U.S. Military History: POW/MIA—Prisoners of War/Missing in Action

Ross Dunfee

Throughout antiquity prisoners have not been treated well by belligerent powers. Ill treatment of prisoners sent home helps to instill fear into the hearts of warriors and maybe deters conflict from fellow comrades still in combat. Some prisoners have been prosecuted for war crimes or paraded at home to demonstrate a battle victory. Some are exploited for labor, tortured for military intelligence, or indoctrinated into the captor’s political system. Regardless of the reason for the ill treatment, prisoners of war (POWs) have a bleak future until released.

During the revolutionary war, the British policy toward POWs was to provide systematic and brutal treatment of captives, and the captives were transported to other countries to prevent a return to the war. The American policy, while not always consistent, was a bit more hospitable toward the British captives. The Americans tried to demonstrate a more compassionate treatment, hoping for better treatment of colonial captives. Both sides did agree to prisoner exchanges during the war, usually with equal numbers and ranks.

Treatment during subsequent wars didn’t improve much until The Laws and Customs of War on Land was released in The Hague, Netherlands on Oct. 18, 1907 to address the treatment of prisoners. Those provisions were expanded at the Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929 relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, and that document was largely revised at the Third Geneva Convention, August 12, 1949, with release of the articles of international law known as the Geneva Convention. The Convention’s purpose was to secure humane treatment of POWs. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.

So how many U.S. POW/MIAs still exist from the various wars? According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency:

* World War II—73,515

* Korean War—7,841

* Vietnam War—1,626

* Cold War—126

* Conflicts since 1991—6

So why the reduction of POW/MIAs in each war? Because with reduced platoon/company size there is less likelihood of soldiers being cut off from their unit; improved defensive strategy resisting enemy fire; higher quality of troops and troop strategy; fewer troops deployed in a conflict, improved weaponry, and a number of other factors.

On May 2, 1970 the National League of POW/MIA Families was established, and a flag soon followed. With a desire for wide distribution the flag was designed without either trademark or copyright. The League’s flag is the only flag ever displayed in the U.S. Rotunda as a symbol of determination to account for U.S. personnel still missing from the Vietnam and subsequent wars. The 101st Congress passed PL 101-355 on Aug. 10, 1990, recognizing the POW/MIA flag as the symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to our POW/MIA patriots.

National POW/MIA Recognition Day, proclaimed by Congress in 1998, is observed on the third Friday of September. The purpose of that day is to honor those who were/are prisoners of war and those who are still missing in action. In the armed forces, a single table and chair draped with the POW/MIA flag are displayed in mess/dining halls, symbolizing hope for the return of those still missing in action. The motto of the National League of POW/MIA Families is: You are not forgotten! Let’s help make that true.

On the third Friday of September each year, Support Our Troops-Arizona will display POW/MIA flags at the entrance to Robson Ranch. Visit www.sotaz.org to learn more.