The Known Unknown

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Ronald Reagan:
My fellow Americans, Memorial Day is a day of ceremonies and speeches. Throughout America today we honor the dead of our wars.

Roman Mars:
Whatever you think about Ronald Reagan, they called him the great communicator for a reason.

Ronald Reagan:
The unknown soldier who is returned to us today, and who we lay to rest is symbolic of all our missing sons.

Roman Mars:
This is him in 1984 during a military funeral at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. On that Memorial Day, Reagan was eulogizing the remains of an unidentified service member from the Vietnam War. The remains would be entombed beside three other unknown service members from World War I and II, and the Korean War.

Joe Rosenberg:
It was a big event.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Joe Rosenberg.

Joe Rosenberg:
A horse drawn carriage brought the casket to the tomb, past 250,000 onlookers, including hundreds of veterans who emerged behind the crowd to walk behind the remains on the way to Arlington. The most powerful part, though, was when Reagan talks about who this unknown soldier might have been.

Ronald Reagan:
Did he play on some street in a great American city? Or did he work aside his father on a farm out in America’s heartland? Did he marry? Did he have children? Did he look expectantly to return to a bride? We’ll never know the answers to these questions about his life.

Joe Rosenberg:
As Reagan spoke, etched on the side of the tomb itself were the words, “Known but to God”. It’s all really moving, even knowing what we know now. Just that although the person being buried that day might have been unknown to the public, a lot about his identity actually was known.

Roman Mars:
The government likely even knew that he had a family who would like to have his body back. But they buried him anyway.

Joe Rosenberg:
How to honor unidentified remains has always been one of the great conundrums of war. The Romans were fond of honoring them with an empty sarcophagus. After the Civil War, the Union buried 2,111 soldiers in a mass grave in Arlington that they purposefully built on top of Robert E. Lee’s rose garden.

Roman Mars:
It wasn’t until the 20th century that it occurred to anyone to bury a single unknown soldier in a public setting.

Robert Poole:
This sort of memorialization came about from World War I.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Robert Poole. He’s a former executive editor for National Geographic, who wrote a book about Arlington called “On Hallow Ground”. And he said World War I ushered in an era of total war, and mass participation, in which the combatants on both side were mostly ordinary citizens, anonymous “everymans” often rendered literally anonymous amongst the violence at the Western Front.

Robert Poole:
Everything about the war, not only the numbers, but the nature of it was dehumanizing. Nobody who went through that war was ever the same again. And there was a British chaplain who was in the worst of the fighting, on the front lines, named David Railton.

Joe Rosenberg:
Railton would spend his nights conducting funeral services over the remains of soldiers ripped apart by shellfire, often burying them on the spot, sometimes en masse in the giant craters the shells had left behind.

Robert Poole:
And while he was there, he thought about how terrible it was that there were these people who were essentially forgotten. Buried in their graves, and nobody would ever remember them. And that there should be something better than that for them.

Roman Mars:
I was around this time that David Railton came across a temporary grave a few miles behind the front, marked by a cross bearing the name of a regiment, and the words “An unknown British soldier”.

Joe Rosenberg:
And he realized…

Robert Poole:
If you had a mass grave with 2,000 people in it, then it’s a mass grave with 2,000 people in it. It’s not an individual who had a life. Something about having a particular person makes it more real, more human.

Roman Mars:
After the war, Railton advocated for a grave bearing the body of a single soldier, to bring the impossibly large tragedy down to a human scale.

Joe Rosenberg:
The soldier’s anonymity would allow each person who came to the grave to project whatever was most important to them onto the mystery. It didn’t matter if you wanted to honor all those who served or merely those who died. Those who volunteered or those who were drafted. Or even whether you for the war or against it. Everyone was free to mourn in their own way.

Roman Mars:
Sure enough, when Britain dedicated the grave of an unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey in 1920, it was an overnight success. The dedication alone attracted so many mourners, the line for viewing lasted 10 days.

