You see it everywhere—the stark, black-and-white POW/MIA flag—flying in front of VA hospitals, post offices and other federal, state and local government buildings, businesses and homes. It flaps on motorcycles, cars and pickup trucks. The flag has become an icon of American culture, a representation of the nation's concern for military service personnel missing and unaccounted for in overseas wars.
From the Revolution to the Korean War, thousands of U.S. soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have been taken prisoner or gone missing. But it took the Vietnam War—and a sense of abandonment felt by wives and family members of Americans held captive—to bring forth what has evolved into the nation's POW/MIA symbol.
The POW/MIA flag is inextricably tied to the National League of POW/MIA Families, which was born in June 1969 as the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia. Its mission was to spread awareness of the mistreatment of POWs at the hands of their captors. It was the brainchild of Karen Butler, wife of Navy pilot Phillip Butler, who had been shot down over North Vietnam in April 1965, and Sybil Stockdale, whose husband, Navy Commander James Bond Stockdale, was the highest-ranking POW in North Vietnam. Stockdale had been held prisoner since September 1965, when his A-4 Skyhawk went down over North Vietnam.
In 1971, League member Mary Hoff came up with the idea of creating a flag as the group's symbol. Her husband, Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff, had been missing since January 7, 1970. Mary Hoff called the country's oldest and largest flag-maker, Annin Flagmakers of Verona, N.J.
"Mary Hoff called out of the blue. I had no idea what the League of Families was when she called," Norm Rivkees, then Annin's vice president of sales, said. "She then explained everything and I went to our president, Randy Beard. There was no hesitation. He just said: 'Absolutely. We would be honored [to create a flag].'"
Rivkees turned over the job of designing the flag to Annin's small advertising agency, Hayden Advertising, where the task was assigned to graphic artist Newton F. Heisley.
Heisley, who died in 2009, had served in World War II as a C-46 twin-engine transport pilot with the 433rd Troop Carrier Group. After coming home from the war with a Bronze Star, he received a degree in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and worked as a graphic artist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette before going to work for Hayden.
After getting the POW/MIA flag assignment, Heisley sat down at his drawing table and sketched three different designs. The one he chose had an image of a gaunt man in profile, with a guard tower and a strand of barbed wire in the background—the design that we recognize today.
When Annin began producing the flag, Heisley was still tweaking its design. He planned to add color to the black-and-white image, but those ideas were dropped.
Heisley modeled the flag's silhouette on his 24-year-old son, who was on leave from the Marines and looking gaunt while getting over hepatitis. Heisley also penned the words that are stitched on the banner, "You are not forgotten."
As Heisley told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1997, the flag "was intended for a small group. No one realized it was going to get national attention."
It took nearly a decade, but the POW/MIA flag began getting attention in a big way in the early 1980s. In 1982 it became the only flag, other than the Stars and Stripes, to fly over the White House, after it was first displayed there on POW/MIA Recognition Day. In 1989 the flag was installed in the Capitol Rotunda.
It also has the distinction, historians and flag experts believe, of being the only non-national flag that any federal government anywhere in the world has mandated to be flown regularly. That began with a 1990 law to recognize the POW/MIA flag and designate the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
In 1998, Section 1082 of the Defense Authorization Act—codified as Title 36, Section 902 of the U.S. Code—mandated that the POW/MIA flag be flown over the Capitol, the White House, the Korean and Viet-nam Veterans Memorials, the offices of the secretaries of State, Defense and Veterans Affairs, of the Selective Service System, and on the grounds or in the lobbies of every major military installation, every post office and all VA Medical Centers and national cemeteries on six days: POW/MIA Recognition Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day.
Since then, some states have passed laws that also mandate flying the POW/MIA flag. Oregon, for example, requires that the POW/MIA flag be flown on or near the state capitol on the same holidays as the national law. In Washington, a 2002 law requires every state agency, every state institution of higher education, and every county, city and town to display the flag on the same six holidays. Florida requires the flag at state parks year round. Arizona enacted a law requiring the POW/MIA flag to be flown over every town and city hall, Superior Court building and county office on the designated holidays. And in 2011, Idaho became the first state to require that the POW/MIA flag be flown over all state buildings, 24 hours a day, seven days a week "or until such time as all our unaccounted for and missing members of the Armed Forces return."
