PHENIX CITY, Ala. (WRBL) – Friday, Sept. 16 is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. In observance of this, The American Legion, Fletcher-McCollister Post 135, in partnership with CSM Association of Fort Benning, held a ceremony Friday at the Phenix City Amphitheater.
Commander Nancy Jones welcomed everyone, and the JROTC team from Russell County High School gave a color guard performance. Jeff Gibson led the invocation, Valerie Billingsley sang the national anthem and Steve Jillson of Post 135 led the pledge of allegiance.
Post 135 member Earl Hutchinson said that a movement to recognize prisoners of war and those missing in action began around the early 1970s. He said he was stationed at NAS Oceana, a Naval air base, at the time.
“And my unit was responsible for training the pilots and navigators for the missions over in Vietnam,” he said. “We did not get on a first name basis with a lot of the officers, but we recognize them. We recognize their name. So whenever we heard of somebody being shot down, or they became a POW or were listed missing in action, they started a campaign for wearing a rubber bracelet.”
Hutchinson said that there are currently 82,500 service members not accounted for.
The guest speaker at the event was retired Col. Biff Hadden.
“Most days when we get together to honor or recognize, it’s a form of celebration,” Hadden said. “This kind of recognition today is really not a celebration. It’s a very solemn day.”
Hadden said National POW/MIA Recognition Day was started by former President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
“What is a prisoner of war?” he said. “Every member of the Armed Services raises their right hand and takes the oath of allegiance and agrees to serve our country, go wherever we are sent, do whatever we’re told to do. We’re actually issuing the government a blank check.”
If a service member is taken prisoner during the course of a battle, they become a prisoner of war, he said.
“A prisoner has no rights,” he said. “You can’t speak unless you’re asked to speak. You have no ability to do anything but what your capturer authorizes you to do. We think of that in terms of a short time frame.”
Hadden said he had met Navy Captain Jerry Coffee, who had been shot down. Coffee had shared his experience with Hadden.
“He said, ‘While flying reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, piloting a jet fighter, I was shot down by enemy fire, parachuted to safety and captured by enemy forces on the ground.’”
Hadden said Coffee spent seven years and nine days in Hanoi in a series of communist prisons.
“He said, ‘Just to put that in perspective, that seven years and nine days is 2,600 or 2,564 days,’” Hadden said. “He said, ‘We created a tap code. We couldn’t talk. This was extremely important in giving comfort and solace to one another. When you knew that the man in the next cell was down and hurting, his feet locked in ankle cuffs at the foot of a concrete slab, his hands cuffed tightly behind him, you needed to encourage one another.”
Hadden said Coffee would end every day by tapping out, “Good night. God bless America.” A prisoner who had previously occupied Coffee’s cell had carved “God equals strength” into the wall.
“Missing in action usually means killed, not verified, not recovered,” he said. “So the search goes on to find out what happened. And that search is endless.”
In World War II, 130,201 service members were captured by enemy forces, and 14,072 died as prisoners, Hadden said. In the Korean War, 7,140 service members were captured and 2,701 died in captivity. In the Vietnam War, 725 service members were captured, and 64 of them died in captivity.
“Thank you for taking time today to reflect on the sacrifices your military from every branch have endured when captured or missing and the sacrifices of their families,” Hadden said. “We don’t need to debate the age-old discussion of a justifiable war, a winnable war, if war is right or wrong. War happens. It’s our obligation to take care of remembering the dedication and sacrifice of those who raise their right hand.”
Lt. Col. Samuel Nelson ended the ceremony by playing taps.