In times of war, some families learn that a loved one has been either captured or presumed missing.
They hope and pray that their family member will safely return home.
During the Vietnam War, some of these families sought answers about their loved ones; their actions eventually resulted in the designating of National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
As President Ronald Reagan noted on June 12, 1981 by signing Proclamation 4848:
All Americans ought to recognize the special debt we owe to our fellow citizens who, in the act of serving our Nation, relinquished their freedom that we might enjoy the blessings of peace and liberty. Likewise, we must remember the unresolved casualties of war-our servicemen who are still missing. The pain and bitterness of war endure for their families, relatives and friends-and for all of us. Our Nation will continue to seek answers to the many questions that remain about their fate.
Some Determined Families
In the late 1960s as America’s involvement in Vietnam deepened, some families of American aviators who had been shot down and were being held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam became alarmed at reports of their husbands’ and sons’ mistreatment.
The fear and pain these families felt for their loved ones was compounded by the Pentagon’s withholding of information on the status of POWs; the Pentagon’s tactic of pressuring the affected families to not speak out; and the Pentagon’s policy of delaying combat casualty benefits.
Angered by these actions, Mary Crowe, Evelyn Grubb and Sybil Stockdale – all wives of aviators held in North Vietnam – laid the foundation in 1967 for the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
The league’s mission was then and today is:
…to obtain the release and return of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing, and the repatriation of remains of those not yet recovered who died while serving our nation.
A Flag to Rally Around
After the birth of her fifth child in 1970, Mary Hoff learned that her husband had been shot down over North Vietnam and presumed missing in action.
Later that year, the MIA wife and member of the newly formed National League of Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia saw a need for a symbol to highlight the POW/MIA issue.
“I once asked in Washington, ‘What do I bury?’” she said during a 2009 interview. “And they said, ‘Well, we’ll give you all the artifacts from the aircraft.’”
Reasoning that other families in the same situation wanted a bit more than pieces of aluminum, Hoff looked for something more memorable. Upon learning about Annin & Company – a nationally respected flag maker – she asked if it would design a banner to represent those being held and missing.
The company turned to illustrator Newton Heisley.
A Personal Mission for POW/MIA Day
A World War II pilot, Heisley took the assignment personally.
The offer to create the design came just as Mr. Heisley’s son was medically discharged from the Marine Corps in 1971 after being diagnosed with hepatitis.
Looking at his son’s haggard features, Heisley began to imagine what life was like for those being held prisoner in North Vietnam.
After seeing a picture of an American POW wearing the black-and-white pajama prison garb, Hoff suggested to Heisley that the flag be “a stark, black-and-white flag.”
Heisley agreed, and he sketched in pencil the black-and-white images at the center of a flag – the silhouette of a man with head bowed, a guard tower and a strand of barbed wire.
“I used to fly within range of the Japanese and wondered how I would hold up if I ever got captured,” he once said.
He also related that while working on the flag, he also recalled thinking about “being taken prisoner and being … forgotten.”
“That experience came back to me, and I wrote down the phrase, ‘You Are Not Forgotten,’” he was quoted as saying in a 2009 Los Angeles Times article.
His illustration and the four words with it garnered the attention of America.
The Importance of POW/MIA Day
The POW/MIA flag has flown over the White House on every National POW/MIA Recognition Day since 1982, and with the exception of the American flag, it is the only other flag to fly over the White House.
Despite its significance to the nation’s veterans, some have argued that the flag has outlived its relevance; that the last POWs from Vietnam came home in 1973 and that the flag should be retired.
As of the end of July 2019, the number of Americans listed as missing and unaccounted for from the War in Vietnam is 1,587.
This is reason to fly the POW/MIA flag in honor of them and their families that still bear the burden of loss.
Read the stories of 4 American POWs who defied the odds to stay alive.