POW stands for “Prisoner of War.” It is a title that has been given to US service members who have endured being captured by foreign entities, many of which have suffered unimaginable circumstances. In honor of National Former POW Recognition Day, we’re going to take a look at the brave souls who suffered as prisoners of war, as well as those who went missing in action (MIA).
The Horrors POWs Endured
Nearly half of the POWs during World War II never made it home. The ones that were allowed to live after being captured were subjected to many horrors. Tech. Sgt. Richard Peterson recounts that he and three other men were taken to a Japanese commander after being captured. The commander alternated between questioning and beating them from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Sgt. Peterson lost many of his fellow officers that day, most of which were executed. Those attempting to escape were typically caught and killed on the spot, along with the rest of the soldiers in their unit.
The soldiers who were captured by the Japanese during WWII were severely underfed. Experts gather that the men were probably only receiving 700 calories a day while simultaneously expending thousands of calories through forced labor. The Japanese kept track of each prisoner’s weight to make sure the prisoner had only enough food to remain alive and able to work.
The manual labor soldiers were forced to perform was brutal. Pvt. Dan Crowley states that they once had to build a runway for the Japanese, all with hand tools such as shovels, picks, axes, and saws. Additionally, many were forced to carry buckets full of rocks on their backs up the mountain in order to complete a rail bed. No matter what the work entailed, soldiers who weren’t working hard or fast enough were beaten, sometimes until death.
Experiences like these were, unfortunately, not limited to POWs of WWII. One soldier’s story, like many others, still hasn’t reached its full conclusion. In 1968, the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea. Ralph McClintock recalls the 11 months that he and more than 80 U.S. soldiers were tortured by the North Korean military.
The USS Pueblo still remains in North Korean custody to this day, displayed as a triumph of the North Korean forces. McClintock recalls the one thing that helped him get through this tumultuous time was the phrase “remember the Pueblo.” Remembrance is what has helped many soldiers push through their time as POWs, and it’s one of the reasons the iconic POW phrase, “You are not forgotten” is proudly displayed on POW/MIA patches and flags.
These are only two stories out of hundreds of thousands of POWs. In fact, POWs are being found or accounted for even today. From WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars/other conflicts, there are still more than 81,500 POW/MIA. A shocking 75% of those missing are presumed to be located in the Indo-Pacific region, while more than 41,000 of those missing are thought to be lost at sea.
The Effects of Being a POW
Many soldiers, sailors, aircrew, and marines have been deeply affected after being subjected to the horrors that come with being a prisoner of war. Not only were prisoners affected during their time of imprisonment, but it’s not uncommon for lasting effects to remain with soldiers for the remainder of their lives.
Some have disabilities that cannot be seen, like anxiety, PTSD, and depression. Some report having been hit repeatedly on the head by their captors, leaving them with very little short-term memory. Many have lasting digestive problems, tooth problems, arthritis, and more.
It’s difficult to even begin to describe the mental damage done to former POWs. For many of those generations who were involved in the wars that took place decades ago, therapy has been seen as a sign of weakness. It’s an unfortunate reality that many have neglected to seek adequate mental health care. Even those who scored well when it came to stress/coping capabilities before becoming a POW emerged on the other side of their experience with significant psychiatric illness.
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The Birth of POW Recognition Day
On April 9th, 1942, 78,000 troops (American and Filipino) were surrendered and taken captive by the Japanese during WWII. This was the largest group of soldiers to be surrendered in U.S. history. The troops began what is now called the “Bataan Death March.” Hundreds of troops were brutally beaten, starved, and killed on their journey to the POW camps, where several thousand more troops continued to perish.
In 1984, former POWs led a movement to create a day to recognize the atrocities they suffered. They chose April 9th for their day of recognition in honor of those who suffered as POWs in 1942. Congress approved the recognition day in 1988, and President Ronald Reagan made a proclamation to set the date.
The observation of National Former POW Recognition Day has continued thanks to legislation and Presidential Proclamations. The purpose of the day is to honor those who have endured the horrors of being a POW and returned home once again.
Resources for POWs
As a POW, you can get help in many forms, whether you need help with physical ailments or mental health care. The VA offers resources for the treatment and care of many ailments, including things like depressive neurosis, PTSD, post-traumatic osteoarthritis, stroke, and much more. If you or a loved one are a former POW in need of VA assistance, please click here.
Whether you recognize POW/MIA by volunteering or attending a local event, or you just commemorate the day on your own, we offer a variety of patches to honor both POWs and those listed as MIA. We provide classic POW/MIA patches, patches commemorating specific POW groups, POW/MIA patches with stars and stripes to express your patriotism, and so much more. Browse thousands of our patches to honor the brave men and women who will never be forgotten.
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