KNOWING THE UNKNOWN
July 10, 1998
Recent DNA tests have successfully identified the Vietnam War's unknown soldier. Following a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth and guests discuss DNA testing.
JIM LEHRER: Kwame Holman begins our DNA story.
KWAME HOLMAN: In 1984, President Ronald Reagan presided over the formal burial of the Vietnam War's unknown soldier. The remains were added to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: On this day, as we honor our unknown servicemen, we pray to Almighty God for His mercy, and we pray for the wisdom that this hero be America's last unknown.
KWAME HOLMAN: Guarded night and day the Vietnam War unknown rested for 14 years beside the remains of American warriors from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and in a mass grave soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. But in 1994 reports began surfacing in several Vietnam veterans' newsletters suggesting the remains of the Vietnam unknown could be those of fighter pilot Michael Blassie, who was shot down in May of 1972. In the wake of the reports members of Blassie's family began a public campaign to find out if Lt. Blassie's remains, indeed, were in the Tomb of the Unknowns. They said new DNA testing methods could determine the answer.
PATRICIA BLASSIE, Lt. Blassie's Sister: (ABC NEWS "Good Morning America") I believe the Secretary will listen, and it's just the Blassies' hope that he would go ahead and exhume and go on with the DNA testing.
KWAME HOLMAN: DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid in human cells carries the genetic code, which provides each individual's unique characteristics. In May, Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the Vietnam unknown's remains exhumed acting on a growing body of circumstantial evidence and the recommendation of a military panel. DNA samples were obtained from Blassie family members and compared by military scientists to the DNA in bone material from the Vietnam unknown. Last week, Secretary Cohen announced the results at a packed news conference.
WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: Using the state of the art technology that was not available back in 1984, the United States Army central identification laboratory has determined that the remains interred in 1984 as the Vietnam unknown, are those of U.S. Air Force Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie.
KWAME HOLMAN: Michael Blassie's family reacted exuberantly to the news.
JEAN BLASSIE, Lt. Blassie's Mother: I always believed since about 1994 that Michael was in the tomb.
PATRICIA BLASSIE: We stand strong and united in this decision, and obviously it was worth the effort.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lt. Blassie's remains arrived at an Air Force base in Southern Illinois this afternoon. His family plans a private burial tomorrow at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis.
JIM LEHRER: And to Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more on the Blassie case we're joined by Mitch Holland, chief of the services branch of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab and Kurt Piehler, director of Rutgers University's Oral History Archives of World War II and author of "Remembering War the American Way." Mitch Holland, I know you're in St. Louis for the burial tomorrow of the young lieutenant. Would you tell us please more about how you identifies his remains.
MITCHELL HOLLAND, Armed Forces DNA Laboratory: Well, we were part of the process of the identification of the remains. And it was quite an honor for our laboratory to be involved. We used a new method of DNA testing, mitochondrial DNA testing, which we've actually been using for about seven years. But we applied that technique in this case to support the identification.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell us a little bit about what you did.
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, it's a very technical process. We used many of the molecular biology or molecular genetics tools that are available, DNA sequencing, many of the other tools to go in and generate a mitochondrial DNA profile.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you got from Michael Blassie's family, from female members of the family, right?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, that's right. Mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited. So it's passed down from mother to child. And so Michael Blassie's mother and his sister were maternal relatives. And we used those for comparison purposes. Once we obtained a profile or a mitochondrial DNA profile from the remains, we compared those to maternal relatives, and they matched exactly Mr. Blassie's mother and sister.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the reason you could do this now and not say 10 years ago is that you use this different sort of DNA that's outside the nucleus, and it survives longer, is that true?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, there are two reasons. One is we have new techniques. We have a technique called PCR, or Pulimeres Chain Reaction, and it's very similar to a biological photocopy machine. It's the machinery that's used when DNA replicates during cell division. And so without that kind of technique, there's such little DNA in these remains we wouldn't be able to do the testing at all. And then there is so little DNA at this point that mitochondrial DNA is really the only testing we can do, because it's present in more copies in the cell. There are thousands of copies of mitochondrial DNA in a cell, but only two copies of nuclear DNA or chromosomal DNA, the DNA people normally think about. So it's sheer volume in terms of the amount of mitochondrial DNA. And so we're able to detect it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've been working very closely with the family in this. This means everything to them, doesn't it?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, as I say, we've been doing this for seven years. And we've experienced the joy of many of these families and brought these cases to them, and we've been a part of that now for seven years. And it's wonderful, I think, for the nation to be able to experience the joy of the Blassies and be part of this. It really raises the awareness of the nation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kurt Piehler, what was your reaction to this, given your interest as an historian in the Tomb of the Unknowns?
