With dusk settling around them and rush hour traffic making its way up and down Avenue C on Sept. 16, a handful of veterans and American Legion Auxiliary members solemnly sang the POW/MIA song.
Kids playing nearby looked over curiously. Some people passing along the sidewalk frowned, wondering perhaps why this group of about 10 people stood before a small twisted tree and 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.”
“There should be thousands of people filling this park.” – Mayor Mark Smith
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 back home sought closure of one kind or another, 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, with more than 130,000 of them taking place during World War II. More than 17,000 died while interned as 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 Conflict 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.
The POW/MIA flag, which was flown over many state capitals during the 1980s as part of a sign of solidarity with the movement, 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.
Mayor Mark Smith, who was the only public official to attend the ceremony, said he was upset by the fact that so few people came to attend the ceremony.
“There should be thousands of people filling this park,” he said.
Those who attended included Robert and Tom Buchanan, Mary and Bill Chwalyk, Will and Krystle Chwalyk, as well as Laura Baccarella.
Catherine Long led the small group in prayer, followed by Diane Gaunya’s leading of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Then to the recorded tunes of “Taps,” Jim Noble lighted the memorial candle at the base of the tree. Debra Noble and Mayor Smith tied yellow ribbons to the street.
“This ribbon is tied in support of all the active military from the City of Bayonne that should return to us safely,” Noble said.