PHENIX CITY, Ala. (WRBL) – Friday, September 16 is National Prisoner of War/MIA Appreciation Day. In observance of this, the American Legion, Fletcher-McCollister Post 135, in partnership with the Fort Benning CSM Association, hosted a ceremony Friday at the Phenix City Amphitheater.
Commander Nancy Jones welcomed everyone and the Russell County High School JROTC team 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 a movement to recognize POWs and missing persons began around the early 1970s. He said he was stationed at NAS Oceana, an air base naval at the time.
“And my unit was responsible for training pilots and navigators for missions in Vietnam,” he said. “We haven’t had a first name with a lot of the officers, but we recognize them. We recognize their name. So every time we heard of someone being shot, or becoming a prisoner of war or missing in action, they started a campaign to wear a rubber strap.
Hutchinson said there are currently 82,500 unaccounted military personnel.
The guest speaker at the event was retired Colonel Biff Hadden.
“A lot of the time when we come together to honor or recognize, it’s a form of celebration,” Hadden said. “This kind of recognition today really isn’t a holiday. It’s a very solemn day.
Hadden said National Prisoner of War/MIA Appreciation Day was started by former President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
“What is a prisoner of war? he said. “Every member of the armed forces raises their right hand and takes the oath of allegiance and agrees to serve our country, to go wherever we are sent, to do whatever we are told to do. We are actually giving the government a blank cheque.
If a soldier is taken prisoner during a battle, he becomes a prisoner of war, he declared.
“A prisoner has no rights,” he said. “You can’t talk unless you’re asked to talk. You don’t have the ability to do anything other than what your captor allows you to do. We think of this in terms of a short time frame.
Hadden said he met Navy Captain Jerry Coffee, who was shot. Coffee had shared his experience with Hadden.
“He said: ‘While I was on reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam, flying a jet fighter, I was shot down by enemy fire, parachuted to safety and captured by enemy ground forces. . “
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, 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. It was extremely important to comfort each other and each other. When you knew the man in the next cell was down and in pain, his feet locked in ankle cuffs at the foot of a concrete slab, his hands cuffed tightly behind him, you had to encourage yourself each other.
Hadden said the coffee would end each day by typing, “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, unverified, unrecovered,” he said. “So the search continues to find out what happened. And that search is endless.
During World War II, 130,201 servicemen were captured by enemy forces and 14,072 died as prisoners, Hadden said. During the Korean War, 7,140 servicemen were captured and 2,701 died in captivity. During the Vietnam War, 725 servicemen were captured and 64 of them died in captivity.
“Thank you for taking the time today to reflect on the sacrifices your service members of all branches endured when captured or missing and the sacrifices of their families,” Hadden said. “We don’t need to debate the old discussion of a justifiable war, a winnable war, whether the war is good or bad. The war is coming. It is our duty to ensure that we remember the dedication and sacrifice of those who raise their right hands.
Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Nelson ended the ceremony by tap dancing.