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History & Meaning of the POW/MIA Flag


The POW/MIA Bracelet

An organization called VIVA (Voices in a Vital America) launched the first public awareness campaign for POW/MIAs. Although the issue was featured occasionally on the news and in magazines, no formal organization existed for POW/MIAs. VIVA was a not profit, non-political, student organization run on a volunteer basis in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Several college students, Carol Bates Brown, Kay Hunter and Steve Frank, an adult advisor, Gloria Coppin, and a returning veteran (who would later become a Congressman), Bob Dornan, formed the original group. They aimed to distribute bracelets to gain publicity for the POW/MIA issue.

Without funding, income or loans, the bracelets were initially made from donated brass and copper, and engraved by a Santa Monica engraver. The group aimed bracelet sales at college students, since students were incredibly active in protesting the war with sit-ins, blackouts, riots, etc. Bracelets were a peaceful means of awareness. The bracelets were engraved with a MIA or POW serviceman’s name, rank and date of loss. Each bracelet cost between $2.50 and $3.00 to buy. A supporter would wear the bracelet until the POW or MIA was accounted for or brought home. Copper bracelets did catch on with the adult population, who believed copper would help tennis elbow.

In September of 1970, VIVA attended an annual meeting for the National League of Families in Washington, D.C. Wives and parents of POW/MIAs took a huge interest in wearing bracelets and obtaining them for distribution. In November, VIVA did a news conference at the Universal Sheraton Hotel, which spawned a huge public response. Before long more than 12,000 requests were made for bracelets each day. The two remaining students in the group dropped out of college to work full-time with VIVA.

With the profits the group was able to get brochures, bumper stickers and buttons to publicize the POW/MIA issue. VIVA distributed five million bracelets, millions of bumper stickers, brochures, matchbooks, buttons, newspaper ads, etc., before it closed its doors in 1976. By that time the Vietnam War had ended, and many supporters lost interest in the mission.

National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing

The National League of Families is comprised of the wives, children, parents, siblings and relatives of military servicemen who were prisoners of war, missing in action, and killed in action (bodies not recovered) in Southeast Asia. Veterans, concerned citizens and extended family members of POW/MIAs can join the League as associate members. The League is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, humanitarian organization that is funded solely on donations.

Originating on the west coast, the League of Families had its unofficial beginning in the late 1960s. Unsatisfied with the government’s policy of keeping the POW/MIA situation secretive and discouraging families from publicity, the wife of a POW began a somewhat organized movement. By 1968, the first POW/MIA story was published, which caused families to communicate with each other. Soon they banded together and the group grew from several to several hundred. The League was beginning to become politically active.

It eventually became necessary for the group to gain formality and recognition. In 1970 family members met in Washington, D.C. at Constitution Hall, where the League’s charter and by-laws were officially adopted. A Board of Directors meets on a regular basis to discuss League policy and establish a direction for the group. The League is represented by State Coordinators and Regional Coordinators in state areas and multi-state areas.

Donate to the National League of Families

National POW/MIA Recognition Day

National POW/MIA Recognition Day is a day of commemoration for servicemen unaccounted for and/or missing in America’s wars. The first commemoration of this day was held July 18, 1979 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The date was chosen because it was around the time the League had its yearly meeting. On that day the 1st Tactical Squadron from the Langley Air Force Base in Virginia flew the Missing Man Formation, and the Veterans Administration made posters. These posters contained only the POW/MIA acronym, which was the standard poster format until 1982. To show the urgency of the situation (recovering POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War), the poster symbol was changed to include a black and white image of a prisoner of war in distressing circumstances, the same symbol used on the POW/MIA flag.

Although legislation for National POW/MIA Recognition Day was introduced year after year, in 1995 Congress deemed that it would no longer consider legislation of special commemorative days. Because of this the president now signs a proclamation, establishing the official date of National POW/MIA Recognition Day every year.

In the 1980s the Ex-POWs wanted Recognition Day to be commemorated on April 9th, which was the date the largest number of Americans was captured during World War II. In 1985, Recognition Day was scheduled to be observed on April 9th as the Ex-POWs requested. However the ceremony had to be canceled because of bad weather.

Realizing that rainy weather is common in April, the National League of Families decided to choose another date, one that was not related to any specific war or any organization’s national convention. The League chose to observe National POW/MIA Recognition Day on the third Friday in September. On Friday, September 19, 1986, the ceremony was held at the U.S. Capitol instead of at the Pentagon, where most of the ceremonies were held. It concluded with a Missing Man Formation flight.

National POW/MIA Recognition Day is a day to remember POW/MIAs and America’s responsibility to do everything in its power to account for those who are missing or captive. Ceremonies are held from coast to coast and around the world at military installations, national veteran/civic organizations, ships at sea, state capitols, schools, churches, police departments, fire departments, fire stations, etc.

The POW/MIA Flag

In 1971, the wife of MIA serviceman Michael Hoff was a member of the National League of Families. She recognized the need for a symbol for the POW/MIAs, and contacted Norman Rivkees, the Vice President of Annin & Company to make a flag. The company commissioned Newton Heisley, a creative director for an advertising firm in New Jersey to design the flag. A former World War II pilot, Heisley sketched several designs based on his wartime memories. The design that was chosen depicted a silhouette of a man’s head with barbed wire and a watchtower in the background. Below the design, the flag bears the motto “You Are Not Forgotten.” Following the approval of the National League of Families, flags were manufactured and distributed.

In 1990, the 101st Congress officially recognized the POW/MIA flag, designating it “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 the families and the Nation” (Public Law 101-355).

The flag’s message is spread through its visibility. The POW/MIA flag has flown over the White House on National POW/MIA Recognition Day since 1982. With the exception of the American flag, the POW/MIA flag is the only flag to fly over the White House and fly continually over the Capitol’s rotunda.

Occasions for Displaying the POW/MIA flag

  • Armed Forces Day (3rd Sat. in May)
  • Memorial Day (Last Mon. in May)
  • Flag Day (June 14)
  • Independence Day (July 4)
  • National POW/MIA Recognition Day (3rd Fri. in Sept.)
  • Veterans Day (Nov. 11)
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    Locations for Displaying the POW/MIA flag
  • The White House
  • The Capitol
  • The Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • The World War II Memorial
  • Each national cemetery
  • Buildings containing the offices of: the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, the Director of the Selective Service System
  • Each major military installation, as designated by the Secretary of Defense
  • Each United States Postal Service
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    Protocol for flying the POW/MIA flag
  • On one flagpole, the POW/MIA flag is flown below the American flag and above any state flag
  • On two flagpoles, the POW/MIA flag is flown on the same pole as the American flag, below the American flag (this pole should be to the flag’s own right of the second pole). Any state flag should fly on the second pole.
  • On three flagpoles, the American flag should be flown on the pole located to the flag’s own right, the POW/MIA flag should be flown on the middle pole, and any state flag should be flown on the pole to the (flag’s own) left.
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