“You Are Not Forgotten” – that’s the central phrase behind the POW/MIA remembrance movement which honors America’s prisoners of war, those who are still missing in action, and their families. Many of our service members suffered as prisoners of war during several decades of varying conflicts. While some of them made it home, tens of thousands more never did.
POW/MIA Recognition Day is commemorated on the third Friday of every September, a date that’s not associated with any particular war. In 1979, Congress and the president passed resolutions making it official after the families of the more than 2,500 Vietnam War POW/MIAs pushed for full accountability.
During the first POW/MIA Recognition Day commemoration, a ceremony was held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., while the 1st Tactical Squadron from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia flew the missing man formation. Most ceremonies since then have been held at the Pentagon, and many smaller observances have cropped up across the nation and around the world on military installations.
The point of POW/MIA Recognition Day is to ensure that Americans remember to stand behind those who serve and to make sure we do everything we can to account for those who have never returned.
In order to comprehend the importance of this movement, all you need to do is look at the sheer number of Americans who have been listed as POW/MIAs.
According to a Congressional Research Service report on POWs:
• 130,201 World War II service members were imprisoned; 14,072 of them died.
• 7,140 Korean War service members were imprisoned; 2,701 of them died.
• 725 Vietnam War service members were imprisoned; 64 of them died.
• 37 service members were imprisoned during conflicts since 1991, including both Gulf wars; none are still in captivity.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 83,114 Americans who fought in those wars are still missing, including:
• 73,515 from World War II (an approximate number due to limited or conflicting data).
• 7,841 from the Korean War.
• 1,626 from Vietnam.
• 126 from the Cold War.
• 6 from conflicts since 1991.
The DPAA said about 75% of those missing Americans are somewhere in the Asia-Pacific. More than 41,000 have been presumed lost at sea.
Efforts to find those men, identify them, and bring them home are constant. For example, the DPAA said that in the past year it has accounted for 41 men missing during the Korean War: 10 had been previously buried as unknowns, 26 were from remains turned over by North Korea in the 1990s, one was from a recovery operation, and four were combinations of remains and recovery operations.
Let us honor America’s POW/MIA’s and encourage our government to undertake successful efforts to account for them.
The POW/MIA flag
The traditional POW/MIA flag that’s well-known across America was actually created many years before the Remembrance Day became official.
In 1971, Mrs. Mary Hoff, an MIA wife and member of the National League of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, recognized the need for a symbol of our POW/MIAs. She was one of the many waiting to see if her husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff, would ever return home after his plane had been shot down over Laos. Prompted by an article in the Jacksonville, Florida Times-Union, Mrs. Hoff contacted Norman Rivkees, vice president of Annin & Company. Mrs. Hoff found Mr. Rivkees very sympathetic to the POW/MIA issue, and he, along with Annin’s advertising agency, designed a flag to represent our missing men. World War II pilot Newt Heisley designed the now-famous flag. Following league approval, the flags were manufactured for distribution.
The flag is black, bearing in the center, in black and white, the emblem of the league. The emblem is a white disk bearing in black silhouette the bust of a man, watch tower with a guard holding a rifle, and a strand of barbed wire; above the disk are the white letters POW and MIA framing a white five-pointed star; below the disk is a black and white wreath above the white motto “You Are Not Forgotten.”
On March 9, 1989, a POW/MIA flag, which flew over the White House on the 1988 National POW/MIA Recognition Day, was installed in the United States Capitol Rotunda as a result of legislation passed overwhelmingly during the 100th session of Congress. The leadership of both Houses hosted the installation ceremony in a demonstration of bipartisan congressional support. This POW/MIA flag, the only flag displayed in the United States Capitol Rotunda, stands as a powerful symbol of our national commitment to our POW/MIAs until the fullest possible accounting for Americans still missing in Southeast Asia has been achieved.
For every POW/MIA Recognition Day since 1982, the flag has flown just below the stars and stripes at the White House – the only other flag to ever do so. In 1998, Congress ordered it to also be displayed on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day.
The Missing Man Table, also known as the Fallen Comrade Table, is a semi-official place of honor in some dining facilities of the U.S. armed forces in memory of fallen, missing in action, or prisoner of war military service members. The table serves as the focal point of ceremonial remembrance, originally growing out of U.S. concern of the Vietnam War POW/MIAs.
Beyond permanent displays in dining facilities, the Missing Man Table is traditionally part of military dining-in ceremonies and service balls. When presented in a dining-in or service ball, a narration given to the audience explains the symbolism of each item. The table is also on permanent display at various VA facilities. The practice of the Missing Man Table has evolved over time and is not currently governed by any U.S. Department of Defense or service-specific guidance. Many restaurants also present the empty table on Veterans Day.
The small table is set for one – symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner.
The table is round – showing our everlasting concern for our POW/MIAs.
The cloth is white – symbolizing the purity of our men and women’s motives when answering the call to duty.
The single red rose – reminding us of the lives of these men and women – their loved ones and friends who keep the faith, while seeking answers.
The yellow ribbon – symbolizes our continued determination to account for them.
A slice of lemon – reminds us of the bitter fate of those missing, captured and held as prisoners in foreign lands.
A pinch of salt – symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families who long for answers after decades of uncertainty.
The Holy Bible – represents the strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under God, to sustain those lost from our midst.
The candle – is reminiscent of the light of hope which lives in our hearts to illuminate their way home.
The glass is inverted – to symbolize their inability to share a toast with their comrades.
The chair is empty — they are not here – and please remember their service and sacrifice.
Let us remember and never forget their sacrifices. May God forever watch over them and protect them and their families.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.