National POW/MIA Recognition Day offers opportunity to reflect on American courage, sacrifice

The logo for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is displayed during an Aug. 8, 2018, briefing in Arlington, Va.


By DOUGLAS PERRY | The Oregonian | Published: September 22, 2018

Hundreds of balloons bearing messages of love and devotion floated up into the sky on that crisp summer morning.

"Bye, Bill," said Kay G. Main, watching the multicolored balloons drift away. "Bye, honey."

The solemn ceremony at Portland's Veterans Medical Center took place on July 20, 1984, when National POW/MIA Day was still a new commemoration. Main's late husband, William F. Main, had been a prisoner of war during World War II.

"He went through hell and back," Kay Main said that day 34 years ago.

National POW/MIA Recognition Day now falls on the third Friday in September every year and has become a fixture on the calendars of military personnel and those who support them. The message remains the same: "You are not forgotten," a call out of love and support for the families of service members who remain missing in action.

The day also commemorates prisoners of war, who "selflessly served our country, making tremendous sacrifices to defend our liberty," stated the White House on Thursday. "On National POW/MIA Recognition Day, we honor all American prisoners of war and express our deep gratitude for the courage and determination they exemplified while enduring terrible hardships."

Americans such as John McCain, the longtime U.S. senator from Arizona who died August 25 at 81. McCain, a Navy flier, famously endured more than five years of torture and deprivation as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. Americans such as Pendleton native Paul G. Graham, who died Sept. 7 at 98. Graham was a prisoner of war for more than three years during World War II.

There have been persistent misperceptions about POWs over the years, misperceptions that are finally being lost to time and increased awareness.

"Some say, 'POW? Don't you feel a little ashamed?'" Bend's Richard R. Caldwell, a prisoner of war during World War II, said in 1988. "I say, 'No. We feel right proud!' ''

Caldwell, who was a gunnery sergeant, had it right. America's prisoners of war have always represented -- and lived -- the highest of American values: courage, sacrifice, determination, love of country.

McCain, because he was the son of a prominent admiral, was singled out during his captivity for "special attention" -- meaning especially brutal treatment in hopes of making him break and publicly denounce the U.S. war effort.

"I was finding that prayer helped," he later said of his time in solitary confinement, his broken bones left untreated. "It wasn't a question of asking for superhuman strength or for God to strike the North Vietnamese dead. It was asking for moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing."

Like so many of his fellow POWs, he received that guidance and exhibited great courage, for all Americans.

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