KURT PIEHLER, Rutgers University: Well, in many ways I'm delighted for the Blassie family, because I think one of the things—the loved one—the parents—the wives—the sons and daughters want is to know what happened to their son or daughter or their father or mother in the Vietnam War, or any war. And so I think the giving back of the identity of the Blassie—of Lt. Blassie was really great for the family. I also—my other reaction was is I think in many ways it makes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a historic monument, a monument that in a sense will symbolize the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. And I think that it will be less applicable to the Vietnam War and probably there never will be an unknown soldier for the Persian Gulf and hopefully for future wars and hopefully there won't be any wars after that, I might add, but that might be a little too hopeful.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. And you mean because they'll be able to identify those remains in the future?
KURT PIEHLER: My understanding is that the military now requires everyone to give a DNA sample. So unless you were to have—which I hope not ever to have a Holocaust—you would not—you would be able to identify all the remains of a soldier, which is quite remarkable, because in the First World War there were roughly about 5,000 unidentified bodies. And Vietnam—that number had shrunk dramatically. But now it seems with DNA testing that we can give an identity to any soldier who—soldier or sailor who's killed in wartime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Professor Piehler, looking back just for a minute, tell us why the concept of the unknown soldier was so important.
KURT PIEHLER: I think part of the reason was it was important was in a sense it was a way to honor all Americans who served—particularly all Americans who died in combat. And you can't give a state funeral to every private. But you can select one, and in a sense to select one, you select someone who's anonymous. But it also was a symbol to symbolize national unity and national reconciliation. And in the case of the First World War, World War I was a very divisive war. Americans argued about the war going into the war. They argued about it during the war, and there was real controversies over the meaning of war. And the Unknown Soldier was to be a symbol of reconciliation and of unity that was to cross clash and regional and racial lines.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mitch Holland, are you using this technology now also to identify remains from as far back as World War II?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Yes, we are. In fact, we've been very successful on remains from the Korean War and World War II. The conditions in Southeast Asia are really not the best for DNA. And so we actually have a more difficult time working on remains from Southeast Asia than we do from Korea or World War II. So the second most DNA matches that we have made using this technology have been from World War II.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And—
MITCHELL HOLLAND: The first being Southeast Asia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How certain is the science at this point?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, it's used as part of the process. And, for instance, in the Blassie case it's used both to exclude as well as include. And so in this case there were seven possible candidates. We had maternal references from all seven families. We excluded conclusively six of those, and the only one that matched was the Blassie family. And so those two pieces of information are very compelling, and then along with all the other circumstantial evidence in the case that suggested that this was Michael Blassie, it all fits together, and makes for an identification.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kurt Piehler, did the kinds of records that existed in this case, for example, exist in the case of World War II soldiers that would make it possible to match remains with names?
KURT PIEHLER: My understanding and my research, the government actually destroyed the records regarding the body selected, in part. The Unknown Soldier who was selected for World War II and Korea, there were several unknown soldiers selected to be possibly the Unknown Soldier and then one was designated from World War II and one was designated from Korea, and the records surrounding selection were destroyed in a sense to keep the unknown unknown and not to attach an identity. So I think it would be very difficult to identify the unknowns. And I also think just the numbers of unknowns are larger for World War II.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, in general, if you did have remains that weren't say in the tomb, are the paper records still—
KURT PIEHLER: Yes. The government kept very elaborate records in both world wars and the Korean and Vietnam War. In fact, that's been a real pattern in the 20th century. While war has become more deadly, both the ability of the army and navy to help soldiers and sailors who were wounded, I mean, sad to say, but also it's able to provide most soldiers with a grade and a permanent identity in death. So soldiers are not stripped of their identity just because they die—they die in battle.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mitch Holland, how many identifications are you involved in right now?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, for these types of cases we have made approximately 100 matches. And we're in the process of making a hundred to a hundred and fifty more. So at this point in time we've had an impact in about 250 of these cases.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think it's true that there won't be any more unknown soldiers, that because of the DNA testing, you will be able to identify in the future remains of almost any soldier?
MITCHELL HOLLAND: Well, that's our goal. If we have remains, there's a good likelihood that DNA testing will be able to help make that identification.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Kurt Piehler, you said that this will make the Tomb of the Unknowns more of an historical place. There won't be current remains, but it will still be very important, won't it?
KURT PIEHLER: I think it will. I think both world wars are decisive turning points in American history. And I think Americans will have the same reverence towards the Unknowns—the Tomb of the Unknowns—as they have, for example, to Valley Forge, as they have to Gettysburg, as they have to the Lincoln Memorial. So I think it's a very important memorial and I think it's very much a tribute to the world wars, the generation that fought the world wars.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.
KURT PIEHLER: Thank you very much.