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. Prompted by an article in the Jacksonville, Florida TIMES-UNION, Mrs. Hoff contacted Norman Rivkees, Vice-President of Annin & Company which had made a banner for the newest member of the United Nations, the People's Republic of China, as a part of their policy to provide flags to all UN member nations. 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. 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 5-pointed star; below the disk is a black and white wreath above the white motto YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.
Concerned groups and individuals have altered the original POW/MIA Flag many times; the colors have been switched from black with white to red, white and blue, to white with black; the POW/MIA has at times been revised to MIA/POW. Such changes, however, are insignificant. The importance lies in the continued visibility of the symbol, a constant reminder of the plight of America's POW/MIA'S.
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.
The National League of Families POW/MIA flag is the only flag ever displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where it will stand as a powerful symbol of national commitment to America's POW/MIAs until the fullest possible accounting has been achieved for U.S. personnel still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
On August 10, 1990, the 101st Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, which recognized the League's POW/MIA flag and designated it "as the symbol of our Nation's concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation".
The importance of the League's POW/MIA flag lies in its continued visibility, a constant reminder of the plight of America's POW/MIAs. Other than "Old Glory", the League's POW/MIA flag is the only flag ever to fly over the White House, having been displayed in this place of honor on National POW/MIA Recognition Day since 1982. With passage of Section 1082 of the 1998 Defense Authorization Act during the first term of the 105th Congress, the League's POW/MIA flag will fly each year on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day and Veterans Day on the grounds or in the public lobbies of major military installations as designated by the Secretary of the Defense, all Federal national cemeteries, the national Korean War Veterans Memorial, the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the White House, the United States Postal Service post offices and at the official offices of the Secretaries of State, Defense and Veteran's Affairs, and Director of the Selective Service System.
Vietnam's Missing In Action
One of the lingering and deeply troubling aftermaths of any war is the unknown fate of those listed as missing in action (MIA). These individuals were killed on the battlefield unseen, or died as prisoners, or met with other misfortune. What they all have in common is that they have disappeared and their bodies have not been found.
"When someone is killed, there's finality," says Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. "With those who are missing, there's uncertainty. It's harder to know when to give up hope and when to begin grieving." Griffiths is also sister to Vietnam MIA Lt. Commander James B. Mills of the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Since the League was officially founded in 1970, it has pushed the U.S. government to make the "fullest possible accounting" of the 2,583 MIAs missing in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia at war's end.
"Our nation has an obligation to stand behind those who serve," Griffiths says. "That means that if someone becomes captured or missing every reasonable effort is made to account for them." It's a cause that many active duty men also are invested in, Griffiths notes. "They want to know that if something happens to them, they won't be left behind."
A more serious search for MIAs began with President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 and has continued since that time. "On any given day, there are five hundred men and women in the Department of Defense looking for MIAs around the world," notes Larry Greer, spokesman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. To date, the remains of nearly 600 MIAs from the Vietnam War have been identified.
No MIAs have been found alive, despite alleged sightings that inspire the hopes of some relatives. "Nobody is under any illusion that lots of people are still alive," says Griffiths. "The vast majority of families are very realistic. But until we get answers, questions remain."
Most efforts now are concentrated on locating and then identifying remains. Co-operative search programs exist with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, and even Central Europe and Russia (there are 124 Cold War MIAs as well). One of the spillovers from the MIA search in Vietnam is the belated search for MIAs from other wars (8,100 Americans were lost in the Korean War, and 78,000 in World War II). Since 1996, when North Korea opened up its borders to excavation teams, the remains of over 70 American servicemen from that war have been recovered. Once political channels are opened, military personnel conduct interviews with veterans who may have clues about disappearances, and also comb domestic military records and those of one-time enemies. Greer describes it as "a massive detective hunt for people who might have been lost thirty, forty or fifty years ago."
The detective work may lead to a particular rice paddy or battlefield. Ground-penetrating radar can be used to locate and detect buried bodies. When evidence is strong, an onsite excavation is done.
If remains are found, scientists go to work. "Computers now play a huge role in identification of remains," says Greer. One computer program, only a few years old, enables forensic dentists to match one single tooth to thousands of dental records, something that was nearly impossible to do before computers. The technique has helped identify old as well as newer remains, Greer says. When only bone fragments are found, anthropologists stationed in Hanoi determine if they are human bones, and if so, if they are Asian. If not, they are presumed American. But before they are flown to the Central Identification Lab in Honolulu, former soldiers are placed in flag-covered, coffin-like containers draped with a U.S. flag and honored with a silent honor guard escort. Greer says that the remains of hundreds of MIAs have been identified by matching their mitochondrial DNA to the DNA of someone from their maternal line.
Since the push by the United States to find MIAs, other nations also have begun to search more vigorously for their MIAs. In Vietnam, more than 300,000 troops are still unaccounted for. Dr. Tran Van Ban, who buried hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers during the war, has made it his mission to help identify the remains of both comrades and former enemies from the war. So far, he has helped locate more than 600 soldiers.
"I'm sad that the number I've found is so small compared to the number of mothers and fathers dreaming of finding their children," Ban once said. It's a feeling that loved ones of MIAs from any war are certain to understand.