Former POW Recognition Day is a day that, while not as well-known as National POW/MIA Recognition Day, is just as important. The word “former” is the key to remembering the major difference between these two events honored every year on their respective days. The late Senator John McCain is a former POW. His memory and the memories of many others who came home from POW camps are on the minds of those who observe both holidays. And there are troops still unaccounted for to this day who should be remembered in the same manner as those who came home.
National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day will be observed on Friday, April 9, 2021.
“On National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, we honor the more than 500,000 American warriors captured while protecting our way of life. We pay tribute to these patriots for their unwavering and unrelenting spirit.
In every major conflict in our Nation’s history, American prisoners of war (POWs) have stared down our enemies, knowing at any moment their captors might torture them yet again or even kill them. These patriots, however, knew that they were fighting for something much larger than individual survival. They persevered for the sake of their fellow POWs, comrades in arms, families, and country.”
Excerpt of Presidential Proclamation on National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, 2020
National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day
National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day is a day to honor captured wartime service members who eventually came home. It is observed annually on April 9th, and commemorates the surrender of between 60,000 and 80,000 US and Filipino service members to the Imperial Japanese army at the Bataan Peninsula, Philippines in 1942.
The initial day of recognition was created by joint resolution during the 100th Congress, and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on April 8, 1987. A later joint resolution designated April 9, 1988 and April 9, 1989 as days of recognition, which President Reagan signed into law on March 28, 1988. The law requires that the sitting president issue an annual proclamation regarding observance of the day.
How to Observe #FormerPOWRecognitionDay
Government officials, veterans, civic and private organizations observe the day with ceremonies and events. Some states require organizations and government facilities to fly the POW/MIA flag on this day.
Honor former POWs by helping to organize events. Ensure your organization flies the POW/MIA flag. Volunteer to help a veteran organization. Use hash tag #FormerPOWRecognitionDay on social media and support others who do post their messages to help bring awareness to do this day.
National POW/MIA Recognition Day
National POW/MIA Recognition Day is a day of remembrance to honor wartime service members captured and/or missing who are still unaccounted for. While not a national holiday, it is annually observed through commemoration ceremonies and services held nationally on the 3rd Friday of September.
Across the country, military installations fly the National League of Families’ POW/MIA flag, while veterans hold rallies in several states. The Pentagon holds remembrance ceremonies, and other events are held both nationally and internationally: at state capitals, at war museums and memorials, at schools, on military installations, and so on.
National POW/MIA Recognition Day posters are also displayed in various public places to raise awareness about the ongoing efforts to bring POW and MIA service members home.
Private organizations, such as the VFW and the American Legion, also hold ceremonies.
The American Legion also implemented the POW/MIA Empty Chair Program at its National Convention.
This program involves having a designated empty chair at every official meeting, to serve as a visual and tangible reminder of all who are still held prisoner or are unaccounted for, and the continued effort to bring these service members home.
The Backstory of National Former POW Recognition Day
It is said that the Vietnam War is the conflict most closely associated with POW/MIA Day in terms of what inspired the occasion and who was motivated to push for its recognition. In the same way, specific wartime events which inspired the formal creation of Former POW Recognition Day occurred during WWII following the surrender of US and Filipino service members at the Bataan Peninsula.
Dubbed the Bataan Death March, on April 9, 1942, the Imperial Japanese army began to force-march the American and Filipino POWs from Mariveles, situated at the tip of the Bataan Peninsula, 65 miles away to a train station in San Fernando.
It has been estimated that over 20,000 men died on the march to San Fernando. During the march, American and Filipino POWs were beaten, robbed, starved, tortured, denied medical care, and executed by Imperial Japanese service members.
The original intent of Former POW Recognition Day is focused on the events described above and on World War Two in general, but over the decades the emphasis on POWs overall has expanded greatly.
A Brief History of POW/MIA Recognition Day
POW/MIA Recognition Day came into being relatively recently. Prior to 1979, no official federal ceremonies or days of recognition and remembrance were held to honor either MIA or POW service members.
This began to change during the legislative session of the 96th Congress. On June 4th, 1979, Congress passed a joint resolution to declare July 18th as National MIA/POW Recognition Day, and President Jimmy Carter issued the first proclamation for this day to be “a day dedicated both to all former American prisoners of war as well as those still missing and to their families.”
Commemorative services were held at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, and the 1st Tactical Squadron out of Langley AFB, Virginia, flew a Missing Man Formation. After this initial Recognition Day, subsequent annual days of observance continued to be held from 1980 to 1985.
During each of these years, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation for POW/MIA Recognition Day. In 1986, the date of observance was moved to the third Friday of September, where it remains to this day.
Is There A Connection Between The Two Days of Recognition?
While there is no formal or official connection between the two, a search for one day will provide links for the other day in search results. This may cause confusion regarding the purpose and significance of each day. However, both days share the distinction of raising awareness regarding POWs.
According to recent Defense MIA/POW Accounting Agency statistics, service members from the following conflicts remain unaccounted for:
- 1,589 service members from the Vietnam War
- 7,761 service members from the Korean War
- 126 service members from the Cold War
- 72,719 service members from WWII
With 82,195 service members MIA or POW, this issue may benefit from added visibility, regardless of which day it occurs.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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