Marc Leepson, arts editor and senior writer for The VVA Veteran, is the author of seven books, including Flag: An American Biography, a history of the American flag from its beginnings to the 21st century.
History of the National League of POW/MIA Families' POW/MIA Flag
In 1971, Mrs. Michael Hoff, an MIA wife and member of the National League of Families, recognized the need for a symbol of our POW/MIAs. Prompted by an article in the Jacksonville, Florida Times-Union, Mrs. Hoff contacted Norman Rivkees, Vice President of Annin & Company which had made a banner for the newest member of the United Nations, the People's Republic of China, as a part of their policy to provide flags to all United Nations members states. Mrs. Hoff found Mr. Rivkees very sympathetic to the POW/MIA issue, and he, along with Annin's advertising agency, designed a flag to represent our missing men. Following League approval, the flags were manufactured for distribution.
The black and white image of a gaunt silhouette, a strand of barbed wire and an ominous watchtower was designed by Newt Heisley, a former World War II pilot. Some claim the silhouette is a profile of Heisley’s son, who contracted hepatitis while training to go to Vietnam. The virus ravaged his body, leaving his features hallow and emaciated. They suggest that while staring at his son’s sunken features, Heisley saw the stark image of American servicemembers held captive under harsh conditions. Using a pencil, he sketched his son’s profile, creating the basis for a symbol that would come to have a powerful impact on the national conscience.
On March 9, 1989, an official League flag, which flew over the White House on 1988 National POW/MIA Recognition Day, was installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as a result of legislation passed overwhelmingly during the 100th Congress. In a demonstration of bipartisan Congressional support, the leadership of both Houses hosted the installation ceremony.
The League's POW/MIA flag is the only flag ever displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where it will stand as a powerful symbol of national commitment to America's POW/MIAs until the fullest possible accounting has been achieved for U.S. personnel still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
On August 10, 1990, the 101st Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, which recognized the League's POW/MIA flag and designated it "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 importance of the League's POW/MIA flag lies in its continued visibility, a constant reminder of the plight of America's POW/MIAs. Other than "Old Glory", the League's POW/MIA flag is the only flag ever to fly over the White House, having been displayed in this place of honor on National POW/MIA Recognition Day since 1982.
With passage of Section 1082 of the 1998 Defense Authorization Act during the first term of the 105th Congress, the League's POW/MIA flag will fly each year on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, National POW/MIA Recognition Day and Veterans Day on the grounds or in the public lobbies of major military installations as designated by the Secretary of the Defense, all Federal national cemeteries, the national Korean War Veterans Memorial, the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the White House, the United States Postal Service post offices and at the official offices of the Secretaries of State, Defense and Veteran's Affairs, and Director of the Selective Service System.
© 1998 National League of POW/MIA 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.
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)
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
The POW/MIA Flag will be flown on the grounds or the public lobbies of major military installations as designated by the U.S. Secretary of Defense, all Federal National Cemeteries, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the White House, the United States Post Offices and at official offices of the Secretaries of State, Defense and Veterans Affairs, and Director of the Selective Service System. Civilians are free to fly the POW/MIA flag whenever they wish.
In the U.S. armed forces, the dining halls, mess halls and chow halls display a single table and chair in a corner draped with the POW-MIA flag as a symbol for the missing, thus reserving a chair in hopes of their return.
Other color patterns exist: the orange and black pattern was run by Outpost Flags at the time of Harley Davidson's 100th anniversary, so that the bikers would help keep the issue alive and in the forefront of American politics. There are red and white versions, which some say are to cover more recent military actions, but this is not official policy. There are black and red versions available as well.
The flag, to this day, is also still flown in front of most fire stations, police stations and most veterans' organizations chapters all across the United States, and is almost always present at most local and national veterans events in the United States. It is also commonly flown beneath the American flag in front of private businesses.Therefore the flag remains visible to millions of Americans on a daily basis.
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.
Updated April 14, 2008
John R. Luckey