The POW/MIA flag is recognized as the global symbol for remembering soldiers missing in action or held prisoner during wartime; however, the flag’s origin story is perhaps less known. It all began with a grassroots movement in the 1960s, led by wives and mothers of U.S. soldiers who wanted to ensure POWs and those missing in action were not forgotten.
Ann “Pat” Mearns was one of the founding members of that groups, later known collectively as the League of Wives. “As the wife of someone who was serving in an unpopular war, I saw a lot of disrespect for the soldiers,” said Mearns. “My children were even spat on.”
Mearns says she grew further disheartened by the apathy shown toward soldiers who were missing or taken prisoner.
Her husband, Air Force fighter pilot Major Arthur “Art” Mearns, was shot down over North Vietnam in November 1966. It would be 11 years before Pat Mearns would receive confirmation that her husband had been killed.
Mearns recently visited Chipley’s POW/MIA memorial and meet with Cheryl Gainer McCall, daughter of her best friend, Dorothy Gainer and Lt. Col. Giles Gainer, who was Art Mearns’ squadron mate in the 80th Tactical Fighter Squadron. McCall presented Mearns with the POW bracelet bearing Arthur Mearns’ name that Lt. Col. Gainer kept in his honor while Mearns recalled the events leading up to making the POW/MIA remembrance efforts a worldwide movement.
“Some of us wives felt as though those men were being forgotten, the men who were missing in action or POWs,” she said. “We decided – some of us individually and some of us as a group – that we would make it known that they were being forgotten. And so, we did. We came forward. We became known throughout the United States.”
Mearns, who resided near Los Angela, California at the time, began by writing letters – more than 200, she recalls – to senators and congressional representatives. Her children, who she notes were “still quite young” at the time, helped by licking stamps and sealing envelopes.
“I got mad because I saw a lot of things that I felt were going on in the U.S. at that particular time, and I spoke up. I became one of the wives who went around the world and did a lot of work going to see the congressmen. We needed to hear something about the military fellows that were being lost and missing in action. We refused to be silent”
Mearns notes that finding and networking with other wives was different in the 1960s than it would be today.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “That was before the internet. We used the mail a lot.”
It wasn’t long before Mearns learned of Sybil Stockdale, whose husband – U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale – had also been shot down over Vietnam.
“[Stockdale] had been holding meetings with other wives at her home,” said Mearns. “She had her ‘kitchen cabinet.’ But then, it grew and became the ‘dining room cabinet.’ We were all unhappy because the government was not speaking up for our fellas.”
The League of Wives would eventually grow to represent more than 1,500 mothers and wives of American POW and MIA soldiers, all demanding the U.S. government denounce inhumane treatment suffered by POWs.
Mearns and Stockdale were among several wives who attended the Paris Peace Talks in 1968 to advocate for the soldiers.
“We were never a formal organization, but we found each other,” said Mearns. “While we were at the Paris Peace Talks, we were able to speak to the North Vietnamese delegation, but they didn’t want to hear our pleas for humane treatment; they just wanted to accuse our men of atrocious acts like bombing hospitals. I’m not going to say that things didn’t happen during wartime; they always do – but not only do I know my husband would have refused such an act, that’s all they focused on.”
Mearns says in addition to helping honor American POW and MIA soldiers, the movement helped highlight the group’s determination to advocate for their loved ones, as well as others.
“During that time, women were a long time coming into importance,” she said. “Never doubt what a woman can accomplish.”