Originally Published June 5, 2013
When I was a small child, my mom got two, shiny bar bracelets and began wearing them all the time. This was the early 1970s. I’m a magpie – I like shiny things, and these bracelets were fascinating. Sometimes my sister and I were allowed to play with them. As I got older, my mom explained what they were – POW bracelets.
For those of you who do not know what a POW bracelet is, let me explain. In late 1969, a young college student named Carol Bates, chairman of a student group called VIVA – Voices in Vital America – met with Bob Dornan and others to find a way to bring the attention of the public to the situation of the the prisoners of war and the missing in Vietnam. Several ideas were considered, but it was Dornan’s story about a bracelet he’d received while serving in Vietnam from a hill tribesman, and how he wore it to remind him of how things were there, that inspired what became a massive movement.
Carole Bates and her friend Kay Hunter came up with the idea for a bracelet. First, they wanted to travel to Vietnam and get their own, but soon realizing this would be unrealistic, they came up with an idea that more people could share in. It would be a simple metal bracelet, with the name, rank and date missing of that military man. Others – Steve Frank and Gloria Coppin – soon became involved. They found Jack Zeider’s Midway Stamping & Die Works in Santa Monica, and going out of their own pockets, had 10 prototypes produced. Coppin’s husband donated money enough to make 1200 of these bracelets, forms of consent were signed by most of the families whose loved one’s names appeared on a bracelet, and a movement began.
Not only did it begin, but it snowballed. For a simple fee of $2.50 for a nickel plated bracelet and $3.00 for a copper one, people all over the country took up the cause. The idea was once you bought the bracelet, you wore it until your man came home or his remains were found. Eventually, over 5 million of the bracelets were sold – you can still get a replacement for yours today.
Eventually, as many did, my mother took the bracelets off and put them in her jewelry box. I know we spoke of it again when I was a bit older; she had found out that one of the men had come home and as many did, sent that bracelet to him or his family. The other stayed in her things all these years, to be found yesterday.
And thanks to the miracle of the internet, this morning, I found his name thanks to the POW Network and Google, but not after having already received criticism from a history writer colleague’s friend. You see, I asked this colleague for a place to start with this bracelet, knowing he was in the process of helping get some dog tags from WII (found by a friend of his overseas) back to the soldier’s family. The criticism I received was of the form of “some things are best left alone.” Well,. I’m an historian, and curious by nature. I don’t always look for things to tell everyone else – I look for information for me. This bracelet, the Vietnam War, even someone close to the family who came home after being a POW and lived with us for a time – these were all parts of my OWN personal history.
And then, I found several articles – some as recent as 2010 , about how the POWs, when the word somehow got to them in captivity that people were wearing their names on their wrists and hoping and praying for them to come home, and it gave them hope to hold out. Many of these men gratefully accept these bracelets even today, as people send them to them with their stories and thanks for their service – something many soldiers did not get when they came home from Vietnam. In many cases, the families still appreciate the people who spent their movie money to get a bracelet and remember the man whose name appeared on it.
Now, mom is no longer around to know that the man in question did come home in 1973. (Mom passed away December 2010.) He was a Navy Pilot and, oddly enough, from right here in Denver. (This is odd because bracelets were randomly given, and we lived in Upstate New York at the time mom got it.) According to the records, he returned alive.
Now, I’m choosing to not delve further. I’m sure it would not be hard to contact the man or his family, but I won’t. For us, I found the answer, and I’ll pass the information along to my sister and father, because it is, in a sense, part of our history too. I’ll put the bracelet in my display table, and someday,when my grandchildren happily inspect all the treasures therein, I will tell them the story of the bracelet, and their great grandma, and the man who so honorably served in our military whose name is on the bracelet.
Sometimes, just the knowing is enough.
For those who would like to return similar bracelets or get a replacement, please contact the POW Network. They have all of the POWs and Missing in their searchable database. For those who never returned, the bracelets can be left at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial— they will be taken good care of.