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National POW/MIA Recognition Day

SAF/PA 2004 Air Force Public Affairs

POW/MIA Day, 2004

Today is the day our nation has set aside to honor the heroism of a special breed of warriors - Americans who have endured captivity in enemy hands, as well as those whose fate remains unknown. Every September for the past 24 years, our nation has paused to reflect on their special brand of courage in the face of almost unimaginable hardship and abuse. 

Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, a former Air Force colonel, spent nearly seven years as a prisoner in North Vietnam after his F-4 Phantom was shot down in April 1966. Looking back on the ordeal, he said, "Until you've had our freedom denied, only then do you realize what we have in this great country of ours." Johnson recalled an inscription on the prison wall: "Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die, that the protected will never know." 

Since World War I, more than 140,000 Americans have been prisoners of war (POWs). Some of them came home alive, but many more did not. Often, their fate remains in question. For example, the Korean War ended more than 50 years ago, and yet, more than 8,100 servicemen still remain unaccounted for from that conflict. 

To paraphrase Rupert Brooke's poem, "The Soldier," wherever American heroes have fallen, there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever America. Still, whenever possible, we want to bring them home to rest in the country they loved and served so well. One year from now, in September 2005, we will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. And yet, six decades later, more than 78,000 U.S. servicemen from that war remain unaccounted for, their remains never recovered or never identified. 

One of them was Lt. William M. Lewis, Jr. In the months after the D-Day invasion, Lewis flew P-51 Mustangs in Europe with the 55th Fighter Group. On September 11, 1944, Lewis was assigned to escort the 100th Bomb Group on a bombing mission over eastern Germany. Near Oberhof, Germany, Lewis and his group encountered German fighters. Lewis' P-51 was last seen plunging into the dense forest below. His was one of 57 planes lost that day, in one of the largest air battles of the European theater. 

For almost six decades, Lewis' family knew nothing about what had become of his remains. Because Lewis' plane had gone down in what would become East Germany, their requests for information went unanswered. It was not until after the fall of the Berlin Wall that bits of information began to come together, and an investigation team was able to visit the site and recover his remains. 

In May 2001, Lewis' daughter, Sharon Lewis Cross, was able to bury her father's remains in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her father's long-awaited homecoming allowed her to close a painful chapter of her life. 

Most of us can only imagine the anguish that families like the Lewis' have endured, not knowing what happened to their loved one, hoping against hope that they might still be alive, or fearing that they are still held captive somewhere, praying for rescue. We salute the quiet courage of families who have waited, in some cases for decades, for word of a loved one's fate. 

Our solemn pledge to these families is, we will never forget their loved ones' sacrifices, and we will never cease our efforts to locate and recover their remains. We must end the anguish of uncertainty these families have endured for so long. Whatever the cost, however long it takes us, wherever it takes us, these fallen warriors will come home to the land they loved. 

A Nation at War: Pres. Bush has said, "It is not in our nature to seek out wars and conflicts. But whenever they have come, when our adversaries have left us no alternative, American men and women have stood ready to take the risks and to pay the ultimate price." 

We are once again a nation at war, with our young men and women in harm's way. As they go into battle, our Airmen must know that their country will never abandon them. Our brave men and women fighting terrorism around the globe in Afghanistan and Iraq must do so with the full confidence that if they fall in battle, we will spare no effort to bring them home. 

This is the sacred trust we owe to those who serve: If they go down in enemy territory, we will do everything in our power to rescue them. If they are captured, we will use every option available to secure their safe release. And if they should fall in battle, we pledge to bring these fallen heroes home. That is our solemn commitment. We owe them nothing less. 

One of the brighter moments leading up to last year's liberation of Iraq was the successful rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. Her West Virginia homecoming epitomized the moment all service members dream of - coming home to the welcoming arms of family and friends. 

For others of a certain age, homecoming brings to mind the indelible image of Navy Captain Jeremiah Denton arriving at Clark Air Base after enduring seven and a half years as a POW in North Vietnam's infamous "Hanoi Hilton." Denton told the families gathered on the tarmac, "We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander in Chief and to our nation for this day." Then, in a voice choked with emotion, he added, "God bless America!" 

