Vietnam War Unknown Soldier
Summary of War
United States of America (U.S.) involvement in Vietnam began as an advisory role beginning in the late 1950's, and continued into the early 1960's. By 1964, U.S. troop presence in Vietnam would number approximately 20,000. With the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, the U.S. Congress authorized the U.S. President "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression". The stated goal by the U.S. government, was to preserve a separate, independent, non-communist government in South Vietnam. To this end, over 58,000 U.S. troops would die in the Vietnam War.
The first U.S. troops landed in Vietnam in March 1965. This war would be unlike any other we had fought. There were no "front lines" or "rear areas". This was a guerrilla war, and small unit tactics would play a pivotal role. Special units such as the U.S. Navy SEALS, the Marine Force Recon, and the Army Special Forces played a major role and served with distinction and honor. Helicopters, artillery and close air support would be vital to the men on the ground, as tremendous air bombardment of North Vietnam would surpass the total tonnage dropped on Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II (WWII).
During the war, U.S. troops fought with heroism and determination under some of the most difficult circumstances ever encountered by U.S. troops. Names such as Hamburger Hill, Hue City, Plei Mei, and Khe Sanh would become forever enshrined with tales of heroism in the face of a formidable enemy. Many of our troops were taken prisoner by the enemy, enduring unspeakable acts, poor rations, little medical attention and extreme torture during captivity. However, the U.S. would receive a black eye at the massacre of My Lai. While we defeated the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968, our exit was imminent. In April 1975, President Gerald Ford announced the end to the war in Vietnam, and evacuations of U.S. troops were hastened. A week later, the enemy we fought for almost twenty years overcame the capital city of Saigon.
The Vietnam era saw many changes in the world. The U.S. would watch in horror as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The nation was in turmoil and the presidency would change four times during this war with President Lyndon B. Johnson not seeking a second term, President Richard M. Nixon resigning while in office and President Ford issuing a pardon to President Nixon only to see the U.S. embassy in Saigon fall. In addition to President Kennedy, we would see promising leaders such as Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy gunned down before our very eyes. Politically, the entire world seemed to be in upheaval during this time exemplified by the unfolding of such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War, the downing of the U-2 spy plane, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) crisis, and the Watergate scandal. Even the Space Race was wrought with anxiety and worry when Soviet Union cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to travel in space. Throughout the war, this environment contributed tragically towards the U.S. outlook on the troops returning home. The U.S. troops received virtually no recognition for their service and sacrifice because of the raging domestic controversy over U.S. policy in conducting the war. This legacy is perhaps the most damaging event to the U.S. Unlike other wars, most returning U.S. troops were not greeted by parades and speeches. While some of the Vietnam War Veterans were spat upon and subjected to insults such as "baby-killer". These U.S. troops would be shunned by the mainstream, and would withdraw from society to deal with the horrors of war, many having post-traumatic stress syndrome among other ailments.
In 1980, the U.S. Congress authorized the building of a national memorial dedicated to the Vietnam War Veterans. The [Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund] (http://vvmf.org/) (VVMF) was the organization selected for the project, and in 1982, the Vietnam War Memorial was completed and dedicated. This provided a place for Vietnam War Veterans and the public to reflect upon and grieve for the loss of life resulting from the war 1. The Vietnam War Memorial is a simple, but moving symbol of a time when many young U.S. troops were asked to give their best, and in some cases their lives, for their country, and they responded.
Almost a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, political pressure began to mount for the designation of another unknown soldier. U.S. troop remains found near a stream in An Loc in 1972, known only as X-26, rested at the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. In 1984, it was determined that he would receive the honor of becoming the next U.S. unknown soldier. At Pier B-25 at Pearl Harbor, the unknown was ceremoniously appointed as the Vietnam War Unknown by Marine and Medal of Honor recipient, Sergeant Major Allan J. Kellogg, Jr. After the ceremony, the Vietnam War Unknown was transferred to the USS Brewton for the journey home.
Read more in the article Welcome Home
During the journey across the Pacific Ocean, the casket of the Vietnam Unknown was positioned in the helicopter hangar, under a constant "death watch" by the crew and U.S. Marines of the USS Brewton. This Unknown would never be alone again. It took seven days to cross the Pacific Ocean and arrive at the Alameda U.S. Naval Air Station in California on May 24, 1984.
While a military band played a hymn and a 21-gun salute was fired, a joint armed forces casket team carried the casket to a waiting funeral coach for transfer to Travis U.S. Air Force Base. There, the pallbearers transferred the Unknown in solemn procession to the base chapel where a guard of honor took position around the casket, which lay in repose until the next morning.
After a simple ceremony, the Vietnam War Unknown was transferred to a U.S. Air Force C-141B Starlifter for transfer to Washington, D.C. The Unknown arrived at Andrews U.S. Air Force Base, where the Unknown was greeted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the presidents of various veteran service organizations, and the former U.S. Commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland. The pallbearers then carried the casket to a funeral coach for the transfer into Washington, D.C. The procession arrived at the U.S. Capitol plaza with the party moving solemnly up the east Capitol steps into the rotunda, where President Ronald W. Reagan waited along with members of his cabinet, the U.S. Congress, and other dignitaries. A brief wreath-laying ceremony followed, during which President Reagan delivered the eulogy, in which he observed that the Unknown symbolized "the heart, soul and spirit of America," and "we may not know of this man's life, but we know of his character. We may not know his name, but we know his courage. He accepted his mission and did his duty. And his honest patriotism overwhelms us". The Unknown would lay is state for the next three days, to be viewed by tens of thousands of visitors.
