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September 09, 2011


POW/MIA Recognition Day set for Sept. 16

This year marks the 25th year since the third Friday of September was designated as Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Recognition Day.

The silhouetted black-and-white flag honoring American POW/MIAs will be flown Friday, Sept. 16 at most federal locations, including Fort McCoy.
IMAGE: POW/MIA Recognition Day

The POW/MIA flag originated in 1971 during the Vietnam War, and the first official recognition for POW/MIAs occurred in July 1979.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Recovery efforts continue for unaccounted-for Americans. Since U.S. government efforts to account for servicemembers listed as POWs/MIAs began, the remains of more than 900 Americans killed in the Vietnam War have been recovered, identified, returned to their Families and interred with full military honors. As of Aug. 29, 1,683 servicemembers still are listed as missing in Southeast Asia.

The following provides a history of efforts to account for the missing from the Vietnam War.

Immediately after the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973, Operation HOMECOMING returned 590 POWs captured in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (two POWs from Vietnam and a Cold War POW were released from China) to the U.S.

The MIA Families and some government officials, however, expected a greater number of returnees, giving rise to concerns that POWs had been withheld. This gave rise to the urgency of the accounting mission.

Although Article Eight of the Accord called for mutual assistance among the parties in accounting for the missing in the immediate postwar period, continuing hostilities precluded access to many sites. After the POWs came home, the U.S. still listed some 2,646 Americans as unaccounted-for, with roughly equal numbers of those missing in action, or killed in action/body not recovered.

Initially, the accounting was to be accomplished by the Four Party Joint Military Team, a temporary organization comprised of representatives from the four signatories. U.S. and Republic of Vietnam teams conducted joint but restricted searches from February 1973 to March 1975 for Americans missing in South Vietnam. These met with only limited success, but did recover and identify 63 servicemen, 23 of whom had died in captivity in North Vietnam, and five who had been killed in Laos. The work was severely limited after the ambush slaying of U.S. Army Capt. Richard M. Rees by guerrillas Dec. 15, 1973, and ended completely with the Communist takeover of Vietnam in April 1975.

From that point until September 1990, Vietnam unilaterally returned some 175 remains of missing Americans it had previously collected and stored. In the 1980s, spurred by suspicions over this withholding and the reports of the Indochinese refugees that POWs were held, the U.S. re-energized its efforts with high-level policy and technical meetings. Then in August 1987, President Reagan dispatched retired Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., Special Presidential Emissary, to Hanoi on the POW issue, to find ways to resolve these continuing questions. As a result of the Vessey meetings, the Vietnamese permitted U.S. teams to search throughout the country. Joint searches began in Vietnam in September 1988. Parallel arrangements were reached in Laos and Cambodia at about this same time, with occasional targeted investigations in China as leads arose. Continuous joint searches began in April 1988 in Laos, and in October 1991 in Cambodia.

In 1992, the U.S. organized its accounting efforts into the large-scale field operations that continue to this day. Teams work several periods each year in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia alongside their foreign counterparts. Together, they have interviewed thousands of witnesses and conducted archival research in all five countries regarding the fate of missing Americans. Their hard work has resulted in the continuous location of crash and burial sites all over the region, from the highest mountain top to underwater sites.

Archaeologists and anthropologists use meticulous site exploitation rules to find possible remains and material evidence. This is followed by a scientifically rigorous and forensic process that leads to identification of the missing servicemembers and a return to their Family for burial.

(Information in this article is from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration.)

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