Missing in Action: How Military Families Spurred the MIA Movement
“MIA” means ineffective, a term used to refer to members of the armed forces who have not returned from military service and whose whereabouts are unknown. Since ancient times, soldiers have gone to war and never returned, their fate is unknown. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, families of American AIMs began to organize to demand accounting. The hunt continues. As of May 2020, 1,587 US military personnel are still missing in Southeast Asia.
How many Americans are still missing?
The Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency, the Ministry of Defense agency responsible for tracing MIAs, reported in May 2020 that 81,900 Americans were still considered to be MIAs: 72,598 of World War II, 7,580 of the Korean War, 1,587 of Vietnam, 126 of the Cold War and six of conflicts since 1991. Advances in DNA technology, increased access to crash sites or battlefields in territory previously hostile to Americans and the ongoing international negotiations have helped to close more and more open files.
However, the issue of AIM remains controversial, with charges of concealment by the government continuing to generate distrust among the families of the missing, particularly with regard to repatriation efforts in Korea and Vietnam.
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Korean War MIA
Because the Korean War never officially ended – no peace treaty has ever been officially signed – the recovery of American remains is complicated. Persistent tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to hinder the process.
In Korea, the advance of American forces buried their dead in temporary cemeteries, assuming that they could return and claim the bodies once the war was won, as they did during the Second World War. When the victory in Korea did not materialize, neither did access to these burial sites. Then there were the battles that the Americans lost that prevented the registration and burial of fallen soldiers, such as the Battle of Chosin, where 1,200 Marines were lost.
Unregistered deaths in prison camps have also contributed to the high number of MIAs in Korea: the RAND Corporation maintains that a third of captured Americans died in captivity in the first year of the war, and the New york times reports that approximately 1,500 Americans are said to be buried in unmarked graves beneath former POW camps.
Did you know? Army Pfc. Wayne A. “Johnnie” Johnson, a prisoner of war in North Korea, risked his life to secretly register the names of 496 fellow prisoners who died during their captivity. He was then awarded the Silver Star, the third highest military combat decoration in the country for its value.
Vietnam War MIA
The Paris peace accords marking the end of the Vietnam War were signed on January 27, 1973. The United States agreed to withdraw all its troops and dismantle American bases in exchange for the release of all prisoners of war Americans detained by the North Vietnamese. In February, Operation Homecoming broadcast on American television shows the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese prison camps. On March 29, 1973, 591 soldiers were said to have returned and President Richard Nixon announced: “For the first time in 12 years, no American military force is in Vietnam. All our American prisoners of war are on the way back. At the time, 1,303 Americans were still missing.
Over the years, there have been rumors of the men left behind and discrepancies in the number of missing from the number of indignant MIA families returned – as have reports of mismanagement and misidentification of American remains. Action movies like those of 1983 Rare value and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) fictitiously attempted to save living soldiers from captivity in Vietnam. In 1991, a Wall Street newspaper A survey found that 69 percent of Americans thought there were still living AIMs held in captivity in Southeast Asia.
National League of POW / MIA Families
Sybil Stockdale was determined to bring her husband, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, home to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton”, where Senator John McCain was detained. She joined other families of MIA to form the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a non-profit organization formed in May 1970 with the mission of “obtaining the release of all prisoners, as complete as possible representing the missing and repatriation of all salvageable remains of those who died in the service of our nation during the Vietnam War. “
“The biggest motivation for all these families is uncertainty,” says Ann Mills-Griffiths, Chairman of the Board and CEO of National League of POW / MIA Families. “Uncertainty is a killer. It’s a great motivator to get involved… It’s better to find out what happened to the missing than to be constantly in a state of uncertainty and frustration that there is nothing you can do about it, ”she said. declared. “The families were desperate, there was so much misinformation circulating. No one wanted to talk about the veterans who had been ignored. “
The POW / MIA flag and the POW / MIA recognition day
The symbol of the POW / MIA movement is the POW / MIA flag, an original idea of Mary Hoff, whose husband, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff was missing in Laos. World War II veteran Newton Heisley, a former Air Force pilot, designed the flag in 1972 using his son Marine as a model for the famous black and white flag silhouette.
In 1979, Congress declared the third Friday in September to be National POW / MIA Day. From 1982, it became the day the POW / MIA flag was raised above the White House just below the American flag – the only other flag to do so.
In 1998, Congress ordered that the POW / MIA flag also be hoisted on holidays such as Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day. In November 2018, it became mandatory to display the flag at certain federal sites throughout the year, including the White House and memorials such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the WWII Memorial.
For MIA families, the flag and these memorials serve as places of memory. “The whole theory was that we need – Vietnam veterans need – a place where they would be recognized,” said Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
During the George HW Bush administration, the Senate convened a special committee on prisoners of war / MIA chaired by Vietnam veteran John Kerry to investigate whether American prisoners were left in Asia or not. South East. After the testimony of senior officials like Henry Kissinger, the committee concluded: “Although the committee has evidence suggesting the possibility that a prisoner of war has survived so far, and although some information remains to be investigated, it There is, for the moment, no convincing evidence which proves that an American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia. “
Efforts to recover the bodies of American MIAs continue. For years, recovery efforts in Southeast Asia have been hampered by a lack of resources, governments have been wary of letting Americans and locals who remember the conflict too well, says Sompatana “Tommy” Phisayavong, Defense analyst researcher who works with teams retrieve remains of the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos.
Phisayavong found that over time, people are more willing to help in recovery efforts: “I feel that now, when I go on a mission, people cooperate openly … The first time, the villagers did not fully cooperated. Ten years later, we try again … and there it is, and they say, “At the time, we couldn’t tell you.” ”
Phisayavong says he understands how conditions change over time. He fled the war as a child in the 1970s and has since returned to Laos more than 100 times as part of the Joint Casualty Resolution Center, translating for archaeologists who unearth American remains. As he says, “It’s always so rewarding once you pick up someone and send them back to the family.”