In rear windows, on motorcycles, flying on flag poles in front of businesses and homes, the POW-MIA flag has become an iconic symbol in America for the nation’s concern for military personnel missing and unaccounted for in foreign wars. The idea for such a flag was first thought of by Mary Helen Hoff, wife of Navy pilot Lieutenant Commander Michael Hoff who had been missing in action in Vietnam since January 7, 1970.
Hoff was a member of the National League of POW/MIA Families, an organization whose sole mission is “to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing, and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia.” Created in 1969 by the wives of POWs in Southeast Asia, their purpose was originally to raise awareness about the mistreatment of POWs, and it grew into much more.
Feeling as though the organization needed a standard in which to spread the message of the organization, Hoff called the world’s oldest, well-known flag maker Annin Flagmakers in Verona, New Jersey. The company was honored to be chosen to make such a flag, representing so much for many families across the United States. They took it to their advertising agency to design, and the assignment was given to one of the graphic designers.
In 1972, Newt Heisley created the design for the now famous flag. Heisley was a veteran himself, a pilot in World War II who flew C-64 transports for the 433rd Troop Carrier Group and earned the bronze star for his service. He modeled the silhouette profile we readily recognize in the POW-MIA flag after his son who, at the time, was serving in the Marine Corps. In an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1997, Heisley told reporters that the flag “was intended for a small group. No one realized it was going to get national attention.”
But that’s exactly what happened. The flag was used to keep the POW-MIA issue fresh in the minds of Americans across the country. Finally, Congress passed a law in 1990 stating the flag was now recognized “as a 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.” It is now widely accepted to represent not only prisoners and missing from Southeast Asia, but all foreign wars.
Aside from Congress putting into law the recognition of the POW-MIA flag, many states have made it mandatory to fly the flag on state government buildings. Idaho became the first state to require the flag to be flown on flagpoles in front of every state building, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week “or until such time as all our unaccounted for and missing members of the Armed Forces return.” The message “You are not forgotten” is being sent loud and clear, coast to coast, and felt in the heart of every American.