The History and Meaning Behind the POW/MIA Flag

The History and Meaning Behind the POW/MIA Flag

The POW/MIA Flag is so esteemed in the United States' that federal laws mandate it fly over the Capitol, the White House, and most government offices.

This iconic black flag depicts a soldier in white silhouette standing in front of barbed wire and a guard tower. Its famous motto, conceived by a World War II veteran, reads "You Are Not Forgotten."

The Prisoner of War/Missing in Action flag flies below the Stars and Stripes full time across most of this country. Historians say this flag is a stark reminder of American sacrifice and consider it the most popular U.S. flag created in the last 50 years.

In the following post, we'll explore the history behind the MIA/POW Flag and what it signifies to our nation.

The Beginnings of The POW/MIA Flag

In the 1960s, families of missing servicemen were concerned about the U.S.'s stance on prisoners of war in Vietnam.

A West Coast group of families dedicated to this issue would gradually grow in size and adopt the name The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Its name was later shortened to The National League of POW/MIA Families. According to the League's website, the U.S.'s request that families of POWs not discuss their issues with the public and the press was deemed "unwarranted" by the organization.

The group's emerging prominence was such that representatives met with North Vietnamese leaders in Paris to discuss prisoners of war.

On May 28, 1970, the League incorporated and adopted its official rules and bylaws. It is made up of family members, blood relatives, and legal representatives American POWs and soldiers classified of MIA. Other members include the families of soldiers considered "killed in action/body not recovered" and returned Vietnam prisoners of war.

The National League of POW/MIA Families continues today to be a powerful advocate for veterans issues and was instrumental in establishing the National POW/MIA Recognition Day, observed on the third Friday in September.

POW/MIA Recognition Day was first commemorated by presidential proclamation by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

A Flag Takes Shape

In 1970, Mary Hoff came up with the idea of a POW/MIA Flag. Her husband, Lieutenant Commander Michael Hoff, was declared missing in action after his plane was shot down over Laos.

The mother of five's inspiration for the flag came after reading an article in the Jacksonville (Florida) Times-Union newspaper.

Norman Rivkees was then Vice President of the Annim & Company. The New Jersey company had made a United Nations banner for the recently joined the People's Republic of China. Hoff reached out to Rivkees and expressed her wish for a flag for POWs and MIA soldiers. This flag would serve as a constant reminder of their plight and that of their families.

Rivkees agreed to help and assigned commercial designer "Newt" Heisley to the project.

Heisley has said that the POW/MIA flag was intended for a limited group. He told a Colorado newspaper that no one thought it would become so popular.

Heisley came up with the flag's motto, "You Are Not Forgotten," by taping his experience flying cargo in the South Pacific during World War II. He was quoted in the book "Faith Under Fire" as saying that he was reminded of his time flying in World War II while working on the flag and he jotted down the words, "You are not forgotten."

But it was Hoff's idea for the flag's stark color scheme. In a 2009 Times-Union article, Hoff told the newspaper she requested that the POW/MIA Flag not have a lot of colors.

Helen Hoff died in 2015 at the age of 84.

More Flag Facts

Since its first iteration in 1971, the POW/MIA Flag has undergone some notable changes and seen some historical moments. Here are a few:

  • The flag's colors have changed from black-on-white to white-on-black and back again. It has also been red, white, and blue.
  • Some versions of the flag had MIA/POW instead of today's POW/MIA.
  • No copyright on the flag was sought to make reproduction easier.
  • Besides the Stars and Stripes, the POW/MIA flag is the only flag to fly over the White House.
  • President Ronald Regan was the first president to order the flag raised on federal grounds.
  • The POW/MIA flag was the first flag ever raised in the Capitol Rotunda.

Legislation and The POW/MIA Flag

Congress has passed legislation designed to raise The National League of POW/MIA Families' flag across the country.

In 1989, legislation passed by the 100th Congress established the flying of the POW/MIA flag in the Capitol Rotunda and across the country.

In 1990, the 101st Congress passed a law that affirmed the flag and the U.S.'s "commitment" to "Americans still a prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia."

Expansion to Most Federal Grounds

President Donald J. Trump expanded where and when the POW/MIA flag would fly by signing new legislation into law in November of 2019.

Before 2019, the flag was flown only at select federal sites or on certain days like Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, or POW/MIA Remembrance Day.

But the 2019 law expanded the continuous flying of the POW/MIA Flag at a majority of federal sites, including VA hospitals, post offices, cemeteries, and national parks.

Veterans groups across the country backed the bipartisan measure. “This is a historic victory for every man and woman who courageously defended this nation and remain unaccounted for,” said VFW National Commander William “Doc” Schmitz at the time of the signing.

A National Icon

Helen Hoff had originally intended the POW/MIA Flag for just a few members of The National League of POW/MIA Families. But the flag now has a much larger role and recognition. It's symbolism, historians and veterans groups say, goes well-beyond the Vietnam War and now represents the plight of POW and MIA soldiers everywhere American soldiers fight.

Sadly, no remains of Hoff's husband were ever recovered from Southeast Asia.

Feel free to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. To get your own POW/MIA Flag, or other U.S. flags, shop here.

Oct 20th 2020

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