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.

 

Origins

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.

 

POW/MIA Media Attention

Life magazine ran an article in 1972 about the League and what its goals were. The article led off with a full-page picture of Air Force aviator Wilmer Newlin Grubb after he had been shot down and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. His wife, Evelyn Grubb, was then the head of the League. Her story catapulted the plight of POW/MIAs into the national eye.

The Life story, coupled with the League’s determination to hold POW’s treatment up for the public to see, was instrumental in raising American consciousness. The image of the flag represented not only those men who were held in captivity or were missing, but also the families at home desperately waiting for news of their loved ones. It was a way for those without a voice to be acknowledged.

When the League saw the utility of the flag’s meaning, they chose not to trademark the design or copyright the words. The flag design is available for anyone to use, free of charge or restriction. Because of this, the League does not financially gain from flag sales.

 

Who Can Fly a POW/MIA Flag?

POW/MIA flag lowered
While conducting clean-up efforts, Nebraska Army National Guard Spc. Chris Sheen, a religious affairs specialist from Wilcox, and Staff Sgt. Alex Peyton, a master intelligence analyst from Kearney, lowered the tattered and faded remains of damaged American and POW/MIA flags, and respectfully folded them in an impromptu ceremony. The Soldiers intend to have the flags disposed of in an honorable and appropriate manner, making way for new flags to proudly fly over the memorial. (Photo by Spc. Lisa Crawford/Nebraska National Guard)

Due to lack of copyright and trademark, anyone who desires can make and fly the flag. It is often seen in front yards flying beside the American flag. Many bars and restaurants have the flag, in some form, on the wall. While not a national or state flag, many government buildings fly the flag along with the American flag.

The flag was flown over the White House in 1988, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day. That same flag was later installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the only flag that is always on display there.

In 1993, U.S. Congress passed a law designating the flag 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 U.S. government acknowledges the importance of the POW/MIA flag by requiring its display at certain times and certain places. There are six days when the flag is mandated to be displayed at the Capitol, White House, and other federal government buildings: Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day, and Veterans Day. In addition, the flag is required to fly any time the U.S. flag flies at National War Memorials and VA medical centers.

National POW/MIA Recognition Day Events

Read Next: National POW/MIA Recognition Day Events

The National League of Families POW/MIA flag is mandated by U.S. law to fly until,

“…the [p]resident decides that the fullest possible accounting has been made of all members of the Armed Forces and civilian employees of the United States Government who have been identified as prisoners of war or missing in action in Southeast Asia.”

 

Why Do You Fly A POW/MIA Flag?

POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Various veterans organizations attend the POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, September 15, 2017. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Bruch/USAF)
Because you want the world to remember those who never came home. Because you need the world to acknowledge that those men experienced things most would cower in front of. Because the families of those Missing in Action will never hear their loved ones’ voices again or feel their embrace. Because those ex-Prisoners of War will never be the same persons they were before their captivity. And because everyone involved has been unutterably altered.

Because they will not be forgotten.

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