The Known Unknown

Roman Mars: With no fees or minimums, banking with Capital One is the easiest decision in the history of decisions–even easier than deciding to listen to another episode of your favorite podcast. And with no overdraft fees is it even a decision? That’s banking reimagined. What’s in your wallet? Terms apply. See Capital One, N.A. Member FDIC. This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace. Want to increase revenue this holiday season? Squarespace’s Courses feature gives you the tools you need to create and sell your own online course. Start with a professional layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach skills, and tailor your course with the built in Fluid Engine editor. Create content, then add a pay wall, and set the price. Charge a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Head to for a free trial. When you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible.” 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 has returned to us today and whom we laid 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 alongside 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 out of the crowd to walk behind the remains on their way to Arlington. The most powerful part, though, is 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 will 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, which is 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 Hallowed Ground. And he says World War I ushered in an era of total war and mass participation in which the combatants on both sides were mostly ordinary citizens–anonymous everymans often rendered literally anonymous amidst the violence of 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 never 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 and buried in their graves, and nobody would ever remember them–and that there should be something better than that for them. 

Roman Mars: And it 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 burying 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 were for the war or against it. Everyone was free to mourn in their own way. 

Roman Mars: And 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 ten days. 

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

Robert Poole: Britain, France, Romania, Italy–everybody 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. 

Roman Mars: 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. A Korean War–848. And then the last war in which we had an unknown–Vietnam–four. 

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 and which was presented to the public as the Unknown Soldier–was referred to internally as “X-26.”

Joe Rosenberg: But his actual name was Michael Blassie. 

Patricia Blassie: These are not supposed to be favorites in families, right? 

Joe Rosenberg: This is Patricia Blassie.

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

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

Patricia Blassie: 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 Blassie: You know, 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: At flight school, Michael was assigned to fly a ground attack aircraft known as the A-37, dubbed the “Dragonfly,” or sometimes the “Super Tweet.” It was designed to fly low over its target. Pilots loved it because that close to the ground–with the landscape rushing by–the sense of flight and speed of combat was heightened. 

Roman Mars: To the uninitiated, of course, all these things made flying the A-37 downright terrifying. 

Patricia Blassie: 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. And 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, well, we’ll see him again.” I think we all did. 

Roman Mars: By 1972, when Michael Blassie 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 over 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 Blassie for The Washington Post. And he says that 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 A-37 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 ft. 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 air base 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 Lộc.

Roman Mars: In 1972, An Lộc was occupied by the South Vietnamese military, along with a handful of American advisers. 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 Lộc, Chris Calhoon. And as he described it, it was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. 

Chris Calhoon: The City of An Lộc was totally leveled. It looked like Hiroshima. 

Joe Rosenberg: This is Chris Calhoon. He was stationed in An Lộc 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 Lộc 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 shellfire. 

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

Roman Mars: And it was Michael Blassie’s squadron that was providing the air support. They were flying bombing runs over An Lộc 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 squadron mates really well. 

Chris Calhoon: And we would talk on the 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 Lộc they would be over us almost 24 hours a day. And they 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 Blassie 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 Blassie’s commanding officer, who was flying in the plane alongside Blassie’s

Bill Thomas: 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. 

Bill Thomas: 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 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 ft. above the ground. 

Bill Thomas: And he had lost control of the plane. 

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

Bill Thomas: 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 Blassie was declared missing in action and presumed dead. 

Roman Mars: The Blassie family was informed that Michael’s body would not be coming home. 

Patricia Blassie: But with… I don’t… 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 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 says 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, and 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 Blassie: I mean, there was a memorial gathering, but it still wasn’t the same. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t… Everyone just was… I remember it’s just, like, quiet. And then it was just like, “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 parents’ 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 Blassie: It was just sort of put 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 Blassie: 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 sort of this minor celebrity who championed 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 Blassie: I mean, there wasn’t anything in his voice that was, like, angry or, you know… He was just matter of fact. But he said, “I started researching who was shot down on May 11th, 1972, and, you know, what was found with them and would that be on a fighter aircraft.” 

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

Patricia Blassie: But he said, “I believe your brother is in the Tomb of the Unknowns.”

Roman Mars: That 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 Blassie: And they said, “By no means is there anything to substantiate that your brother is 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.” I mean, you know, I don’t know. That’s crazy. It just didn’t make sense. 

Vince Gonzalez: I thought, “This is the best example of internet conspiracy garbage I’ve seen to date. 

