Every war raises the possibility of prisoners and missing servicemembers. During the Vietnam War, the wives of some of those servicemembers decided something had to be done, and they banded together to make the U.S. government acknowledge these lost men. These women are the force behind the POW/MIA flag.



In 1966, a group of wives, whose husbands had been reported missing or taken prisoner in Vietnam, came together as what would become the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Sybil Stockdale, the wife of Navy A-4 pilot James Stockdale, wanted answers about her husband. Stockdale had been shot down over North Vietnam in September of 1965 and was held prisoner in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Sybil, along with a group of other wives, was disenchanted with the official U.S. narrative of not talking about POWs. The government consensus at the time was to not goad the captors into treating prisoners more harshly. The government feared the prisoners might receive even harsher treatment if images of and stories about them were made public.

Sybil thought otherwise. She wanted the U.S. public to know what was happening to her husband and the hundreds of others in captivity in North Vietnam. She reasoned that the more the public knew, the more visibility the prisoners would get, and the more pressure could be brought to bear for their release. Finally, Sybil raised enough attention and soon spoke with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.

James Stockdale A-4
Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale exits an A-4 fighter-bomber aircraft weeks before being shot down over Vietnam. (U.S. Naval Academy)


The POW/MIA Flag

After nudging the Nixon administration to openly acknowledge prisoner treatment and nationally incorporating the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, the group needed a banner to rally behind. Mary Helen Hoff, the wife of missing naval aviator Michael Hoff, approached Annin Flagmakers about supporting the cause.

Annin president Randy Beard immediately agreed and tasked his advertising agency to go to work. Graphic artist Newt Heisley was put to work designing the flag. Heisley had been a C-46 pilot during World War II, and his son was an active duty Marine. So, he had skin in the game. The silhouette of the man on the is Eisley’s son while on leave and recovering from hepatitis. Eisley also wrote the words “You are not forgotten” for the flag.