the veterans groups. We have had individual discussions, I think, with leadership in some of the veterans groups. However, we expect to meet with them here in the building [the Pentagon] tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 to essentially have this same discussion with the veterans groups.

Based on my own personal conversations, and I know the conversations we've had with others, people feel that if there is a probability that the utilization of technology that was not in existence at the time this decision was made can assist us in moving our national commitment of full accounting forward, that the remains should be disinterred. I'm sure that there are concerns about the sanctity of the Tomb, and we have had those discussions. But I think on balance, everyone came down to what is right. What is right is to utilize the technology that exists to attempt to identify the remains.

Q: What about the other families of the nine? The eight, seven other families?

A: As part of our consultative process we are also involved in communicating with each of those families and have offered to visit with them and provide them with essentially the entire briefing that we've provided to you.

Q: I'm I guess asking more than anything else, have you met resistance from them on the issue of disinterment? Or what sort of feedback are you getting?

A: I wouldn't characterize it as resistance. I think a number of these families have certainly made peace with themselves. They know in their heart of hearts where their loved one is, and to some extent they don't feel any necessity of moving any further with it. I wouldn't characterize that as resistance. I think they've all indicated a willingness to cooperate. But we know, as your colleague characterized it, that it's probably one of two more than one of nine, and so we're going to try to do what we think is right, and that's what the Senior Working Group is saying, and it will be up to the Secretary ultimately to make the decision after he's had an opportunity to review everything.

Q: The remains of how many people are buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns? Is it World War I...

A: To the best of our knowledge, it's the remains of one individual.

Q: No, I'm talking about...

A: Oh, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Q: Will the disinterment disturb the other three?

A: No. They're all in individual crypts within that section.

Q: Have members on the maternal side agreed to participate in the tests? You would need that.

A: We know that some have. We're just in the process today as part of this consultative phase of talking to those family members. I have nothing that I can report to you now that anyone has said absolutely no, we're not going to participate.

Q: It's been said that because of technology that there may not be unknown remains, or that might be something much more unlikely in the future. If it turns out that these remains are identified, would there be any other remains available to be placed in the Vietnam crypt, or are we beyond the point where we'd have any unknown? Would the same questions arise about any other remains?

A: I think with respect to future wars, we're now doing DNA sampling of our entire force so I think probably in the future clearly there will not be an unknown. With respect to Vietnam, if you have the background paper, and if you don't we'll make sure you do have it before you leave, but we note in there that CILHI does have remains which even with technology of today, they suggest are unidentifiable.

Q: Are you inclined to fill that crypt with one of these, should there be a disinterment and should you remove the remains?

A: I wouldn't be inclined to even walk down that path at this juncture. That's not an issue that the Senior Working Group was asked to grapple with. We're optimistic that if the Secretary does accept our recommendations that we, that this Senior Working Group, won't have to walk down that path. But obviously, that's a policy consideration that will have to be made depending upon the outcome of this testing.

Q: I take it each of these individual crypts is above ground and not buried, or...

A: No, as I understand it, the crypts themselves are in fact below grade and the disinterment process, there will be a construction period, so to speak, that would have to take place in order to effectuate a disinterment.

Q: Do you believe that you would need a law passed in order to disinter?

A: No. Our counsel is of the opinion that we do not need any specific legislative authority, that the Secretary as the individual representative for the Tomb of the Unknowns has the implicit authority to act when he determines that good cause has been shown.

Press: Thank you.