The Prisoner of War / Missing In Action (POW/MIA) Flag

POW-MIA Flag

In 1971, Mrs. Michael Hoff, the wife of a U.S. military officer listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War, developed the idea for a national flag to remind every American of the U.S. service members whose fates were never accounted for during the war.  The POW/MIA flag was created by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia (National League of Families) in 1972 and designed as a symbol of citizen concern about US military personnel taken as prisoners of war (POWs) or listed as missing in action (MIA).

 

The flag soon became widely popular, and adoption of its use began to spread on its own, as the flag became a national symbol of Vietnam War remembrance.

In 1988, the flag was flown over the White House on National POW/MIA Recognition Day – and that flag was later (1989) installed in the U.S. Capitol rotunda as a result of legislation passed by the 100th Congress. The league's POW-MIA flag has the distinction of being the only flag ever displayed in the rotunda, and the only one other than the Flag of the United States to have flown over the White House.

On August 10, 1990, the 101st Congress passed U.S. Public Law 101-355, recognizing the National League of Families POW/MIA Flag and designating it "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."

There have been alterations to the flag many times; the colors have been switched from black with white to black with red, black with red white and blue, white with black.  As well, the POW/MIA has at times been revised to MIA/POW, and the “/” replaced with another symbol such as a dash or star.

In 1997, the 105th Congress passed the 1998 Defense Authorization Act, and Section 1082 set forth specific days that the POW/MIA Flag was required to fly each year:

  • Armed Forces Day, the Third Saturday in May
  • Memorial Day, the Last Monday in May
  • Flag Day, June 14
  • Independence Day, July 4
  • National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the Third Friday in September
  • Veterans Day, November 11

Section 1082 also sets specific locations that POW/MIA Flag must be flown:

  • The Capitol.
  • The White House.
  • The Korean War Veterans Memorial and the VietnamVeterans Memorial.
  • Each national cemetery.
  • The buildings containing the official office of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the Director of the Selective Service System.
  • Each major military installation, as designated by the Secretary of Defense.
  • Each medical center of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Each United States Postal Service post office

But even though the flag is only required to be flown on six days, many government buildings, such as post offices, choose to fly it all year.  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.

Beyond the wars in Southeast Asia, the flag became a symbol for POW/MIAs from all American Wars, as reflected in 36 U.S. Code § 902 - National League of Families POW/MIA flag:

The display serves -

(1) as the symbol of the Nation’s concern and commitment to achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans who, having been prisoners of war or missing in action, still remain unaccounted for; and

(2) as the symbol of the Nation’s commitment to achieving the fullest possible accounting for Americans who in the future may become prisoners of war, missing in action, or otherwise unaccounted for as a result of hostile action.

To date, more than sixteen hundred U.S. servicemen are still listed as Missing in Action in the Vietnam War, and efforts continue by certain departments of the U.S. government and the National League of Families to ascertain the fate of these missing service members.

Related information:

The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia was incorporated in the District of Columbia in 1970 on May 28. Their voting membership is comprised of wives, children, parents, siblings and other close relatives of Americans who were or are listed as Prisoners of War (POW), Missing in Action (MIA), Killed in Action/Body not Recovered (KIA/BNR) and returned American Vietnam War POWs.

In the 1980s, a schism in the group over a disagreement with the tactics the organization should employ in pursuing its goals, and disagreements about the status of missing servicemen by the 1980s, resulted in the formation of a split-off group, the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America's Missing Servicemen.

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