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Viet-Era Remains in Tomb of Unknowns Identified

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Solving a solemn mystery thought once beyond human reach, military experts have concluded that the Vietnam-era remains contained in the Tomb of the Unknowns belong to Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie, whose aircraft was shot down north of Saigon 26 years ago.

Six bones that had lain in the Arlington National Cemetery crypt for 14 years were identified by military forensic pathologists using sophisticated mitochondrial DNA techniques, officials confirmed Monday. The identification means that the remains will be moved to a cemetery in St. Louis, near where Blassie grew up and where his mother still lives.

The then-unidentified remains were interred on Memorial Day, 1984, next to remains of unidentified service members from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The gesture was intended to help heal the wounds of the divisive war. President Reagan had declared that the bones would henceforth be “known but to God.”

But for more than two years, veterans’ activists have argued that there was solid evidence that the bones and some military items found with them were Blassie’s. They have accused the military of obscuring Blassie’s identity in an effort to find Vietnam-era remains that could not be identified for the tomb and urged military officials to test the genetic material in the bones.

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On May 8, with the encouragement of Blassie’s family, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen formally ordered an exhumation and testing of the remains, though Pentagon officials said there were hints that they might belong to any of nine missing service members.

Blassie’s family could not be reached for comment Monday. The Pentagon is to have a formal briefing on the findings today, and officials declined to talk in detail about them until then.

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But relatives of some of the other missing service members said that they were delighted for Blassie’s family. “I’m so happy for them,” said Althea Strobridge of Perry, Iowa, whose son, Rodney, an Army helicopter pilot, was considered the other most likely source of the remains.

At the same time, Strobridge said, she found a telephone call from the Pentagon informing her that the remains were Blassie’s “a little hard to take. But you just have to accept it.” Her son grew up in Torrance.

Strobridge also acknowledged that she had mixed feelings about reopening the tomb and raising the painful issues all over again. “I was against opening it. When you did that, everything about the mystery of the tomb was ruined,” she said.

Steven Amesbury of Sterling, Va., son of Maj. Harry A. Amesbury, a missing pilot, said that his family, too, was pleased, though he said he had had little doubt from the beginning that the remains belonged to Blassie.

“It was very compelling from the get-go that the remains were Blassie’s,” he said. He noted that the remains had been found with an identification card, fabric from a flight suit and an ejection seat from an A-37B attack jet of the type Blassie was flying.

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Last month, Pentagon officials said that two pieces of evidence suggested the remains might not be Blassie’s. Blood typing derived from a human hair found on the flight suit was O negative--Strobridge’s type, not Blassie’s. And one of the bones, from the right upper arm, was thought to suggest a man larger than Blassie.

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But Amesbury, who was briefed by the military before the remains were tested, noted the hair that was the basis of the blood type could have been from any number of people who handled the flight suit. And the blood-typing test was considered to have an accuracy rate of only 60%, he said.

Amesbury said he believes that the military did “a disservice to the Strobridges” by raising the possibility that the remains might belong to their son.

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Because of its extreme sensitivity, Pentagon officials have treated the issue gingerly. Cohen took several weeks to announce the decision to exhume the remains, even after a Pentagon task force had recommended the move.

And officials had cautioned that the tests might be inconclusive if the bones had been damaged by extremes of heat, cold, sunlight or chemicals.

The Pentagon’s conclusions thus mean that the remains were fresh enough to yield a good sample of bone material. The mitochondrial DNA test allowed researchers to determine whether genetic material in the remains matched that of the mother of one of the missing service members. Because mothers and their children share certain genetic material, researchers took blood samples from the mothers and looked for a match.

Army analysts also conducted another “morphological” examination to determine whether the bones suggested a person of Blassie’s height, age and weight.

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Left unanswered is whether the government will try to find other remains to place in the tomb to represent the fallen of the long war in Indochina. Although there are 2,093 service members still listed as missing, the new tests eventually could enable researchers from the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii to identify all the remains, said Charles L. Cragin, acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.


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