POW-MIA BRACELETS BROUGHT ATTENTION TO THE CAUSE, SOLDIERS HOME IN 1970s
As the Vietnam War raged into the 1970s, the North Vietnamese had captured hundreds of American soldiers and airmen, with many more reported as missing in action.
A young college student took it upon herself to make sure Americans did not forget about them. Carol Bates Brown formed Voices Vital in America in 1970. The organization produced and distributed roughly five million POW and MIA bracelets throughout the Vietnam War. Each bracelet bore the name of a prisoner of war or serviceman missing in action. More than 3,500 service members in Vietnam became POW or were MIA, and her organization issued bracelets for 1,300 of them.
“On Veterans Day, November 11, 1970, we officially kicked off the bracelet program,” Brown said. “Public response quickly grew and we eventually got to the point of receiving 12,000 requests a day bringing in the money necessary to pay for brochures, bumper stickers, buttons, advertising and whatever else we could do to publicize the POW/MIA issue.”
They worked with the National League of POW/MIA Families, which formed the same year, and their combined efforts contributed to the release of 571 POWs in 1973. While the bracelet effort ended in 1976, the League refused to let the MIAs be forgotten. President Carter in 1979 designated the third Friday of September (September 18, 2020) as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
To this day the League continues to press for information about, and the remains of, 1,587 Americans still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.
Nor are the bracelets forgotten. In fact, more than 700 POW bracelets – some original and some replicated – are on display in the General Ken Miles Korea/Vietnam War Hangar at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Each bracelet is displayed with a photo of the service man and bio, and a photo of the wearer of that bracelet.
The bracelets connected many Americans to the war through those who fought it, regardless of how they felt about it politically, said Dave Thompson, a Navy Lieutenant Commander from 1964-1970, who began creating the museum’s display in 2014.
“When you wore the bracelet, that person became part of your life,” Thompson said. “You prayed for him. It’s emotional for some people even today.”
He got the idea for the exhibit after receiving a bracelet bearing the name of Colonel Norman Schmidt, shot down over North Vietnam and tortured in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain also was imprisoned. Schmidt died in 1966.
Thompson returned that bracelet to Schmidt’s family, but decided the air museum’s planned Vietnam War Hangar would be the perfect place for a large display of the bracelets. He began asking for bracelet donations, and received the first from a woman named Kristi Schnabel in February 2015, followed by another from Sheryl Benoit 10 days later. (Click here for a video of those donations).
Those triggered a wave of donations of either existing bracelets or money for the purchase of replicas. Thompson also produced a video involving nine people who once wore a bracelet in honor of a loved one or friend imprisoned or still missing in action, and what it meant to wear it. Click here for that video.
The museum, which displays 59 warplanes, is located at 745 North Gene Autry Trail in Palm Springs. Visit palmspringsairmuseum.org/ for more information. The open-air museum operates daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors must follow COVID-19 protocol that includes wearing masks and maintaining proper social distancing.