The Department of Defense
is faced with an issue involving the possible identity of the
Vietnam Unknown in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington
Cemetery. Although the remains were judged unidentifiable and
interred in 1984, advances in forensic science now provide a capability
that may allow us to identify the remains.
Efforts to account for every
serviceman who did not return from the conflict in Southeast Asia
are unparalleled. Through decades of field investigations, analytical
assessments of seemingly unrelated data, and pushing the limits
of forensic and scientific technology, we have recovered and identified
the remains of 486 Americans. Cases once deemed unsolvable are
now routinely solved.
Since the remains of the
Vietnam Unknown were interred in 1984, DoD analysts and scientists,
family members and veterans, Congress, and the American public
have questioned whether we might be able to identify this individual.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing, a tool not approved for use
in forensic identification until 1995, may provide a means for
making a positive identification.
The mother of First Lieutenant
Michael J. Blassie, an Air Force pilot shot down in the Vietnam
War, believes that the Vietnam War Unknown in the Tomb may be
her son. She has requested that the Department disinter the remains
and conduct mitochondrial DNA testing to confirm her contention.
Deciding whether or not to
disinter requires reconciling two competing interests--the sanctity
of the Tomb and our national commitment to return unaccounted
for servicemen to their families. Given these two interests, is
there sufficient evidence to believe that disinterring the remains
could lead to an identification?
To investigate the issues
thoroughly, a senior level Pentagon working group was established
to make an assessment. In addition to researching records, members
of this group conducted interviews with individuals who served
in the An Loc area during the May-October 1972 time period. The
group collected and analyzed all available information to assess:
April 24, 1998
The Case of First Lieutenant
Michael J. Blassie
On May 11, 1972, First Lieutenant
Michael S. Blassie's A-37B aircraft was hit by ground fire, crashed,
and exploded northwest of the town of An Loc, Vietnam. The wingman
and a forward air controller reported seeing neither an ejection
nor a parachute. A US Army helicopter surveyed the site shortly
afterwards and reported seeing no survivors.
On October 31, 1972 an Armed
Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (AFRVN) long-range reconnaissance
foot patrol near An Loc recovered a partial set of remains and
some personal effects in the vicinity of an ejection seat. The
remains consisted of four ribs, part of a pelvis, and a right
humerus. The effects included lLt Blassie's military identification
card and currency control card, remnants of a flight suit, an
ammo pouch, portions of a parachute, a pouch for a signal marker,
remnants of a pistol holder, a life raft, and a small amount of
currency. The patrol's report suggests they recovered the remains
and personal effects from a single location, either the A-37 crash
site or 1Lt Blassie's ejection site. This report, however, cannot
The remains and personal
effects were evacuated to the US Army mortuary in Tan Son Nhut,
Saigon. US military advisors to the AFRVN unit and a Vietnamese
medic asserted that all recovered items were sent to the mortuary.
However, some of the personal effects recovered -- including 1Lt
Blassie's identification card and the currency -- did not arrive
at the mortuary. Based on available reporting, it cannot be determined
precisely how or when these items were lost or stolen.
Upon receiving the remains,
the mortuary determined they were insufficient for identification.
During the 1972-1975 period, the Joint Casualty Resolution Center
and the mortuary made several attempts to revisit the crash site,
but wartime fighting in the area prevented a thorough reinvestigation
of the crash site. They also tried, without success, to recover
the missing personal effects. The mortuary assigned the remains
the identification number TSN (Tan Son Nhut) 0673-72, BTB (Believed
to Be) Blassie, Michael Joseph. They based this BTB association
primarily on the reported recovery of the identification card
with ILt Blassie's name, as well as the other personal effects
and the patrol's description of the crash site, all of which were
consistent with 1LT Blassie's loss incident.