Joe Rosenberg: This is Vince Gonzalez. 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 Blassie 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, at first, he totally dismissed it. 

Vince Gonzalez: 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. I printed it out and 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 Blassie 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 part of the effort to make sure that 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 Blassie’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 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 Gonzalez: 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 them 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 can 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 documents he could about Michael Blassie. 

Vince Gonzalez: 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 Blassie family. 

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

Patricia Blassie: 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 Blassie from an Air Force base in Texas. 

Vince Gonzalez: Not mentioning the tomb. Not mentioning the Unknown Soldier. Just asking for anything with Michael Blassie’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. And 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 Gonzalez: 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 known almost from the beginning… 

Roman Mars: That Michael Blassie’s remains had been recovered in Vietnam and that they’d been recovered by Chris Calhoon, the Army Ranger stationed in An Lộc.

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

Joe Rosenberg: Now, remember, Calhoon didn’t know Blassie 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 was 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 Blassie’s plane had disappeared into the jungle. They knew they were asking a lot. 

Chris Calhoon: So, I think if that reporter 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 won 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 Blassie 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 uninflated life raft with serial numbers, a parachute, part of Michael’s flight suit, 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, you know, 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 survival 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 Blassie 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 Blassie’s physical description. Instead, they were simply designated as BTB–believed-to-be–Michael Blassie. Without a positive match due to Army policy, the Blassie family could not even be told that any remains had been found. 

Roman Mars: Meanwhile, pressure began 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. 

Vince Gonzalez: 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 Blassie.” So, in 1980, the lab was ordered to strip the remains of their formal connection with Blassie and give him the anonymous designation X-26. And in 1984, with the Reagan administration eager to put someone on the tube before Election Day, they were told to prepare X-26 for burial. 

Vince Gonzalez: 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 that the remains were most likely Blassie’s.

Vince Gonzalez: 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 Blassie 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: And it’s when 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 will 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 the 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 Blassie. 

Patricia Blassie: And I asked my mom to call a family meeting. And we sat down, and we looked at the documents together and we discussed, you know, 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 and never come back. But the tiebreaker was Michael’s mother, Jean. 

Patricia Blassie: She was a very patient woman. And she listened to all of the opinions of, you know, 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.”

CBS: This is the CBS Evening News. 

Newscaster #1: 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? 

Newscaster #2: A seven-month CBS News investigation has found evidence of a long running cover up. 

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

Newscaster #3: There are significant new developments tonight in the exclusive story that CBS News first broke on this broadcast in January. 

Newscaster #4: CBS’ Vince Gonzales uncovered new evidence. 

Newscaster #5: An update tonight of our exclusive Eye on America investigation. 

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

Newscaster #5: And tonight, as Eric Enberg tells us, there is more. 

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

Newscaster #6: Michael Blassie’s sister, Pat, says the family wants the remains tested, even if by some chance they aren’t identified as Michael. 

Newscaster #5: Now, Congress wants to investigate. 

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

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

Roman Mars: On May 14th, 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 Blassie: 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 tests, 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 that 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 Blassie. 

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. They’d been sitting in the tomb underneath the guards and the crowds and the Arlington soil for 14 years. 

Patricia Blassie: They were in a box. And so, after we buried Michael in St. Louis, there was a reception. And then once everyone laughed, 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. But I was really glad– I’m really glad to have him. 

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 23andMe–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 is no Unknown for Vietnam anymore? 

Patricia Blassie: 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 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.” “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 that 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. 

