This Friday, September 20, 2013, marks the 34th annual observance of National Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Recognition Day in America.
Since our country was first settled by European colonists, hundreds of soldiers, sailors, and marines who left their homes to fight America’s wars were imprisoned and held against their will by our enemies or they never returned home, their fates, as yet, unknown. Thousands of men were imprisoned by their own countrymen during the Civil War in prison camps at Andersonville, Elmira, and Camp Chase, to name a few. Roughly 56,000 men died in Civil War prison camps; many of them were buried as “unknowns” in prison camp graveyards that are now national cemeteries and they remain as missing links in their families’ histories.
Roughly 16 million Americans served in World War II and at the end of the war 79,000 were missing; today 73,000 from World War II remain missing and unaccounted for. Even women nurses were held captive, especially in the Pacific theatre, during the war.
In the Vietnam War’s aftermath, over 2,500 servicemembers were missing and their families pressed the government for action. While the military continued its efforts to locate and account for all of the missing, a joint resolution of Congress (Public Law 95-349) and a presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter called on the nation to remember those who had not returned home and pronounced Wednesday, July 18, 1979 as the first National POW/MIA Recognition Day in the U.S.
This special day of remembrance was established to “honor those Americans who have been prisoners of war, and those listed as missing in action. . . and to rekindle the memory of the sacrifices these individuals have made for their country and our indebtedness to them.” This annual commemorative day was originally held in April or July, until 1986, when it was observed on the third Friday in September for the first time. The designated day for the national recognition is determined each year by a joint resolution of Congress, followed by a Presidential proclamation, and has been observed in late September since 1986.
The POW-MIA flag
One of the earliest organized prisoner of war aid groups was formed by mothers whose sons were held captive by the Japanese during World War II. In 1942 they founded the Bataan Relief Organization and in 1949 it became known as the American Ex-Prisoners of War veterans organization.
First mention of a POW-MIA flag was made in the March 14, 1983 proclamation signed by President Ronald Reagan: “On April 9, 1983, a P.O.W.-M.I.A. Flag will fly over the White House, the Departments of State and Defense, and the Veterans Administration as a symbol of our unswerving commitment to resolving the fate of all servicemen still missing.” Two years later, the 1985 annual proclamation requested display of the POW-MIA flag at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In 1988, display of the POW-MIA flag was expanded to the Selective Service System headquarters.
The National League of Families’ POW-MIA flag became an official national symbol in 1990 when Public Law 101-355 was enacted and this was reflected in the president’s annual proclamation, as well: “In honor of these Americans, on September 21, 1990, the National League of Families POW-MIA flag will be flown over the White House, the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Veterans Affairs, the Selective Service System headquarters, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Congress, by House Joint Resolution 467, has designated Friday, September 21, 1990, as “National POW/MIA Recognition Day” and has authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in observance of this day. In Section 2 of this 1990 resolution, “the Congress has also designated the National League of Families POW/MIA flag as the official symbol of our Nation’s commitment to obtaining the fullest possible accounting for those Americans who remain missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.”
In 1994, Presidential Proclamation No. 6718 expanded display of the POW-MIA flag to national cemeteries. In 2001, President George W. Bush expanded the POW-MIA flag requirement to all military installations and, in 2009, President Barack Obama added U.S. post offices. A history of the POW-MIA flag can be found here: http://www.powmiafamilies.org/League/History_of_the_POW_MIA_Flag.html
A Former POW and VA Leader
In 1982, Everett Alvarez, Jr., a former Navy pilot who was held for 8½ years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, was sworn in as VA Deputy Administrator and served as chairman of the CARES commission. He left VA service in 1986. (see photo, left)
In our modern era, many former prisoners of war walk among us on a daily basis and we call them “Veterans.” They represent us in Congress, we work alongside them, and they are part of our own families. For the families and friends of approximately 83,580 soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators who have not returned from our wars dating back to World War II, their silent, yet hopeful, vigil continues as they await news of their missing loved ones. The American Ex-Prisoners of War, National League of POW/MIA Families, and countless others work tirelessly to ensure that prisoners of wars and the missing are not forgotten.
Links for more information:
First presidential proclamation for POW-MIA Day:
Everett Alvarez, Jr.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everett_Alvarez,_Jr.; http://www.historynet.com/interview-everett-alvarez-a-vietnam-pow-for-the-duration.htm; http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=25069; http://veterantributes.org/TributeDetail.php?recordID=263
Story courtesy of the VA Public Affairs