The vigil at the rotunda lasted until noon on Memorial Day. Pallbearers, consisting of Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipients and former prisoners of war, carried the casket down the Capitol steps to a caisson drawn by six matched white horses. At Fort McNair, the Old Guard Guns platoon began firing a 21-gun salute at one-minute intervals. Following the caisson, the procession consisted of active duty, reserve, national guard and service academy units. A cordon of honor, composed of 1,750 U.S. troops, representing all of the military services, lined both sides of the route to Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). When the cortege reached the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bacon Drive, it stopped for an instant to receive the homage of fifty-six veterans of the war bearing flags of all the states and territories of the U.S.
Rounding the Lincoln Memorial and crossing Memorial Bridge, the procession then entered ANC, where President Reagan and other dignitaries waited at the Memorial Amphitheater. The pallbearers carried the casket into the apse and placed it upon the catafalque. After the National Anthem and an invocation by the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains, President Reagan observed that the Vietnam War Unknown was a symbol of all U.S. troops still missing in Vietnam. He reminded his listeners in the Memorial Amphitheater, across the U.S., and around the world that, “an end to America's involvement in Vietnam cannot come before we've achieved the fullest possible accounting of those missing in action. Our dedication to their cause must be strengthened with these events today. We write no last chapters, we close no books, we put away no final memories". Turning to the Unknown, he continued by suggesting the Unknown died fighting for human dignity and for free men everywhere and, "today we embrace him and all who served us so well in a war whose end offered no parades, no flags, and so little thanks”. And, “thank you dear son, and may God cradle you in his loving arms.” He then placed the Medal of Honor upon a simple black stand in front of the Unknown, and stated, "for service above and beyond the call of duty - in action with the enemy during the Vietnam era."
As the artillery battery from the 3rd Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) sounded off and the U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) played America the Beautiful while the pallbearers carried the Vietnam War Unknown to his final resting place. Following a wreath laying ceremony, the Joint Armed Forces Casket Team folded the U.S. flag and presented it to President Reagan, who stood in as the next of kin. That evening, ANC workers lowered the Unknown into the crypt and a new marble slab was placed atop with the simple inscription 1958-1975.
"The feelings of the Sentinels was a combination of pride and heartfelt emotion. As the bearer of the Presidential wreath I can tell you that it was the highlight of my ceremonial career … my proudest moment though was when the joint pallbearers were relieved by Sentinels from TUS and I felt that the Unknown remains had arrived “home”." - John Bolen, Sentinel (1948)
In 1994, the family of U.S. Air Force Captain, Michael J. Blassie (missing in action since 1972) was presented with an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating he was the Vietnam War Unknown. Media outlets began to report this news and by 1998 the Blassie family submitted a formal request to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to investigate further. In keeping with current DoD policy and President Reagan’s promise to "write no last chapters, close no books, or put away final memories", the decision was made to exhume the Vietnam War Unknown in order to perform DNA testing.
After ANC closed on May 13, 1998, a camouflage cover was erected above the Tomb to maintain dignity. The marble slab was carefully removed and the disinterment of the Vietnam War Unknown was performed. The Tomb Guards maintained a vigil during this entire process. By the next morning the Unknown casket was draped in an U.S. flag and the plaza was returned to its former condition and ready for one of the most important events in its history. Secretary of Defense William Cohen delivered remarks at the ceremony that morning stating, “we disturb this hallowed ground with profound reluctance. And we take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we cherish".
The Vietnam War Unknown was taken to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the DNA testing. On June 28, 1998, the test results confirmed that the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier was Michael J. Blassie. On July 10th, 1998, a MC-130E aircraft from his former unit, the 8th Special Operations Squadron, flew his remains back to his home state of Missouri. He was then re-interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Saint Louis County, Missouri.
The marble crypt was changed to read:
Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen
"I have realized the Vietnam war has changed my life in other ways other than just being in a war torn country. It has made me more aware that our military’s task is to encourage peace but unfortunately sometimes with military force. This is a terrible loss of life. Our nation must be aware that we must honor our warriors, not the war! For me, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has given me a way to honor the Vietnam fallen. To be one of the representatives for all the Vietnam veterans with every 21 steps and 21 second count I took on the mat, to let those Vietnam veterans and families know they are not forgotten. I believe like every sentinel that has set foot on that plaza to be a representative of our country, remembers the first time and the last time on the mat with all the thoughts of duty and commitment in between. It doesn’t matter how many years that have passed, you still get emotional with what was entrusted to you. The Sentinel's creed is words to describe our esteemed duties. It explains our respect and devotion to protect the honor and sacrifice of our fallen, but it doesn’t describe the individual human emotion that is in the heart of a sentinel. I am sure that every sentinel has his or her emotional response to the honor bestowed on them. For me, I am one of the representatives of the Vietnam veterans that didn’t have the chance to walk the mat on that sacred ground at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I always tried to give them my very best. It was not just my duty for my Vietnam brothers and sisters, it is my emotional thanks for all the Vietnam veterans that had fallen in different ways: not returning physically or for those that mentally haven’t returned and are suffering with scars of war. Just like all veterans, we will all physically disappear into eternity. We will not be forgotten, because of the undying commitment and devotion of the sentinels on guard duty; past, present and future at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I will always be humbly grateful that I was able to be one of Vietnam veterans representatives honoring their sacrifice." - Michael Jankowski, Sentinel (1975-78)
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Did you know?
What is the process to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
Wreath laying ceremonies are conducted thousands of times each year by many organizations. If you are going soon, there is likely no availability for conducting this ceremony as the slots fill up at least six months in advance. Please visit arlingtoncemetery.mil for more detailed information and to request that honor if you are part of an organization planning a visit.
Wreaths are provided or arranged to be delivered by the public. All questions you may have about that ceremony can be answered on the ANC website or through the cemetery staff.