The United States Armed Forces have engaged in countless battles in defense of the freedom so many of us take for granted. We see coverage of the devastation of war on the news but rarely see information on the members of the military who are captured or missing during these conflicts.
To honor these individuals, the POW-MIA flag hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. While most Americans recognize this somber banner, very few know the history behind its creation or the significance it holds for members of the military and their families.
The POW-MIA flag is unique in many ways, from its creation to its current display. The flag doesn’t represent any individual state, group, or branch of service, but it serves as a reminder that many soldiers are unaccounted for and may be held against their will by foreign powers. It is a slightly different reminder than some of the other symbols of military sacrifice.
The thousands of white crosses at Arlington remind us of the sacrifice many men and women gave to ensure our freedom. The scars and amputated limbs of veterans remind us of the bravery and selflessness of service members. However, the soldiers who are prisoners of war or missing in action are somewhere in between – not truly gone, but not yet home and with no physical reminder of their sacrifice.
The flag is the result of the passion of a loving wife and the dedication of some remarkable flag makers. Mrs. Michael Hoff was a MIA wife who recognized the need for a tangible reminder of the soldiers who didn’t make it home. She read an article in the newspaper about Annin & Co., a flag-making company who designed a flag for China when they became a member of the United Nations.
She contacted the vice-president, Norman Rivkees, and found he was sympathetic to her cause. He enlisted one of his marketing agents, Newt Heisley and, together, they created the flag we know today. The haunting design of a black silhouette of a man overshadowed by a guard tower and barbed wire is poignantly supported by the inscription, “You are not forgotten.” Though the colors of the flag have changed, the sentiment behind it remains a driving force to bring closure to the military families.
The flag was approved by the Board of Directors of the National League of POW/MIA Families in January 1972. They did not seek a patent or trademark so their flag would be freely used and distributed. To this day, there is no legal restriction on the use of the image of the flag.
On National POW/MIA Recognition Day in 1988, the POW/MIA flag became the first flag to ever fly under the American flag on top of the White House. That flag was later displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda – the first and only flag ever to be installed in the Rotunda. The installation ceremony was a rare display of bipartisan support, with leaders of both parties in attendance.
In 1990, Congress legally recognized the POW/MIA flag with U.S. Public Law 101-355. This law officially designates the flag “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.”
Congress further legitimized and promoted the flag with Section 1082 of the Defense Authorization Act of 1998. This states that the flag must be flown at the White House, U.S. Capitol, and other governmental departments and agencies on the following six days of the year: Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day, and Veterans Day.
As of 2014, over 2,000 soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were still unaccounted for. While this number pales in comparison to the nearly 80,000 still missing from World War II and even the 8,000 still missing from the Korean War, these Vietnam soldiers have the most family members still alive to remember them. These families and friends fly the POW/MIA flag as a sign of their devotion to never forget those soldiers.
When flying the flag in addition to the American flag, make sure the POW/MIA flag is smaller than the American flag and hung directly below it. If it is flown on a separate flagpole next to the American flag, it should be hung to the flag’s right and still at a lower height. It has precedence over state flags.
Though it evokes feelings of deep sorrow, the POW/MIA flag is also a symbol of hope and solidarity for many military families. It is the perfect memorial for those soldiers whose fates are still unknown.