HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — Each year since 1989, a presidential proclamation gathers the nation to remember and honor Armed Forces members who remain missing in action or are prisoners of war.
The third Friday in September serves as a call to action, reminding the nation to rededicate our efforts in bringing our patriots home and to care for our military families awaiting word of their loved ones.
The local chapter of the Air Force Sergeants Association sponsored a POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony breakfast Sept. 20 at the Hubbard Memorial Golf Course, where Team Hill honored prisoners of war and those still missing in action.
The Hill Honor Guard placed a dress uniform cap from each of the five branches of service at the at the POW/MIA table, symbolizing those who were not able to attend the event.
Penny Falkner, executive secretary and financial officer for the POW/MIA Awareness Organization of Utah, put into perspective the deplorable conditions our prisoners of war endured and told the efforts made to find those missing in action.
“Clear your minds of everything else and think of what it must have been like to be a prisoner of war,” she said. “These prisoners were kept in dark, damp, bug infested, closet-like cells. Most were not larger than 5-by-8 in size. Bodies that were built for motion were confined to these boxes. Active minds were forced to be idol with the nothingness of four dingy walls. Men trained to fly sophisticated machines at record-breaking speeds and incredible heights were caged and treated like animals.”
Falkner reminded the group that these prisoners were kept alone, most of the time. There was little to no food, constant torture and continued interviews in an attempt to get them to break.
“They had no wife to kiss, no child to hold, no friend to embrace or hand to shake,” she said.
Bringing a note of hope to the solemn event, Falkner said in this past fiscal year, 183 formerly missing in action have been recovered, identified, returned to their families and been given proper military funerals with honors. This includes 120 from World War II, 57 from Korea and six from Vietnam.
Time is the biggest enemy in finding our fallen patriots because witnesses to where the deceased may be buried are increasingly hard to find. Urbanization is affecting burial areas and alkalinity of the soil in Vietnam is degrading the remains.
Repatriation teams of forensic anthropologists, dentists, medical examiners and historians hire local nationals who lead them to burial sites and guide them on where to dig. Contracts are bargained with farmers to dig in their fields for up to two years to excavate the land and look for remains. Most of the work is done by hand because of the fragility of the remains.
“They use big trays with mesh nets,” Falkner said. “They dig and pour it in there and shake it out. The dirt falls through and anything of interest stays on top. It’s similar to panning for gold.”
The number of those still missing is staggering at more than 82,000, including 72,669 from WWII, 7,624 from Korea, 1,587 from Vietnam, 126 from the Cold War and five from the Gulf Wars.
Just prior to Tech. Sgt. David Wilcken, 729th Air Control Squadron, closing the ceremony with a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace, Falkner gave a final plea for remembrance.
“These men enlisted, knowing they could be killed, wounded, or even taken prisoner. But they did not enlist to be forgotten. Please don’t let them ever be forgotten,” she said.