In 1978, the Central Identification
Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) recommended removing the BTB status
from the remains TSN 0673-72 because neither the anthropological
size typing of the remains nor a blood grouping test matched ILt
24 April 1998
On March 23, 1979, the Chief
of Air Force Mortuary, based on identification techniques and
methods used at that time, concurred with CILHI's recommendation
to drop the BTB Blassie status from the remains. One year later,
on April 24, 1980, a three-person board appointed by the Armed
Services Graves Registration Office approved deletion of the "Believed
to Be" name association from the remains. Their report, dated
May 7, 1980, noted the change was based on the (1) circumstances
of the incident, (2) completion of search and recovery operations,
(3) circumstances surrounding the actual recovery of remains,
(4) identification findings presented by the U.S. Army Central
Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (i.e., the anthropological size
typing and blood grouping test), and (5) absence of contradictory
evidence. The report designated the remains TSN 0673-72 (X- ),
with the "X" number left blank. By 1984, CILHI memoranda
referred to the remains as TSN 0673-72 (X-26).
In 1984, the Department of
Defense, by separate action, selected the X-26 remains for interment
in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. In keeping with traditions
of the Tomb, all records concerning X-26 were then destroyed.
(Note: Records relating to 1Lt Blassie were retained in a separate
casualty folder that was disassociated from the X-26 file. Additional
information concerning his loss incident was obtained through
record searches and interviews.)
In November 1992, members
of the USCINCPAC Joint Task Force--Full Accounting (JTF-FA) investigated
the Blassie case in Vietnam. A joint US-Vietnamese team interviewed
a former AFRVN enlisted man who provided limited second-hand information
concerning the case. JTF-FA reinvestigated the case in September
1994. The joint team surveyed the loss location, but found no
signs of an aircraft crash. The team also surveyed two nearby
areas identified as the recovery locations of remains in 1972.
Neither site yielded any indication of an aircraft crash or human
remains. No local residents had information concerning this case.
During 1995, the Department
of Defense conducted a comprehensive review of all cases involving
unaccounted for Americans in the Vietnam War to determine the
best course of action to resolve each case. DoD analysts who reviewed
the case of 1LT Blassie during this process determined that there
were several possible explanations for how the ejection seat could
have. been found away from the aircraft. They noted that by "accounting
for the discrepancy between the loss location and the remains
recovery site, the evidence supporting the possible identification
of lLT Blassie's remains is enhanced."
These analysts, unaware of
the correlation between the X-26 remains interred in the Tomb
and the TSN 0673-72 remains, concluded that "Prior to any
other effort, the remains
April 24, 1998
received in October of 1972
must be located, examined, and, if possible, tested. CILHI may,
at the least, be able to determine if the bones are those of an
American." To support this recommendation, they stressed
that "The recovered four ribs, one pelvis, and one humerus
associated with 1LT Blassie's loss should first be re-examined
to determine if new scientific methods could be used to make a
positive identification. Though rejected by Tan Son Nhut Mortuary
as insufficient, the remains recovered at coordinates XT716904,
together with the lost ID Card and MACV Form-S may be adequate
Who Else Could It Be?
findings and blood grouping tests raised the possibility that
the X-26 remains could belong to another American involved in
one of several other U.S. losses that occurred in the An Loc area
during the same time period If this were true, that meant the
X-26 remains and the personal effects, including 1Lt Blassie's
identification media, had to have been recovered from different
or even multiple sites, contrary to what the AFRVN reported.
During 1978-1980, DoD specialists
undertook an extensive effort to determine to whom else the remains
might belong. A circle search of all aircrew losses during May-October
1972 within a 25-mile radius of where the remains were recovered
revealed three other cases (two AH-1G Cobra attack helicopters
and a C-1 30 Hercules cargo aircraft). These cases involved eight
other presently unaccounted for Americans. DoD specialists compared
both the remains and the physical evidence recovered with the
X-26 remains against these eight individuals.
The chart below shows that
although each of the eight met some of the anthropological sizing
an blood grouping discriminators, only one (Candidate 2 below,
who was aboard one of the Cobras) matched them all.