Joe Rosenberg:
And Britain’s unknown warrior wasn’t the only one.

Robert Poole:
Britain, France, Romania, Italy – everyone at the same time jumped on this idea.

Joe Rosenberg:
Over 50 countries would end up building similar memorials, in part because the formula was so easy to follow. All you needed was the body of a single unknown soldier.

Robert Poole:
The American memorial is especially beautiful. It sits at the top of a hill that overlooks the rest of Arlington Cemetery. And starting in 1937, it has been watched over day and night without a single interruption by a lone guard, forever marching back and forth in front of the tomb.

Joe Rosenberg:
No one knows which service the remains are from, so instead of soldier or sailor or Marine, they’re simply referred to as “the unknown”. In fact, anything that narrows the scope of who this person could be, including where exactly they were found, is purposefully withheld from the public, in order to make sure that they represent everyone who fought. The tomb has become one of the Washington D.C. area’s biggest tourist attractions.

Roman Mars:
But in 1956, we made one small seemingly innocent change to the formula of the unknown that would end up proving tricky.

Joe Rosenberg:
We began adding a new set of unidentified remains for every subsequent war. World War II, Korea and eventually Vietnam. Each war would get their own unknown.

Roman Mars:
Which made sense. There were lots of unknowns to choose from. At least at first.

Robert Poole:
In World War I, there were something like 1,648 unknowns. World War II, the unknowns were 8,526. Korean War, 848. And then the last war in which we had an unknown. Vietnam, 4.

Joe Rosenberg:
Thanks to improved battlefield evacuation tactics, the Vietnam War produced only four sets of unidentified remains that could potentially go into the tomb. And then as more information about those remains was discovered…

Robert Poole:
It was down to three, then down to two, then down to one. One set of remains for all of Vietnam who was unknown.

Roman Mars:
That single set of remains, the one Reagan eulogized in that moving ceremony in 1984, which was presented to the public as the unknown soldier was referred to internally as X26.

Joe Rosenberg:
But his actual name was Michael Blassi.

Patricia Blassi:
There’s not supposed to be favorites in families, right?

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Patricia Blassi.

Patricia Blassi:
But the firstborn just has something about them.

Joe Rosenberg:
Michael Blassi was Patricia’s oldest brother. He was the oldest of five, actually, in the Blassi family. So growing up in St. Louis in the 1960s and 70s, she looked up to him.

Patricia Blassi:
He was actually very good at anything that he did.

Joe Rosenberg:
Patricia says that Michael was constantly bouncing between activities, mastering each one before moving on to the next. School, music, sports.

Patricia Blassi:
I think he could have done whatever he wanted to, but then he received an appointment to the Air Force. And he fell in love with flying at the Academy.

Joe Rosenberg:
In flight school, Michael was assigned to fly a ground attack aircraft known as the 837. Dubbed the “Dragonfly” or sometimes the “Super Tweak”. It was designed to fly low over its target. Pilots loved it because that close to the ground, the landscape rushing by. The sense of flight, speed of combat was heightened.

Roman Mars:
To the uninitiated, of course, all these things made flying the 837 downright terrifying.

Patricia Blassi:
But I don’t remember Michael ever saying anything about being afraid of it. And so once he graduated, it was off to pilot training. Then from there it was off to survival training. And from there it was off to Vietnam. I remember seeing him get on the aircraft in St. Louis, and I remember him looking back, and waving to us with that beautiful smile, and I just remember thinking, “Oh, we’ll see him again”. I think we all did.

Roman Mars:
By 1972, when Michael Blassi was deployed, America’s military presence in southeast Asia was shrinking rapidly. There were fewer than 25,000 U.S. servicemen left in Vietnam, as opposed to 500,000 who had been deployed by the late 1960s.

Bill Thomas:
The war was in effect winding down, but it was still dangerous, and there was still a lot of combat going on.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Bill Thomas. He’s a reporter who wrote about Michael Blassi for the Washington Post. And he said the American servicemen who remained behind were stretched thin. They had to do a lot with a little. And that meant Michael was going to see a lot of combat.

