31 Days of History: 10 July

On this day in 1998, a mere 11 years ago, the U.S. military delivered the remains of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie to his family in St. Louis. Why is that important? Because for 14 years, Lt Blassie had been in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. How he went from St Louis to Vietnam to Arlington before coming back home to Missouri is a story worth reading (there are also more pictures than normal, but I think they are justified).

Lt Michael Blassie

Blassie graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1970 and was serving as a member of the 8th Special Operations Squadron in South Vietnam. On 11 May 1972 he was flying support for an ARVN (Army of South Vietnam) ground unit besieged at An Loc in the latter days of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) Easter Offensive. Another pilot watched as ground fire struck Blassie's plane; his plane rolled, turned upside down, crashed and exploded-no sign of ejection, no parachute had been witnessed, and no emergency radio signals had been broadcast. Immediate recovery attempts were launched, but the plane was in an area heavily controlled by enemy forces and it was impossible to examine the crash site. With eyewitness accounts of the crash and explosion, and with no evidence that he had survived, he was classified as "Killed In Action, Body Not Recovered" and his family back home was notified of the tragic loss. His remains were never found.

Michael Blassie, as a cadet at the Air Force Academy

A "rubbing" of Michael Blassie's name from the Vietnam Memorial Wall. The cross symbol (to the left) means the servicemember is Missing In Action


14 years later, during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 17 May 1984, an unidentified servicemember was designated the "Vietnam Unknown". The remains were to be interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington along with remains of unidentified soldiers from WWI, WWII and Korea. The remains arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland the following day. Many citizens, veterans and President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan visited the servicemember as he lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. An Army caisson carried him from the Capitol to the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, 28 May 1984. President Reagan presided over the funeral, and presented the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown. The President also acted as next of kin by accepting the interment flag at the end of the ceremony.

The Vietnam Unknown being carried into the Capitol

Resting in State for three days in the Capitol Rotunda

Enroute to Arlington

President Reagan visible on left

During the ceremony, President Reagan assured the families of missing servicemembers the quest for their loved ones was not over. "We write no last chapters," he said. "We close no books. We put away no final memories." The President then presented the Medal of Honor to the Unknown by stating we should "debate the lessons learned in Vietnam at some other time: Today we simply say with pride, 'Thank you, dear son. May God cradle you in His loving arms.' We present to you our nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Vietnam Era."

President Reagan presnting the Medal of Honor to the Vietnam Unknown

For the next fourteen years, the Vietnam Unknown lay in the Tomb, as members of the 3rd Infantry Old Guard walked their tireless, never-ending sentinel before the Tomb.

Meanwhile, family and friends of Lt Blassie began to put the pieces together and wonder if the Vietnam Unknown was really their relative. After securing the appropriate permission, the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed on 14 May 1998.

The Vietnam Unknown, after exhumation

Based on DNA testing, Department of Defense scientists were able to positively identify the remains at 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (4 April 1948-11 May 1972). On 30 June 1998 the Defense Department announced that the Vietnam Unknown had been identified and Blassie's body was returned to his family. On 10 July, Blassie's remains were transported by a cargo plane from the 8th Special Operations Squadron (his unit) and finally arrived home in St. Louis. He was reinterred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Before Blassie's casket was lowered into the ground, his mother, Jean Blassie, silently removed a red, white and blue cloth cover from her son's 2-foot-high, white marble gravestone. She then poured out 6 ounces of dirt collected from Arlington National Cemetery on May 14, the day his remains were disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknowns. The military honor guard fired the 21-gun salute as an Air Force F-15 screamed overhead.

Dirt from Arlington being placed in Lt Blassie's grave

Following the removal of Lt. Blassie's remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns, the DoD announced it would not place another body in the crypt. Instead, officials announced they would carve an inscription on the cover, highlighting America’s commitment to account for all those missing in action. The marker at Arlington now reads, "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen"

It's blurry, but it reads, "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen".

A brief background note: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (or the Unknowns) is a monument in Arlington National Cemetery dedicated to American servicemen who have died without their remains being identified. In 1921, an unidentified serviceman from World War I was interred in the white marble sarcophagus with the inscription, "HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD". Unidentified soldiers from WWII, Korea and Vietnam are placed in front of the sarcophagus with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.

The World War I Unknown arriving at the Washington Navy Yard

World War II and Korea Unknown being selected aboard the USS Canberra

The Tomb is guarded by members of the 3rd Infantry's Old Guard (the oldest active unit of infantry in the army, having been first organized in 1784). They have stood watch at the Tomb continuously, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since 2 July 1937. They never stop, they don't take days off, and they don't go inside when the weather turns bad. If you get a chance, observe the "Changing of the Guard" ceremony which occurs every 30 minutes (or hour, depending upon the season) and follows a highly detailed, never changing routine.

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