Roman Mars: Joe talks me through the very precise ceremony that has evolved at the Tomb of the Unknown after this. There’s never a wrong time to protect your home, but this fall happens to be an especially good time because you can get up to 50% off a brand new SimpliSafe home security system. It was named the Best Home Security of 2023 by U.S. News and World Report. SimpliSafe is comprehensive protection for the whole home with advanced sensors that detect break-ins, fires, floods, and more–plus HD cameras for both inside and out. It’s powered by 24/7 professional monitoring for less than $1 a day–half the cost of traditional home security. With new 24/7 Live Guard Protection and the Smart Alarm wireless indoor camera, monitoring agents can see and speak to intruders, helping stop crime in real time. Try SimpliSafe for 60 days, risk-free. And if you don’t love it, return your system for a full refund. What I like most about SimpliSafe is you can tell design was always front of mind. They put a bunch of devices together that are easy to set up–easy to use–and they all work together to just eliminate worries from your mind. For a limited time, listeners can get a special 50% off any SimpliSafe system with a Fast Protect plan. Visit The There’s no safe like SimpliSafe. The Natural Resources Defense Council works to safeguard the earth, where there were 3 million members fighting to confront the climate crisis, protect wildlife, and ensure the right to clean air, water, and healthy communities. We’re in the fight of our lives to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. With less than a decade to slash greenhouse gasses in half or have climate disasters wreak havoc. We’re in the midst of the next mass extinction, driven by human activity. We could lose over a million species in mere decades. Our health is intimately tied to our food, water, and air. The future depends on delivering a clean and healthy environment for all. 7 million people die from air pollution each year. Join the fight to protect our planet by making a donation to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Make your gift of support to NRDC’s battle against polluters in and out of court. Every donation will be matched, which means your impact doubles for a limited time. Go to As a Business-to-Business marketer, your needs are unique. B2B buying cycles are long, and your customers face incredibly complex decisions. Isn’t it time you had a marketing platform built specifically for you? LinkedIn Ads empowers marketers with solutions for you and your customers. LinkedIn Ads allows you to build the right relationships, drive results, and reach your customers in a respectful environment. You’ll have direct access to and build relationships with 980 million members, 180 million senior level executives, and 10 million C-level executives. You’ll work with a partner who respects the B2B world you operate at. 79% of B2B content marketers say LinkedIn produces the best results for paid media. I am mostly connected with journalists and podcasters on LinkedIn, and I learned so much about the deals that are being made and the directions that people are going in. It informs a lot about the strategic directions I decide on taking 99% Invisible. Make B2B marketing everything it can be and get a $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to to claim your credit. That’s Terms and conditions apply. This holiday season, you might be looking for nutritious, convenient meals to keep you energized on jam packed days. Factor, America’s number one ready-to-eat meal delivery service, can help you fuel up fast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with chef-prepared, dietitian-approved, ready-to-eat meals delivered straight to your door. You’ll save time, eat well, and stay on track with your healthy lifestyle while tackling all your holiday to-dos. Are you too busy with holiday plans to cook but want to make sure you’re eating well? With Factor, skip the extra trip to the grocery store and the chopping, the prepping, and the cleaning up, too. Factor’s fresh and never frozen meals are ready in just two minutes. So, all you have to do is heat and enjoy. My favorite part is the Chef’s Choice plan. They just pick meals for you. I spend so much of my brain coming up with meals for a household, and it’s so nice to have someone just pick it for you and have it be good and easy. Head to and use code “99inv50” to get 50% off. That’s code “99inv50” at You can get 50% off. AI might be the most important new computer technology ever. It’s storming every industry, and literally billions of dollars are being invested. So, buckle up. The problem is that AI needs a lot of speed and processing power. So how do you compete without costs spiraling out of control? It’s time to upgrade to the next generation of the cloud. Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, or OCI. OCI is a single platform for your infrastructure database, application development, and AI needs. OCI has four to eight times the bandwidth of other clouds, offers one consistent price instead of variable reasonable pricing, and of course, nobody does data better than Oracle. So now you can train your AI models at twice the speed and less than half the cost of other clouds. If you want to do more and spend less like Uber, 8×8, and Databricks Mosaic, take a free test drive of OCI at That’s

Joe Rosenberg: Okay, Roman. So, when I was a little kid, my parents and, I think, my grandparents–who lived just outside of Washington, D.C.–they took me to Arlington Cemetery to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And I remember it really well. And I have to say, the reason I remember it so well and the reason I became interested in the tomb again more recently is not the mysterious soldier in the tomb projecting whatever you want onto his anonymity. It’s actually the guard.  And it’s not so much the idea of the guard keeping vigil, like this solemn duty, as much as it is what the guard is physically doing. And what they are doing most of the time is just taking 21 steps to the left, turning, stopping for 21 seconds, then turning and stopping for another 21 seconds, then taking 21 steps to the right, then stopping again, turning again, stopping again, stepping again over and over and over until there’s a guard change every 30 minutes to an hour. 

Roman Mars: That sounds very, very precise. 

Joe Rosenberg: Yeah. And actually, that’s the thing. Like, you say that, but you have no idea. Like, let me sell you on this by showing you a video of what this looks like. This is from a guard change. 

Guard #1: Forward… March!

Joe Rosenberg: Nice design touch–the stripes on the legs really sell the synchronization. 

Roman Mars: So as regimented as I was imagining it, it is even more so. It is like the innards of a Swiss clock. The way that they move together and then they move in time is stunning. 