26-33 Years of Age
24 Years, 1 Month, 7 Days
30 Years, 11 Months, 11 Days
28 Years, 4 Months, 6 Days
40 Years, 2 Months, 4 Days
26 Years, 5 Months, 20 Days
38 Years, 3 Months, 16 Days
43 Years, 4 Months, 11 Days
26 Years, 0 Months, 8 Days
24 Years, 3 Months, 13 Days
April 24, 199
In Candidate 2's case, however,
the physical evidence of the crash site did not correlate to his
loss. For example, the AFRVN patrol reported discovering the
remains near an ejection seat and returned parts of a parachute
and a life raft with the remains. An AH-1 Cobra is not equipped
with an ejection seat and does not normally carry parachutes or
life rafts. Likewise, the C-130 does not have an ejection seat
and does not normally carry rafts.
As a result of these contradictions,
it was impossible to associate the X-26 remains with any of these
eight other losses. A March 21, 1984 memorandum by the commander
of CILHI notes that "Anthropological processing of the remains
designated as TSN 0673-72 (X26) has failed to support a positive
identification with any known casualty of Southeast Asia. All
efforts since 4 November 1972 to establish a positive identification
have proven negative. The portions of the recovered remains do
not include identification criteria that can be matched exclusively
to an individual and it is highly improbable that continued identification
processing would be successful." The lack of unique identifying
characteristics and the state of science at that time rendered
the remains unidentifiable.
Selection of the Vietnam
The decision to inter a Vietnam
Unknown came in response to Congressional legislation passed in
1973. During 1981-82, the Reagan Administration began a search
to find a set of remains that would fulfill the requirements of
the law. There were two main selection criteria: the remains
had to be those of an American serviceman and they had to be unidentifiable.
Of four sets of remains originally considered eligible for interment,
two were subsequently identified. The third, from Laos, could
not be confirmed as an American serviceman. By process of elimination,
the fourth set, X-26, was selected.
To preclude questioning the
identity of the remains in the Tomb, all records concerning the
nomination of candidates and selection for interment were destroyed.
This practice dated from the interment of the first set of remains
following World War I and was consistent with traditions established
to protect the sanctity of the Tomb.
The Role or mtDNA Testing
In July 1995, the Defense
Science Board approved the use of mtDNA testing as a forensic
identification tool. In making its decision, the Board noted
that mtDNA comparison is a scientifically recognized technique
which, when used in conjunction with other evidence, strengthens
a case for post-mortem identification. According to the Board,
"mtDNA sequencing currently offers the best means of identifying
those skeletal remains that cannot be identified through traditional
According to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), the
discriminatory power of mtDNA is not as strong as that of nucleaic DNA typing, but a
mtDNA profile match will generally exclude greater than 99% of the population. Nucleaic
DNA is unique to an individual,
but can only be found in blood, saliva, and other body fluids
April 24, 1998
that are easily destroyed
and therefore unavailable with skeletal remains. In the case of
the Vietnam Unknown, where analysis indicates the limited skeletal
remains likely belong to one of nine individuals, mtDNA testing
used in conjunction with other forensic methods could provide
a compelling means of identification. Additionally, mtDNA can
be used to exclude an individual in the identification process.
Just as a mtDNA match can support an identification of a serviceman,
a non-match can present a strong case for exclusion.
Since 1995, the Department
has relied on mtDNA to assist in the identification process when
all other means have failed to resolve a case. AFDIL and CILHI
scientists caution that there is no assurance the mtDNA will successfully
produce an identification. Although definitive results are a match
or an exclusion, in some instances the results are inconclusive.
There are several factors-including soil conditions, charring,
age of the remains, and exposure to weather-that can destroy mtDNA.
There is, however, no effective way to determine this in advance
from records or by visual inspection. Only testing will determine
if the bones have retained their mtDNA.
The mtDNA testing of old skeletal
material requires approximately a 5-gram bone specimen (about
a 1 to 1.5 cubic inch section of bone). AFDIL believes sufficient
X-26 remains exist to conduct MtDNA testing, but, again, cautions
there is no way to determine in advance if mtDNA can be extracted
from a given bone.
AEDIL also reports that mtDNA testing would provide much more reliable results than the blood
grouping analysis originally used to disassociate the X-26 remains from 1Lt Blassie. DoD medical specialists note that since the late 1970s blood grouping analysis based on hair: samples has been regarded as a highly unreliable technique. In tests conducted in the 1980s under strictly controlled
laboratory conditions, researchers obtained--at best--67% reliability rate on tests of Caucasoid hair.
Any changes in controlled laboratory conditions such as increased age of the sample or contamination
serve degrade further the
reliability of the results.
MtDNA analysis requires a
maternal family reference for comparison. Thus, for each of the
nine missing servicemen considered possible matches for the X-26
remains, the Department would need to collect DNA samples (blood
stains) from at least one maternal relative.
Absence of Legal Precedent
The National Cemetery Act
of 1973 states that the Secretary of the Army maintains authority
to operate and maintain Arlington National Cemetery. Within the
cemetery, the Secretary of Defense maintains oversight authority
for the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater (which includes the Tomb
of the Unknowns). As stipulated in 24 U.S.C. 295(a), the
Secretary of Defense is required to obtain congressional authorization
to entomb remains in the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater.
There are no statutes governing the disinterment of remains
from the Tomb of the Unknowns.
April 24, 1998
Can There Be Another Vietnam
Modern science is rapidly
bringing us to the point where we may never again have to inter
a set of remains as "unknown." Achieving this goal would
represent monumental success in our effort to attain the fullest
possible accounting from the war in Southeast Asia, as well as
for all future conflicts.
Our comprehensive accounting
efforts have made it increasingly difficult to find a set of remains
about which we know very little. Even in cases where we have not
made a biological identification, we often have a substantial
amount of physical and circumstantial evidence to associate the
remains with a few specific individuals. Consequently, any remains
selected for interment would likely not be completely unknown,
but rather unidentifiable using current technology and evidence.
Even with state-of-the-art
forensic technology, another Vietnam-era set of remains may exist
that could be deemed unidentifiable, and thus eligible for interment
in the Tomb. There are sets of remains at CILHI that are unidentifiable,
even using mtDNA technology.
This case involving the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldiers is unique and compelling. The Tomb is
a national symbol in which the entire nation has a heartfelt interest.
Unfortunately, the current controversy has raised questions concerning
the integrity of this national symbol. It requires us to reconcile
two competing interests-the sanctity of the Tomb and our national
commitment to return unaccounted for servicemen to their families.
By taking action to resolve this controversy, we can preserve
the integrity of the Tomb and fulfill our responsibility to the
Analysis of the issues raised
in this paper leads to the following conclusions:
April 24, 1998
is no new evidence or material since 1984 that would assist in
the identification process. (Two recent field investigations to
the known loss locations recovered no new information.)
It is highly likely that
the remains belong to one of the nine individuals from the An
Disinterment for the purpose
of conducting mtDNA testing will provide an effective tool for
resolving the coinciding issues of preserving the integrity of
an important national symbol-the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers-and
responding to a family's concerns that the remains of a loved
one may lie in the tomb.
there is no guarantee that mtDNA would determine the identity
of the remains, it is more likely than not that DoD scientists
could extract a mtDNA sample from the remains given the quantity
and types of remains interred in the Tomb.
MtDNA testing would, in
fact, demonstrate that the remains (1) belong to one of the nine
servicemen, or (2) are unidentifiable and therefore "unknown"
even if the most advanced technology were utilized. Both outcomes
are desirable because either one would serve to resolve the issue
Given the available evidence
in this case and the Department's successful use of mtDNA testing
as a forensic identification tool, utilization of this technology
provides a reasonable likelihood of identifying the remains.
Based on these conclusions,
there is sufficient justification to reexamine the remains to
determine whether they are associated with one of the nine servicemen.
Recommend disinterring the remains of the Vietnam Unknown for