"Difficult circumstances" is an understatement in describing what our POWs have endured. During World War II in the Pacific, some POWs were subjected to sadistic medical experiments and germ warfare tests at the hands of their captors. In all, more than 27,465 Americans were captured and interned in that theater of war. Just 16,000 made it home. In April 1942, more than 10,000 Allied forces surrendered Bataan, and were forced to march some 60 miles in the tropical heat. Many died along the way on the infamous Bataan Death March. 

Harold W. Poole was a member of the Army Air Corps' 20th Pursuit Squadron at Clark Field on the Philippines. He received a Silver Star for Valor for his actions during the Japanese attack on the Philippines in December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. But after four months of holding enemy forces at bay, U.S. forces were ordered to surrender. Poole was one of thousands who endured the Bataan Death March. "Six days and nights of pure hell," he described it. 

"We walked in stifling tropical heat, without water, food or adequate rest. We were prodded along by bayonets, and if you failed to move along fast enough, you were run through with the bayonet," Poole said. "I lost a lot of buddies on the march. I lost a lot more in the next three and a half years. Two hundred members of my squadron surrendered. Only 50 ever came home." 

Decades later, the Vietnam War produced many similar stories of courage and sacrifice. In early November 1967, Capt. Lance Sijan was on his 53rd combat mission in an F-4 Phantom over Laos. The plane was engulfed in flames almost immediately after dropping its load of bombs. Sijan ejected, but lost consciousness from the pain of a compound fracture to his leg, a crushed right hand, and severe head injuries. Despite these injuries, he managed to evade enemy troops for 45 days. 

When he was finally captured, Sijan was little more than a skeleton, covered by flesh rubbed raw from his ordeal of evasion. He was given no medical attention, and was beaten severely by his guards for refusing to provide any military information. Instead, he managed to escape, though his freedom was short-lived. After being recaptured, he developed pneumonia, but continued his escape attempts. He died of his injuries on Jan. 22. For his will to survive with honor, and to put service before self, Sijan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. 

The Search Continues: Fortunately, some servicemen managed to survive their ordeal of captivity and come home to his family and friends. But for tens of thousands of other families, war's end brought only a gnawing feeling of uncertainty. Their loved ones never came marching home, and no-one really knew what became of them. 

A dedicated group of Americans is working to change that. Defense Department recovery teams are fanning out across the globe, uncovering dozens of new crash sites, cemeteries and unmarked graves. Each site potentially holds the remains of Americans lost to their families for years. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism in Eastern Europe has opened up a legion of new opportunities for investigators seeking missing Americans from past wars. Likewise, diplomatic relations with Vietnam are slowly yielding clues from long-hidden North Vietnamese archives. Even tools of modern technology are being effectively used to bring home our war heroes. 

DNA technology is opening up a tantalizing array of possibilities. For example, it is enabling researchers to identify individuals using tiny bits of material. A fragment of bone or a single tooth may well hold the key to identifying a long-lost serviceman, and returning his remains to his loved ones. 

But just finding a potential burial or crash site is a monumental challenge. It may involve interviewing villagers who saw a plane crash years ago, or it may require hours of tedious research in dusty archives, searching for records of downed flyers in a long-ago war. The sites may be high on a windswept mountain, or choked by vegetation in a remote jungle, or they may even be underwater. The site may be strewn with unexploded bombs or mines. It is dangerous, painstaking work. But it is a task that we will see through to completion. We owe nothing less to those Americans who fell while serving their country, whether it was during World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam or Iraq. 

Just three months ago [5 June], our nation mourned the loss of a great American, President Ronald Reagan. Some sights and sounds linger in our memories: the riderless horse, the muffled sound of drums as his flag-draped casket was carried by caisson to the Capitol, and the powerful roar of a flight of F-15s flying low over Washington. Suddenly, one of the jets pulled up and streaked toward the heavens, leaving a gap in the formation. The "missing man" formation graphically symbolized that awful hole where a buddy should be, whether he was the president, or whether he or she was a trusted wingman. 

President Reagan once said, "Those who died in defense of our country ... were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives - the one they were living, and the one they would have lived. They gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers .... They gave up everything for their country, for us. All we can do is remember." 

And so, we pause to remember the sacrifices of all those who endured enemy captivity, and for those who are still missing. May they come home soon for the hero's welcome they so richly deserve. Thank you.