Joe Rosenberg: Yeah. No, and one of the things I kind of really appreciate is just the way, like, if you have a Swiss clock that is kind of ticking away with precision, it has this way of magnifying the silence around it. There’s a kind of weird silence to it. And apparently, to get this right, they train and practice for months in a separate facility. 

Roman Mars: Wow. And it’s almost meditative. Like you said, inside of the silence–when you hear the clicking of their shoes and their heels together–you do get this space that’s created inside of it that’s very meditative. 

Joe Rosenberg: The word that just instantly came to mind is “Zen.” You watch the marching back and forth. And the guards–when they’re doing it, they don’t seem lost in the performance. Instead, at every step, they are totally present. They are completely aware of their surroundings. They are truly doing nothing but this–unless you start laughing. 

Guard #2: It is requested that officers maintain an atmosphere of silence and respect at all times! 

Roman Mars: Holy moly. I don’t want to cross that guy at all.

Joe Rosenberg: No, it’s really terrifying. It just, like, bursts out of nowhere. And this is what happens if you get, like, kind of too rowdy or you laugh at the Tomb of the Unknown. And there’s more. There’s this whole subgenre of YouTube videos of, like, tomb guards yelling at visitors.

Roman Mars: Oh, good. They deserve it. Let’s hear it. Let’s hear it.

Joe Rosenberg: Let’s find it. Let’s find another one. 

Guard #3: It’s requested that officers remain behind the chains and rails! 

Joe Rosenberg: “It’s requested that officers remain behind the chains and rails!” But they can vary it up. They can, like, vary their tone. They can switch up the words a little bit. I think it depends on the guard. It depends on maybe their mood that day. 

Roman Mars: Holy moly. 

Joe Rosenberg: So, here’s a more curt one. 

Guard #4: Get behind the rail!

Roman Mars: Oh, I love it. Just let them have it. 

Joe Rosenberg: And this is one where they reprimand some parents. 

Guard #5: Visitors must keep their children behind the great chains and rails. Thank you. 

Roman Mars: Little Billy being yanked back real fast. That happened to me. 

Joe Rosenberg: There’s other videos where you see, like, people trying to sneak in, like, kind of behind the rails–get a view of them–and then they’re yelled at. And then they just, like, freeze, like chipmunks who have been, like, caught out in the open–and then just bolt! It’s terrifying. My favorite comment, though, is from a YouTube user who said, and I quote, “When I was ten years old, I made the mistake of sitting down during the changing of the guards and I almost shat myself.” 

Roman Mars: Does any other national monument have something like this where there’s this 24/7 ritual? Why in particular is that happening right here? 

Joe Rosenberg: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s a good question because the thing about the tomb is that, like, the way it is now is not the way it always was. It evolved into all of this kind of pomp and ceremony and spectacle. When it was first commemorated in 1921, it was a big moment. I think it was the first nationwide radio address that the president ever gave–from the commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown. 

Roman Mars: Wow. 

Joe Rosenberg: But back then, it was just kind of this low stone slab. Like, there was no big edifice or anything like that. And it kind of became a second-rate monument for a while. Like, people would picnic there because it has this great view of, you know, the surrounding area because it’s up on this hill. And photographers would actually kind of set up shop there, and people would, like, pose on the tomb almost like it was kind of a roadside attraction. But apparently, veterans caught on to this and started complaining about it because they saw that kind of people were just treating it like entertainment and they were kind of putting out their cigarettes on it–things like that. And so, they kind of complained about it to Congress. And eventually the government cobbled together the money to post a guard. And then starting in 1937, the guard was 24/7. And I’ve seen competing records on this. Some say night since 1937–others say since 1948–the guard has never left. Even for hurricanes, it has stayed there. And then the other thing that happened during that time is that they always intended for there to be, like, a more updated, fancy tomb, but it just took them forever to get around to getting the funding. And so, but eventually they did. And so, they built the kind of giant sarcophagus in 1931. And for that, they went to this quarry in Colorado, actually, to ensure that they got the exact same marble as the Lincoln Memorial. And although it wasn’t designed by these guys, it was sculpted–the actual physical sculpting–by this, like, famous set of brothers called the Piccirilli Brothers, who were these Italian brothers who sculpted, like, everything. They sculpted the Lincoln Memorial. And my favorite is they sculpted the two lions in front of the New York City Public Library. 

Bill Thomas: Wow. 

Joe Rosenberg: And then in 1956, that’s when we started adding these further unknowns from World War II, Korea, etc.

Roman Mars: Yeah. 

