The gathering of veterans, public officials, and passersby came to remember and keep alive the memory of those who went to war, and not only did not come back, but were not heard from again.
“We are here to make sure our missing in action and prisoners of war are not forgotten,” said Roberta Buchman of Post 19 Ladies Auxiliary.
Although thousands were declared missing in action in previous wars in the 20th century, the POW/MIA movement rose out of the fears for American prisoners held by North Vietnam, and the failure of the United States government to aggressively account for those listed as missing.
Although many Americans were listed as missing because they did not meet the specific requirements the military set for categorizing them as killed in action, many family members sought closure, fueling a move to require the government to provide better accountability for those military people lost as a result of military deployment.
This movement is considered responsible for the significant change in military philosophy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which mandates that no military person be unaccounted for.
Since World War I, more than 142,000 American service members have been captured and imprisoned, more than 130,000 of them during World War II. More than 17,000 died while POWs. Since the majority of these former POWs were held during World War II and the Korean War, they are now well into their 70s, 80s and 90s.
Americans missing in action include more than 78,000 from World War II, 8,200 from Korea, and at one time 1,900 from the war in Vietnam.
A concerted effort to find the remains and account for those missing during the Vietnam war has reduced the official number. As of Sep. 2, 2009 there are 1,731 United States personnel listed by the Defense POW/MIA Office (DPMO) as missing and unaccounted for from Vietnam. New Jersey had 48 listed as missing in action, of whom Douglas O’Neill of Bayonne was one.
One MIA from Bayonne
Douglas O’Neill always wanted to fly, and after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1968 rose quickly to the rank of chief warrant officer which allowed him to operate a military helicopter in the war zone of Vietnam where he and his crew hovered over the jungle, dangerously exposed to enemy fire, supporting troops on the ground, or carrying out seriously wounded troops in lifesaving operations.
On April 3, 1972, he and three companions lifted off from Marble Mountain Airfield in Danang, one of the key American military bases in Central Vietnam.
O’Neill was 24 years old and was reportedly flying above cloud cover in the general vicinity of Quang Tri City. O’Neill, however, requested radar vectors, and radar operators believed he might be off course.
At 10 minutes after 10 a.m., communications ceased. The craft could not be located on radar. For all concerned, the helicopter had simply disappeared.
The Army searched the area between Highway 1 and the coast, but could not find any wreckage. The four men, including O’Neill, were listed as missing in action, and later the Secretary of the Army approved listing them as dead.
In Bayonne, a city that has the distinction of having the largest percentage per capita in the country of men who died in Vietnam, O’Neill stands out as the only soldier unaccounted for. Although several attempts have since been made to find O’Neill’s remains, he is still unaccounted for.
A tree, commonly called “The Freedom Tree,” was planted near 38th Street and Kennedy Boulevard in O’Neill’s honor, where family members and supporters gather each April 3 on the anniversary of his disappearance.
Keeping up the tradition
Every year, people gather on a Sunday in September to remember O’Neill and those in other wars who have not been accounted for.
Currently, there is only one known prisoner in Afghanistan.
During the ceremony, veterans explain the meaning of the POW/MIA flag, which was flown over many state capitals during the 1980s as part of a sign of solidarity with the movement. It shows a silhouette of a man in front of barbed wire and a guard tower, with the words “POW-MIA” and “You are not forgotten.”
As part of the movement, a POW/MIA Recognition Day is held each year, usually on the third Friday in September, and is one of six days mandated by Congress on which the black POW/MIA flag must be flown over federal facilities and cemeteries, post offices, and military installations.
Observances of National POW/MIA Recognition Day are held across the country on military installations, ships at sea, state capitols, schools, and veterans’ facilities.
Organized by Post 19 American Legion Auxiliary, the ceremony brought together a handful of veterans, public officials, and others to pay tribute and keep the memory alive of military people listed as missing in action or possible prisoners of war.
The MIA/POW movement was started by the League of Families who pushed in the Vietnam era to have an accounting for all the POW/MIAs. World War II had a different accounting, a mandate from the government, according to Thomas “Buck” Buchman of Post 19.
While the need to account for missing soldiers dates back to just after the American Civil War, the MIA/POW movement became a powerful force toward the end of the Vietnam War.
The ceremony also has a table and chair set up as a symbol of the chair waiting for the return of the missing solider.
The gathering sang “Where are our MIAs? Our voices loud, we raise, we want them home. They went to fight a war on a far distant shore; their voices heard no more, we want them home,” a song, written by June Young of Bayonne’s American Legion Auxiliary No. 19. They sang in front of the POW/MIA Awareness Tree, installed in Fitzpatrick Park in 1987 as part of a national movement to pay tribute to the men and women who were taken prisoner during war or counted among the missing.
Among those who gathered this year were Mayor Mark Smith, Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, Council President Terrence Ruane, Councilmen Ray Greaves, and Joseph Hurley.
“We are here to make sure that these people are not forgotten,” Ruane said. “We need to bring a light to those like Doug O’Neill who are still not accounted for.”
He said when a soldier is missing, the family is unsettled because the matter is unresolved. They don’t know what happened to the person they loved.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.