Note: Last week, Chronicles focused on my memories of wearing a POW/MIA bracelet, found at sunherald.com if you missed it. This week we learn the history of the bracelets. And next week, we look into how the national story behind one bracelet expands with Mississippi Coast connections.
The idea for metal bands bearing names of the missing in action or prisoners of war sprang from a 1970 chance meeting of two college students and a returning Vietnam War veteran.
All these decades later, the reasons for wearing the POW/MIA bracelets and the stories behind the names remain as emotionally charged as ever.
More than 5 million of the inexpensive shiny nickle and brass bracelets were minted, and college students, the first wearers, soon were joined by those much younger and older. The message of the wrist bands transcended politics, gender and age.
For most, the bracelets symbolized support of U.S. men and women in Southeast Asia without making a statement in favor of or in opposition of the controversial war.
Although the first POW/MIA bracelets were engraved in 1970 some Americans still wear them today, faithful to the pledge to keep them on until the person of that name returns home as a freed POW or in a coffin. About 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for in the Southeast Asia war.
The bracelets are born
The complicated history of that war begins in 1955 with Vietnam wanting to free itself from French colonial rule and ends in 1975 with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. A defeated America, which first sent combat troops in 1965, withdrew in 1973 and POWs were released that year.
Although histories of the bracelet sometimes credit 1970 and Bob Dornan, the Nam vet who became a U.S. Congressman from California, the broader creation story begins with the Montagnard highland tribes of Vietnam. Polynesian in appearance, these tribes spoke a different language and practiced different customs than other Vietnamese and were abused for those differences.
After the U.S. entry into the war, the Montagnards, or Yards for short, were invaluable for rescuing Americans and helping them better understand the foreign terrain. The Yards would make bracelets from brass shell casing and when an American received one, it was a sign of friendship.
Back home, Dornan wore his Montagnard bracelet as a “reminder of the suffering of so many.” Dornan, then a media personality, introduced three wives of missing pilots to two college students representing VIVA, thinking they might work together to petition Hanoi for humane POW treatment.
Viva (long live) an idea
VIVA, or Voices in Vital America, was a student movement formed in the late 1960s to counteract growing anti-war campus protests. Two VIVAs from a California State campus in Los Angeles met with Dornan and the POW wives. They learned about his Montagnard bracelet and an idea sprouted.
“We wanted to get similar bracelets to wear to remember U.S. POWs, so rather naively, we tried to figure out a way to go to Vietnam,” remembers Carol Bates Brown, who served as national chairman of VIVA’s POW/MIA Bracelet Campaign.
“Since no one wanted to fund two sorority-girl types on a tour during the height of the war, and our parents were livid at the idea, we gave up and Kay Hunter began to check out ways to make bracelets.”
Hunter eventually dropped out, leaving Brown, another student named Steve Frank and VIVA’s advisory board chairman, Gloria Coppin, to move forward on POW/MIA awareness. VIVA had no money to make bracelets but they found a willing Santa Monica engraver, Jack Zeider, who produced 10 sample bracelets.
Not many words could be engraved on a half-inch-wide band so VIVA decided on name, rank and date of loss. The students used the samples to try to raise funds from big names with little response, although later Bob Hope, Sonny & Cher, George McGovern and others helped bring awareness.
From 10 to five million
In late summer 1970 Coppin’s husband donated enough metal to make 1,200 bracelets. But what should they charge? A student movie ticket that year was $2.50 so they thought that a fair price, with $3 for copper ones. Zeider’s shop would eventually produce as many as 40,000 a week.
“It had not yet occurred to us that adults would want to wear the things, as they weren’t very attractive,” remembers Brown in an essay published on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall WEB site.
Dornan promoted the program on his TV show, and on Veterans Day 1970 the VIVA bracelet was launched. Brown and Frank quit college to keep up with the demand, as many as 12,000 requests a day.
“In all, VIVA distributed nearly five million bracelets and raised enough money to produce untold millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks, newspaper ads, etc., to draw attention to the missing men,” writes Brown, who works in the Defense Department’s POW-MIA Accounting Agency. “In 1976 VIVA closed its doors. . . . the American public was tired of hearing about Vietnam.”
But the idea didn’t die. New programs and companies that make memorial bracelets for other wars and terrorism exist. And, of course, some Americans still wear the names of the Vietnam missing.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.