Bill Thomas:
He arrived in Vietnam in January of ’72.

Joe Rosenberg:
And by May of 1972…

Bill Thomas:
He had flown something like 130 missions. So virtually almost every day he had at least one combat, sometimes two combat missions.

Joe Rosenberg:
The 837 that Michael flew had a good record up to that point in Vietnam. Only a few had gotten hit. But when they were hit, things could get ugly fast.

Bill Thomas:
Because it could take all kinds of fire, I mean, you’re flying 400 feet in the air, and you get hit. You’re not going to be able to parachute out of the plane. So that made it very dangerous.

Joe Rosenberg:
Michael would always take off and land from a protected airbase near Saigon. But his missions had him flying over a lot of dangerous places. And the most dangerous was arguably a town in South Vietnam called An Loc.

Roman Mars:
In 1972, An Loc was occupied by the South Vietnamese military, along with a handful of American advisors. But it was under siege by an invading North Vietnamese army.

Bill Thomas:
The siege lasted a very, very long time. It went on for months. And I encountered a guy who was in An Loc – Chris Calhoon – and as he described it, it was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now.

Chris Calhoon:
The city of An Loc was totally leveled. It looked like Hiroshima.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Chris Calhoon. He was stationed in An Loc as an Army Ranger during the majority of the siege. And he often resorted to analogies as a way of explaining just how awful it was there. At one point, he described the South Vietnamese wounded, with their meager medical support, as looking like something out of the Civil War. An Loc was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Chris Calhoon:
We got food and ammunition by parachute drop every day. We were under constant shell fire.

Joe Rosenberg:
Chris’s duty, in the midst of all this chaos, was to call in air strikes.

Roman Mars:
And it was Michael Blassi’s squad that was providing the air support. They were flying bombing runs over An Loc nearly every day.

Joe Rosenberg:
Michael and Chris never actually spoke one-on-one. Their time there didn’t quite overlap. But Chris did get to know a lot of Michael’s squad roommates really well.

Chris Calhoon:
And we would talk on a radio. They’d read me “Stars and Stripes”.

Roman Mars:
“Stars and Stripes” is the U.S. Military’s independently run daily paper.

Joe Rosenberg:
Why would they read you “Stars and Stripes”?

Chris Calhoon:
Well, it was my only contact with the outside world. But in An Loc, they would be over us almost 24 hours a day. And that kept the North Vietnamese off our backs, so these were people who I owed my life to.

Roman Mars:
And it was on one of these bombing runs, keeping the North Vietnamese off their backs, that Michael Blassi flew his 132nd and final mission.

Joe Rosenberg:
We’ll never know exactly what happened on May 11th, 1972. Witnesses recall that day’s fighting as being particularly intense and chaotic. So a lot of what we do know comes from Blassi’s commanding officer, who was flying in a plane alongside Blassi’s.

Chris Calhoon:
And he said, the thing he remembered most of all was how bright everything was.

Joe Rosenberg:
The sky would have been filled with various planes and helicopters, each going after a separate target. But also tracer rounds being fired from multiple enemy aircraft guns.

Chris Calhoon:
And they were taking ground fire the whole time, but because they were flying into the sun, they couldn’t see where it was coming from. So this just added to the confusion of the battle.

Roman Mars:
And somewhere in the midst of the blinding sun and the chaos and the confusion, Michael’s plane was hit by ground fire.

Joe Rosenberg:
And remember, Michael’s plane was designed to fly low. When he got hit, he was no more than 500 feet above the ground.

Chris Calhoon:
And he had lost control of the plane.

Roman Mars:
Blassi’s plane began streaming fuel, inverted, and then disappeared into the jungle below.

Chris Calhoon:
And there was no distress signal, which indicates that the pilot had probably been killed instantly.

Joe Rosenberg:
Michael’s plane had crashed deep in North Vietnamese held territory. A helicopter team tried to get to the crash site, but due to heavy enemy fire, they had to leave after just a few minutes, empty handed. After that, there didn’t seem to be any way to get to the site or find out exactly what had happened. Michael Blassi was declared missing in action, and presumed dead. The Blassi family was informed that Michael’s body would not be coming home.

Patricia Blassi:
It’s the strangest thing that when there is no body, there is no gathering.

Joe Rosenberg:
When Michael died, it wasn’t the first time Patricia had to deal with the loss of a close family member. Both her parents came from big families. Lots of aunts and uncles, lots of funerals. And she said that any time someone passed away, they processed it by gathering together at the funeral and just talking about the person’s life, who they were, how much everyone missed them. But this time, without a body to place beneath the tombstone, the family opted not to have a funeral.

Patricia Blassi:
I mean, there was a memorial gathering, but it still wasn’t the same. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t… It wasn’t just… I remember it’s just, like, quiet. And then it was just, well, we’ll go on with our lives and try to be normal. Well, it wasn’t normal.

Joe Rosenberg:
Patricia says that Michael’s death, or rather the not talking about Michael’s death, ended up putting a strain on her parent’s marriage. They later separated, and Patricia joined the Air Force, eventually attaining the rank of colonel. Life, in other words, went on, even as the topic of Michael sat undiscussed and unfinished.

Patricia Blassi:
It was just sort of put on over on a shelf, this thing that we didn’t get to deal with. And it didn’t resurrect itself until 26 years later after he was killed. We realized where he was.

Roman Mars:
In 1994, more than two decades after Michael had been killed, both Patricia and her mother received a phone call from a complete stranger.

Patricia Blassi:
And he said, “I’m Ted Sampley, and I am a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam.”

Joe Rosenberg:
Ted Sampley has since passed away, but back then he was this sort of minor celebrity, championing the cause of Vietnam POWs and MIAs. He was convinced the government wasn’t telling veterans everything it knew. And he was calling Patricia with an outlandish theory about Michael’s death.

Patricia Blassi:
I mean, there wasn’t anything in his voice that was like angry. Just matter of fact. But he said, “I started researching who was shot down on May 11, 1972. And what was found with them? And would that be on a fighter aircraft?”

Joe Rosenberg:
This evidence was circumstantial, and his logic was long winded.

Patricia Blassi:
But he said, “I believe your brother’s in the tomb of the unknown.

Roman Mars:
But the body from Vietnam that President Reagan had buried with pomp and ceremony in 1984 wasn’t unknown at all. That it was in fact Michael.

Joe Rosenberg:
At first, Patricia didn’t know what to make of any of this. As far as she knew, Michael’s body had never even been recovered. And remember, she herself was in the Air Force. So after getting off the phone with Sampley, she called up the Air Force casualty office, and asked, could this be true? Could Michael be in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

Patricia Blassi:
And they said, by no means is there anything to substantiate that your brother’s in the tomb. And I said, “Well, you know what? Thank you very much, because that is the craziest story that I could ever imagine, that a known soldier was in the Tomb of the Unknowns.” And so it just didn’t make sense.

Vince Gonzales:
I thought, this is the best example of internet conspiracy garbage I’ve seen to date.

Joe Rosenberg:
This is Vince Gonzales. He was a young reporter at CBS Denver when he accidentally came across a post Ted Sampley had made on the internet about his theory that Michael Blassi had been buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns. This was in 1997, three years after the phone call with Patricia. And he says, yeah, of course he totally dismissed it.

Vince Gonzales:
And I thought, I’m going to print it out, I’m going to show it to college classes when I visit and say this is why we say don’t believe everything you read on the internet. And I did that. Printed it out, had it on my desk at CBS. And then one evening I sat down and started reading it, and I thought, well, maybe I should check this out.

Roman Mars:
Sampley had no direct evidence proving that Michael Blassi was in the tomb. But that didn’t make him wrong.

