For years, sentinels guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery voluntarily had their lives defined by four constant and silent witnesses: the Unknown of World War I, the Unknown of World War II, the Unknown of the Korean War, and the Unknown of the Vietnam War. Until 1998. That’s when the Unknown of the Vietnam War was identified as First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie. The tombs—the first of which was erected in 1921—represent the American soldiers who died in conflict and were never identified. Blassie was originally tallied as one more unidentified service member lost to the war, either missing or killed in action. In the longer course of history, however, he came to occupy a place at the nexus of old and new in how the United States cares for its dead.
Major James Connally spotted Blassie’s plane as it went down outside An Lộc on the morning of May 11, 1972—28 days into the battle for which the city gave its name. “The aircraft flew a short distance on its own and then slowly rolled over, exploding on impact in enemy-held territory,” Connally later recalled in a letter to the Blassie family. Though Connally knew the site of the crash, recovery took nearly six months from when anti-aircraft fire clawed the A-37 Dragonfly from the sky to when a South Vietnamese Army patrol eventually found some remains, an ID card, a beacon radio, and other small fragments of an identity. Though the materials found were enough to initially mark the remains as Blassie’s, a flawed bone fragment-based forensics process later overruled this verdict by miscalculating the supposed height of the individual to which the fragments belonged. It would take another 26 years before Blassie completed his odyssey from An Lộc, to the Tomb of the Unknown of the Vietnam War, to the Jefferson Barracks Memorial Cemetery near his childhood home of St. Louis, Missouri.