Arlington National Cemetery The Viet Nam Unknown

Arlington National Cemetery

Part 3

Chapter 2: The Viet Nam Unknown

Photos and Material by Dan Brodt

(All photos are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Permission must be had to use any photos that are not documented)

(Page design and editing by Bob Baldwin)

Memorial Day 1984 in Washington, D.C. eerily paralleled the atmosphere of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Two hundred and fifty thousand stoic citizens lined the crowded Capitol's streets to solemnly watch the flag draped caisson make its measured journey from Capitol Hill through the streets of Washington and across the Potomac to Arlington.

With the scenes of war protests, draft card burners, fleeing conscientious objectors to Canada and the U.S. flag being desecrated, the nation was finally honoring the Unknown of the Vietnam War. President Reagan paid an overdue tribute to the latest war's Unknown and those who faithfully served with him.

The Vietnam war became the first war in which the men who answered the call, whether by conscript or volunteer, became the brunt of dissent rather than the politicality of the nature of the war itself. Medal of Honor recipients lined the first row in the cemetery's Amphitheater streaming tears as the President's testimony rang over the packed bowl. There were still twenty five thousand men missing in action eleven years after the war ended. While the weather prevented the flyover, the Old Guard's twenty one gun salute thundered into the bowels of downtown D.C.

21 Gun Salute

Pall bearers from the uniformed services lifted the Unknown's flag, folded it properly and presented it to Major General John L. Ballantyne III, Chief of the Washington Military District,

 

General Ballantyne

who then presented it to  President Reagan who accepted it as the Unknown's next of kin.

President Reagan and General Ballantyne

After the casket was lowered, the ceremonies ended. Around midnight a marble slab was lowered over the new crypt and sealed flush with the plaza platform. The inscription read "1958-1975." The undeclared Vietnam conflict had become one of the longest wars in American history.

Viet Nam Unknown Memorial

Raw memories still flashed in the memories of those who served in that war. It must be mentioned that as the last Americans left Vietnam in 1973, Congress authorized the entombment of an anonymous serviceman for the conflict. Arlington began work on a new crypt. Time passed and the number of the unidentified war dead was down to just four candidates out of more than fifty three thousand. Forensic medicine developed so fast that the long tradition of honoring an Unknown for each war might cease.

It was the cry of the Vietnam Veterans repeating the real or imagined ( this writer prefers to eliminate the word imagined) insults and omissions they have endured and continue to endure to this day in 2019 though somewhat obscured[1] This was the nation's first bastard war they participated in and they hoped this burial might end that journey. But not so! On May 13, 1998, workers sawed their way into the Tomb of the Unknown,

Viet am Unknown Exhumation

hoisted its casket, loaded it into a hearse and drove to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where the Vietnam Unknown's remains were prepared for DNA testing. The testing provided a name, Lt. Michael J. Blassie, to the Vietnam Unknown.

Michael J. Blassie

Lt. Blassie was a 24 year old Air Force pilot shot down over An Loc in 1972. The final chapter of Blassie's story had more twists and turns then a Midwestern tornado! He was finally laid to rest in his native St. Louis over twenty five years later.

Lt. Blassie Funeral, Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis

A graphic phrase echoed by combat infantrymen in Vietnam when nothing went as planned or engaged correctly, a "Charlie Foxtrot", became the mantra for how the handling of the Vietnam Unknown proceeded. Of course the political pressure to "rush to judgment" was a slogan forefront in this fiasco.

The forensics officer, Major Johnie E. Webb Jr.,

Johnie E. Webb

a Vietnam vet and commander of the CID Lab in the early 1980's, felt forced by the Pentagon to rush to judgment on the Unknown. The DNA testing we have today was still decades away. The flaws in forensic analysis, speculations and failures, only snowballed for Lt. Blassie. The path to finding a new candidate for the Vietnam Unknown began.

Viet Nam Unknown Slab 2

Another military acronym appeared during this ongoing project, that being "Pvt. SNAFU".

The term shortened to just "snafu" since it became relegated to the high command decisions not thoroughly thought out but implanted and expedited nonetheless. The term was believed to have originated during World War II in the Marine Corps. It was widely used for the sarcastic expression "status normal all fxxxed up". As veterans we all know nothing is normal in the military thought process. So "status" became "situation" and it endures today. The plight of Lt. Blassie's recognition as the Vietnam Unknown, then his un-recognition, the long struggle the Blassie family endured through the experience from DEROS. is matter, took a toll on the family and the Country.

[1] My own words based on 50 years experience from DEROS.

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