Joe Rosenberg:
Whatever was known about the remains of the Vietnam Unknown had never been revealed. It was all pat of the effort to make sure the Unknown could represent everyone who ever fought in the war.

Roman Mars:
But Sampley had come across some secondhand accounts suggesting that America’s only set of unknown remains from Vietnam had been recovered from an aircraft that had been shot down in 1972. And he had only been able to find one missing plane that fully matched the description. Michael Blassi’s.

Joe Rosenberg:
What still made it hard to believe was that the government was not supposed to bury anyone in the tomb if there was a chance that he could be identified like this. So Vince called a few sources in the military. Not asking any hard questions. Just wondering, almost kind of embarrassed. Could the government possibly bury a known person in the Tomb of the Unknowns, and not tell anyone?

Vince Gonzales:
One conversation in particular told me there was an attitude within some parts of the military that might allow something like this to happen. I called up a researcher in the Pentagon, and I tried to talk really around the issue. I didn’t want to let them know what I was working on, but I finally said, what if you could figure out who this was? What if we could go in and identify this person and give him back to his family? And his response was, “Oh, that would never happen.” And I said, “But that would be the truth!” And he said, “Well, the truth doesn’t matter. He’s not a human being anymore. He’s a symbol in America’s most sacred military shrine, and we would never let that happen.” So I wrote down the truth doesn’t matter on a Post-It note, stuck it to my computer console, and I thought, if there’s a chance you could figure out who this is, and give him back to his family, you should do it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Vince began filing FOIA requests, trying to get his hands on any government document he could about Michael Blassi.

Vince Gonzales:
But there were things I wanted that only family members could get, where you needed an affidavit. So that was when I reached out to the Blassi family.

Joe Rosenberg:
Vince got in touch with Patricia, and laid out his case. Fact by fact, pattern by pattern.

Patricia Blassi:
And Vince and I started talking, and I called my mom, and I said, “You know what? It’s somebody. And if it’s Michael, we need to pursue it.”

Joe Rosenberg:
Which eventually gave Vince the leeway to file yet another FOIA request. Nothing special, just some documents related to Michael Blassi from an Air Force base in Texas.

Vince Gonzales:
Not mentioning the tomb, not mentioning the unknown soldier, just asking for anything with Michael Blassi’s name in it. And I got back this really thick envelope. Padded envelope. Which is more than I think I’d gotten back from any other request. And I was actually back in Denver at that point, sitting in the newsroom, when I opened it up, and I was paging through it. Page after page, and going oh my God, this is it!

Joe Rosenberg:
Because this wasn’t just some small file containing a good lead or a tantalizing clue.

Vince Gonzales:
These were military documents showing the entire unknown soldier selection process.

Joe Rosenberg:
When combined with his earlier research, the documents Vince Gonzales now held in his hands painted a nearly complete picture of what the government knew regarding the identity of the unknown soldier. Starting with something very important that they had know almost from the beginning.

Roman Mars:
That Michael Blassi’s remains had been recovered in Vietnam, and that they had been recovered by Chris Calhoon, the Army Ranger scheduled in An Lac.

Chris Calhoon:
You know, I don’t really know exactly what went down. But I do know everything pointed to me.

Joe Rosenberg:
Now, remember, Calhoon didn’t know Blassi personally, but he was friends with a bunch of the other pilots in Michael’s squadron. They were the guys reading the newspaper to Calhoon over the radio. And it was on one of those lonely nights, just chatting, that they started telling him about Michael.

Chris Calhoon:
The only thing I knew is they asked me that one of their squadron mates had been shot down. They gave me the coordinates. And they wanted to know if we could get the body back.

Roman Mars:
This was in October of 1972, over five months since Blassi’s plane had disappeared into the jungle. They knew they were asking a lot.

Chris Calhoon:
So I think if that rapport wasn’t there, then the request would have never come, and I would have never acted on it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Chris took the matter to his regimental commander, who assembled a special South Vietnamese patrol, dressed up as the enemy…

Chris Calhoon:
… in North Vietnamese uniforms with North Vietnamese weapons. And they went out in no man’s land, and they found the wreckage. And they brought back to me what was left of the remains of Michael Blassi, in a black plastic bag.

Joe Rosenberg:
The remains did not consist of much. Just six bones. But they also brought back other evidence. An un-inflated life raft with serial numbers. A parachute, part of Michael’s flight shoot. And critically, his wallet.

Chris Calhoon:
And that was in good shape. Pictures of him, pictures of his family, pictures of his sister.

Roman Mars:
There was no question. The remains were Michael’s.

Joe Rosenberg:
Chris then handed the bag with everything in it off to the crew chief of the week’s one outgoing helicopter.

Chris Calhoon:
But he got the bag. The crew chief got the bag.

Joe Rosenberg:
And when you saw the remains go away in the chopper, I mean, what was your…

Chris Calhoon:
Well, we were sending him home to his family. You know, we were doing what was right. And of course, those South Vietnamese risked their lives to get his body from that wreckage. And he deserved to go home.

Joe Rosenberg:
After that, Chris had just assumed that Michael’s remains would be returning to his family.

Roman Mars:
But according to Vince’s documents, that’s not what happened. The remains, along with the survivor gear, would eventually arrive at the army’s central identification laboratory in Hawaii. But not before the wallet containing the ID that could link the bones to Blassi went missing.

Joe Rosenberg:
Even though he knew about the missing wallet, the head of the lab, using now outdated techniques, determined that the remains did not match Michael Blassi’s physical description. Instead, they were simply designated as BTB. Believed to be Michael Blassi. Without a positive match, due to Army policy, the Blassi family could not even be told that any remains had been found.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, pressure begins to mount in the Pentagon to place a veteran from Vietnam in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Joe Rosenberg:
It was politics. But it was also patriotism.

Chris Calhoon:
While there was a crass, political angle to do this, to make nice with the Vietnam veterans, there was also a feeling of we need to get someone in that tomb so the nation can heal around this issue.

Roman Mars:
But by the 1980s, there was only one set of unidentified remains left.

Joe Rosenberg:
The ones labeled believed to be Michael Blassi. So in 1980, the lab was ordered to strip the remains of their formal connection with Blassi, and give them the anonymous designation X26. And in 1984, with the Reagan administration eager to put someone on the tomb before election day, they were told to prepare X26 for burial.

Vince Gonzales:
And I spoke with technicians at the Army lab later who said we gave them every answer possible to say don’t do this. The technology is coming, this is not an unknown set of remains.

Joe Rosenberg:
The lab technicians told the Pentagon that new DNA-based technology was being developed that would allow the remains to be conclusively identified. They also pointed to the artifacts, like the flight suit, and the life raft, and a record of the missing wallet, all of which suggested the remains were most likely Blassi’s.

Vince Gonzales:
But the push to put a Vietnam unknown in the tomb overrode that. And a general from the Army was sent to tell them everybody better get the hell out of the way. And that’s when Michael Blassi went into the tomb.

Ronald Reagan:
My fellow Americans, Memorial Day is a day of ceremonies and speeches. Throughout America today, we honor the dead of our wars.

Roman Mars:
In its win, President Reagan, who may not have known that any of this had happened, gave a speech at a burial in Arlington invoking a powerful mystery.

Ronald Reagan:
Did he marry? Did he have children? Did he look expectantly to return to a bride? We’ll never know the answers to these questions about his life.

Joe Rosenberg:
The file that Vince discovered 13 years later, in 1997, showed that there had never been any mystery at all. Armed with the documents, he teamed up with veteran CBS correspondent Eric Engberg. They talked to anyone they could find who was involved in the unknown selection process. And when they felt they were ready, they presented their findings to Patricia Blassi.

Patricia Blassi:
And I asked my mom to call a family meeting, and we sat down, and we looked at the documents together, and we discussed what should we do?