Joe Rosenberg: So, just built and built and built.

Roman Mars: Into this more and more reverent place. It has the image of an almost timeless tradition when you see it like this. But I actually kind of enjoy the fact that this is something that was, you know, iterated upon and improved and given a little more weight over time. 

Joe Rosenberg: I definitely appreciate it because I love when something is iterative in the direction of honing towards austerity and elegance as opposed to iterative and feeling like clutter. 

Roman Mars: Getting more casual or something like that. It’s a fascinating place particularly because this ceremony makes it all the more special. Have you ever had a chance to speak to one of the guards when you’re doing the reporting? 

Joe Rosenberg: I confess I did not manage to reach a guard in time for this coda. I had bigger fish to fry, Roman. I had a story to work on.

Roman Mars: Totally. There was a 20-year mystery to solve. 

Joe Rosenberg: But I got the next best thing, which is I found that one of the guards did, of course, a Reddit Ask Me Anything. 

Roman Mars: That’s the next best thing.

Joe Rosenberg: And so, of course, one of the things is, like, when you’re a reporter and you see an Ask Me Anything thread, you go through it hoping someone’s going to ask the question you would ask. And the only question I want to ask is “What is going through your head when you are marching back and forth, particularly not during the changing of the guard, but just during the long 30 minutes to the long hour marching back and forth during this, like, meditative state? And so finally, someone asks this, right? And the guard responded, “I wish I could say that while we are doing this job, we are just meditating on what it means to guard the Unknowns. But we are human, and we are on duty for long hours, so our minds do wander quite a bit, which just was so disappointing to read. 

Roman Mars: Oh, but it’s really human, you know?

Joe Rosenberg: I know, but… Well, here’s the irony, which is I realized that when I was doing the story and I was like, “Oh, people are free to project whatever they want onto the mystery of, you know, the Unknown Soldier,” that’s, of course, my reportorial way of being really conceited and thinking, “I’m above that. And I don’t fall prey to projecting anything as symbolism.” But the minute I see the guard, what do I want to see? I’m a reporter at 99% Invisible who lives in San Francisco. I see, like, Zen meditation. It’s immediately what I project onto this guy, right? And then, of course, in the Ask Me Anything thread, he’s just like, “No, no, no. Our minds wander. We think about whatever–what we’re going to cook for dinner.” Who knows, right? And so, you know, I guess the tomb has worked its magic on me as well. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Thank you, Joe. 

Joe Rosenberg: All right. Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Joe Rosenberg. Edited by Katie Mingle. Mixed by Sharif Youssef. Music by Swan Real. Special thanks to Lou Pennebaker and Andy Richards, whose interviews were not featured, but without whose help this story could not have happened. We’re especially indebted to Andy Richards’ book The Flag. It’s a biography of David Railton, the clergyman who first came up with the idea of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. We’ll have a link on our website. 99% Invisible’s executive producer is Kathy Tu. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California–home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. As other professional teams leave, the Oakland Roots are Oakland first–always. You can visit us on all the usual social media sites, but we do request that you maintain an atmosphere of silence and respect at all times! You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at

Ashley: When it comes to quality sleep, Ashley has you covered with top mattress brands at winning prices. And with special financing options available, you can snooze now and pay later. Plus, your mattress purchase helps give the gift of better sleep to children in need and U.S. Special Operations forces. Visit your local Ashley store or shop online today and make every snooze count. Financing is subject to credit approval. See store or for details. 

Brian Cox: “I love waiting in line at McDonald’s,” said no one ever. With the McDonald’s app, you don’t have to! Order ahead on the McDonald’s app to save time. Ba da ba ba ba.

McDonald’s: At participating McDonald’s. 

Canada Dry: I’m in the Canada Dry comfort zone. And there’s no such thing as overplayed Christmas music. Sure. You’ve heard this up tempo, pop infused Christmas song 100 times this week. 

Listener: I can’t take it anymore!

Canada Dry: Always playing somewhere in the background everywhere you go. But with the refreshing ginger taste of Canada Dry, it suddenly sounds incredible. Drink it in. And don’t worry, that holiday banger won’t be here forever. Canada Dry. Sip into your comfort zone. 



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

  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


    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~

    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.

  8. Jody

    I missed the names of the two announcers who discussed the Arlington Tomb of the Unknown Soldier monument and chuckled together over some of the “changing of the guard” ceremony and sentry duties. They must have never actually been there. There is nothing but reverence, respect and deep sorrow among visitors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize