VA History Office
History of VA in 100 Objects
Telling VA's story - one to two objects at a time
If you wanted to create an album of your family’s history but were limited to 100 items, what would you put in and what would you leave out? These were the questions that the VA History staff asked in compiling the History of VA in 100 Objects virtual exhibit. The exhibit explores the history of the nation’s efforts to honor and reward Veterans for their service by spotlighting objects that tell key parts of the VA story. The objects span the centuries, from the earliest laws governing disability claims for Revolutionary War soldiers to the latest medical gear to protect VA workers and Veterans from the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit is being published serially throughout 2022 and 2023, with new entries appearing Thursdays at the rate of one or two per week. Entries from previous weeks are available for viewing on the GALLERY PAGE. We hope you will join us as we embark on this two-year journey through VA’s past, object by object.
Object 53: Funeral Ceremony for Vietnam Unknown
By Richard Hulver, PhD, Historian, National Cemetery Administration
|Interment ceremony for Vietnam Unknown at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with President Ronald Reagan presiding, May 28, 1984. Testing later identified the Unknown as Air Force pilot Michael Blassie. (National Archives)|
On July 11, 1998, a casket containing the remains of 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie was interred in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Blassie’s journey home took 26 years. Over that span he rested in Vietnamese jungles, forensic labs, and for fourteen years, as the Vietnam War Unknown in the nation’s most revered crypt—the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
Enemy fire ripped through Blassie’s A-37 Dragonfly on his 132nd combat mission on May 11, 1972. His plane went into an inverted nosedive and exploded on impact in the jungles of An Loc near the Cambodian border. A recovery mission was immediately launched to secure the remains of the 24-year-old Air Force Academy graduate, but efforts were aborted due to heavy enemy presence. Blassie’s parents were notified that their son was killed-in-action and his body unrecovered. Unbeknownst to them, a South Vietnamese soldier found the crash site months later, along with Blassie’s bones, his ID card, wallet, and other personal effects. The remains and possessions were sent to Saigon and labeled “believed to be” Lieutenant Blassie. In 1976 they were transferred to the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Two years later, his remains were analyzed with methods subsequently found to be questionable. The results came back with a height, weight, and blood type different than Blassie’s, leading the Army to designate the remains “X-26.”
Blassie’s family still believed him to be missing in action when the Defense Department in 1984 selected X-26 for interment in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. President Richard M. Nixon had first called for a Vietnam unknown to be laid to rest alongside the unknowns from the two world wars and Korea in 1971. At the time of those earlier conflicts, there had been no shortage of candidates for burial because of the military’s limited ability to identify battlefield remains. Vietnam, however, posed a challenge due to advances in technology and forensic science. When the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 ended the U.S. involvement in the war, the military lacked a viable unknown to entomb at Arlington. As a result, Nixon’s directive went unfulfilled for more than a decade.
In 1978, President Jimmy E. Carter dedicated a bronze plaque at Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater to honor those who served in the Vietnam War. Veterans groups, however, clamored for greater recognition. The political pressure increased after the unveiling of the somber Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, four years later. In 1984, President Ronald W. Reagan decided to act. Eager to pay tribute to Veterans of the conflict in a way that would promote national healing, Reagan ordered the Defense Department to procure a Vietnam unknown to be buried in a state funeral at Arlington. Only four sets of remains existed, all of which might be identified at some future date. Despite their awareness of this possibility, officials in Hawaii on May 17, 1984, picked X-26 and had the remains casketed along with physical evidence from the crash site that should have been destroyed. The casket was flown on a C-141B Starlifter to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, and then placed on display at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, for several days to permit visitors to pay their respects. On May 28, 1984—Memorial Day—President Reagan delivered a short speech in an interment ceremony at the Tomb, eulogizing the men who had gone missing in action during the Vietnam War.
Blassie rested in anonymity at the Tomb for a decade until investigative journalists concluded that he was he was likely the unknown soldier buried in the Vietnam crypt. A 1998 CBS expose on the case featuring the Blassie family intensified demands to examine the remains with new forensic techniques. On May 14, 1998, officials opened the venerated crypt and removed the casket with X-26 for analysis. The testing positively identified Blassie and, per his family’s wishes, his remains were sent home for burial in a gravesite bearing his name.
VA serves as steward of a national cemetery system containing more than 150,000 unknowns, the vast majority from the Civil War. The identification of Blassie’s remains and his interment in VA’s Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery brought closure to one family and offers a measure of hope to other families still waiting on the recovery of their loved ones. The Vietnam crypt now sits empty and has been turned into a memorial honoring all U.S. service members recorded as missing in the Vietnam War.
Object 54: Civil War Recruiting Broadside for “Men of Color”
By Jeffrey Seiken, PhD, Historian, Veterans Benefits Administration
|Civil War broadside calling on all “Men of Color” to join the Union Army. More than 200,000 African Americans enlisted. About half were recruited from Confederate states. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)|
On September 17, 1862, the Union Army turned back the Confederate offensive into Maryland at the Battle of Antietam. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing his intent to abolish slavery in the rebellious states as of the first of the year. On New Year’s Day, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, making good on his promise. The Proclamation transformed the character of the war. In addition to fighting for the restoration of the Union, Lincoln committed the nation to securing the freedom of the 3.5 million African Americans held in bondage throughout the South.
The Proclamation also gave Union military officials the green light to accept African Americans into military service, a policy Lincoln had previously been hesitant to endorse. Although Blacks had fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, after 1820 they were prohibited by law from enlisting in the Army. The Militia Act of 1862 relaxed this ban by granting the War Department limited authority to enlist “persons of African descent.” The act applied not just to free Blacks in the North but also to “fugitives” and “contrabands” from the South—African Americans who had escaped their enslavers or taken refuge with the Union Army as it advanced into Confederate territory. The law led to the formation of the first regiments composed of Black soldiers. However, Lincoln still held off on calling for the unrestricted recruitment of African Americans for fear of antagonizing the slaveholding border states that had remained in the Union and the faction of northern Democrats who opposed the war.
With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln abandoned this cautious policy and the War Department launched an aggressive campaign to enlist “men of color.” Over the next two years, more than 200,000 African Americans joined the Union Army and Navy. Occupied areas in the Confederate states proved to be particularly fruitful recruiting ground. About half of the Black volunteers came from the South. The widespread enrollment of African Americans provided the Union Army with a much-needed infusion of manpower, as war-weariness in the North slowed the pace of White enlistment.
Black soldiers were organized into U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments led by White officers. At first, the Army relegated these units to fatigue duty, digging trenches, unloading supplies, and carrying out other low-skill tasks. Black privates also received lower wages than Whites and were issued surplus weapons and equipment. Many Union commanders believed African Americans were unsuited for combat because they lacked the discipline, intelligence, and fortitude to follow orders under fire. The performance of USCT regiments on the battlefield, however, quickly dispelled these racist notions about the inferiority of Black soldiers. The Union attack on the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson, Louisiana, in May 1863, served as one of the first tests of Black regiments in battle. They mounted three charges against the enemy’s earthworks and suffered heavy casualties in the face of withering fire. Although they failed to take the position, the regiments earned the admiration of the Union commanding officer, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Afterwards, Banks wrote to his superior: “[T]he determined manner in which they encountered the enemy leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success." In the final two years of the conflict, USCT units took part in 39 major engagements as well as several hundred smaller actions. Twenty-six African Americans received the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
While Black soldiers proved they were the equals of Whites on the battlefield, after the war they struggled to receive equal treatment from the Federal Government. The laws governing pensions for Veterans of earlier wars were color-blind and the General Pension Law enacted by Congress in 1862 was no different. In theory, Blacks with service-connected disabilities were eligible to apply for the same benefits as Whites. But the pension system was far from egalitarian in practice. Recent studies based on the service and pension records of thousands of men have shown that African Americans were less likely to submit claims or have their applications approved than Whites. And when they were granted a pension, their disabilities were judged to be less severe, leading to lower cash awards.
Several factors contributed to the disparity in outcomes. African American Veterans often encountered significant obstacles gathering the records needed to prove their injuries or illnesses were related to their military service. Some were also too poor to afford a pension attorney to help them prepare an application. The fact that many formerly enslaved ex-soldiers from the South were illiterate compounded the challenges of documenting their claims and navigating the complexities of the pension system. Finally, African American applicants had to surmount the racial prejudices of the medical examiners and Pension Bureau officials.
Thousands of deserving Black Veterans still successfully pursued their claims and received compensation for the wounds or illnesses they suffered while wearing the Union uniform. They also enjoyed greater success obtaining a pension under the more liberal 1890 Pension Act, which eliminated the requirement for the disability to be service-related. Research suggests that the reward was well worth the effort. African Americans who secured a pension lived longer than those without. They were also more likely to own a house and be able to retire and live independently in their old age.
Have an idea for an object? Let us know!
We have worked hard to capture VA’s complex and varied history in the exhibit, but our list of 100 objects is not set in stone. We invite readers to submit their own suggestions of objects to include in the exhibit. Send your ideas to VAHistoryOffice@va.gov. If we like your suggestion, we will write it up and give you full credit when the entry on your object appears on the website.
CLICK BELOW for the 100 Objects gallery pages to see all previous entries in the exhibit.