Joe Rosenberg:
Patricia wanted to go public with Vince and CBS. Her older sister, Judy, if anything, was even more eager to blow the lid off the whole thing. But George, the youngest brother, balked. Michael was buried in a place of honor, he pointed out. Maybe he could stay there and serve as the Unknown, for everyone else whose loved ones never came back. But the tie breaker was Michael’s mother, Jean.

Patricia Blassi:
She was a very patient woman. She listened to all of the opinions of her children, her living children, and waited until we were done with our bantering or whatever, and she just looked at us, and she said, “I want to bring my son home.”

News Anchor:
This is the CBS EveningNews. Tonight the results of an Eye on America investigation lasting over half a year. Is it possible the government knows the identity of a Vietnam war casualty buried at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery but deliberately kept it secret from the public and even his own family?

Reporter:
A seven month CBS news investigation has found evidence of a long running covered up.

Joe Rosenberg:
What followed wasn’t just one story on the evening news. It was more like a blizzard of stories.

News Anchor:
There are significant new developments tonight in the exclusive story that CBS News first broke on this broadcast in January. CBS’s Vince Gonzalez uncovered new evidence…

News Anchor:
An update tonight of our exclusive Eye on America investigation.

Vince Gonzales:
I think we did 15 or 18 pieces on this. It just was nonstop.

News Anchor:
And tonight as Eric Enberg tells us, there’s more.

Joe Rosenberg:
Because CBS and the Blassi family didn’t just want the world to know that Michael Blassi was in the tomb, they wanted the Pentagon to do something about it.

News Anchor:
Michael Blassi’s sister Pat says the family wants the remains tested, even if by some chance they aren’t identified as Michael.

News Anchor:
Now Congress wants to investigate.

Patricia Blassi:
If it’s Michael, we want to bring him home.

Vince Gonzales:
And at a certain point, they called us up, and they said, you’re killing us. And day or two later, they announced the tomb would be open, and the remains were going to be tested.

Roman Mars:
On May 14, 1998, the Department of Defense disinterred the remains of the Vietnam veteran from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Joe Rosenberg:
DNA samples were taken from Michael’s mother Jean and his sister Judy, and tested against the remains. They were a match.

Patricia Blassi:
And after the scientists were finished talking to my mother, we were wrapping things up because my mother had to sign some papers and things like that. And then all of a sudden, a man walked up and said, well, when we opened the tomb to do the DNA test, Michael’s artifacts were in the tomb with him. And what would you like us to do with them?

Roman Mars:
The life raft and other items had been found at the crash in 1972 had been the only physical evidence, aside from the missing wallet, that could have tied the remains to Michael Blassi.

Joe Rosenberg:
Whether it was to preserve the artifacts or to hide them, someone at the Army lab in Hawaii had put them where no one would ever think to look. In the casket with Michael. It had been sitting in the tomb underneath the guards and the crowds in the Arlington soil for 14 years.

Patricia Blassi:
They were in a box. And so after we buried Michael in St. Louis, there was a reception. And then once everyone left, we stood around the table, and my brother George opened up the box, and started pulling out the life raft, portions of his parachute, portions of his flight suit. And I have them with me today. I keep them with me. I’m really glad to have them!

Roman Mars:
Today there is no body representing Vietnam at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and thanks to improved forensics, there will likely never be an unknown from Iraq or Afghanistan, or any future war.

Joe Rosenberg:
The military is now in the process of using the DNA from the families of missing veterans to identify over 650 sets of unknown remains from the Korean War. It’s conceivable that they could use the same techniques on the Korean Unknown inside the tomb. The unknowns from World War I and World War II are safe for now. But in the era of “23 and Me”, well, let’s just say anything’s possible.

Roman Mars:
If you go to Arlington today, the Tomb of the Unknowns is still there, minus the remains for Vietnam. The tourists still take pictures on their phones, and the guards still make their rounds in perfect, silent precision. Day and night. Even when no one is watching. And it really is beautiful. You should go see it. But the heyday of this unique form of remembrance has come to an end.

Joe Rosenberg:
Does that sadden you? Like, does it sadden you that there’s no Unknown for Vietnam anymore?

Patricia Blassi:
I can’t say that it saddens me. I can’t say that. I respect the Tomb of the Unknowns, but in order to have an Unknown, they made one. They took Michael’s name away from him. To satisfy something that I understand. It was very important to our nation. But the first thing that you and I did when we met one another over the phone. “Hi, I’m Patricia”, or “I’m Pat.” “Hi, I’m Joe”. A name is very, very important.

Joe Rosenberg:
Patricia still visits the tomb. She says she’s not sure why she does it. But it means she’s gotten to know some of the guards. One of them once told her that their mission, guarding the Unknowns, is never really over. But that in Michael’s case, just this once, their mission was completed. They were just looking out for him until he could go home.

Credits

Production

Producer Joe Rosenberg spoke with Robert Poole, author of On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery; Patricia Blassie; Bill Thomas, reporter for the Washington Post; Chris Calhoon, former Army Ranger; Vince Gonzales, reporter for CBS Denver

Comments (10)

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  1. Dane Penstone

    During the last segment of your podcast, Roman asked Joe if there were any other national monuments that had a guard like this. I assume now he was meaning in America but i immediately thought to other Countries national Monuments. I’m a former Soldier from Australia, and a Tour Guide around Europe, and i immediately thought of all the different changing of the guards, and unknown Tombs i have visited. For me the one with the most incredible presentation would have to be in Athens, Greece. The changing of the guard is quite ceremonial there and is well worth a look. I think a third section of these guards/ceremonies around the world would have been a great inclusion. Love your show

  2. Russel Fouts

    With DNA identification being used and hearing that there are no unknowns from Vietnam and that they are working currently on unknowns from the Korean war, I though, How wonderful that there will never again be an unknown soldier, everyone will be eventually brought home.

    I think that barring a complete abolition of war, this is a small consolation.

    Perhaps they should put up a new plaque at the memorial that talks about the fact that there may never again be an unknown soldier.

  3. Tony Paladinetti

    Hello

    I’m curious how the remains weren’t identifiable as Michael Blassie if he was the only remaining unidentified serviceman from the war.

    If we were confident enough the remains belonged to a US soldier that we put them in the tomb of the unknown, wouldn’t process of elimination lead us to this conclusion?

    Many thanks for such a great show, this episode and all the others~
    Tony

    1. John Doe

      Process of elimination might sounded like it could have worked, until you take in account of the 2000+ MIA service members in that war.

  4. Dennis Koga

    What is the music played at the end of this podcast? It is very austere and moving.

    1. Irene

      Thanks Dennis! The music is an original piece by our talented composer, Sean Real.

  5. Kai Jones

    During my only visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns, during the changing of the guard, I witnessed what may be a rare event. The guards coming on duty are inspected for perfection in uniform, and inspector found some problem with the new guard’s blouse. The guard was sent back and a different guard took over.

  6. Love each and every podcast . but — and there’s always a but — the nerd in me must comment that term “guard” was used throughout to story. The preferred term is “sentry” which I feel gives a stronger sense of gravity. And you didn’t mention the shoes — the specially designed shoes the sentries wear are pretty cool. 99pi keep up the great work.

  7. Larry Fast

    Another perspective on this issue is that all soldiers are unknown. They may have received last rights, families informed, etc, but the rest of us know little about those individuals. This is especially true for people like me that have no familial association with the military. I find meaning in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument. It represents all soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us. I don’t know any of them. But I know each one had a life worth living. That they all made the ultimate sacrifice for me. The Unknown Soldier can be about more than a dwindling subclass of soldiers that disappeared without record. It can represent all soldiers.

    But perhaps I’m speaking out of turn. Real soldiers visiting the tomb have a very different perspective on this memorial than I could hope to imagine. Don’t let my viewpoint sully your experience. It’s just an outsider’s way of honoring all of your sacrifices.

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