Eerily similar to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., the Vietnam POW/MIAs Memorial Wall of the United States has a purpose different from the national monument. While Washington’s memorial remembers those who were killed in action, this wall counts those who have never been found. It is a stark reminder that thousands have not returned, which rekindles the question, “What if one man remains and has grown old as a POW still waiting for his country to come to his rescue?”
Sponsored by Branson’s Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 913, the Vietnam POW/MIAs Memorial Wall is now at home in the Veterans Walk of Fame at the Branson Mall, joining the vintage military posters lining the hallway. The posters are a colorful contrast to the 10 dark panels etched with 2,560 names colored only by a scattering of red, green and white stars.
White stars mark the POW/MIAs whose remains have been returned – only 17 percent of those listed. Green stars are beside 11 percent of the names - POW/MIAs who might have survived captivity. Red stars, almost 10 percent, denote those who fought in the secret wars in Laos.
Built in 2000, the wall is the work of Leo Voss of Minnesota, a Marine who served in Vietnam. His commitment and dedication developed through his experiences as a leader of the Southwest Minnesota POW/MIA Color Guard and through giving speeches, talking about the thousands of Americans left behind at the end of the wars waged in Vietnam and Korea.
In speaking, the numbers “go right over peoples' heads…When you see the names - that touches peoples’ hearts,” Voss said.
The names are a visual, quiet reminder that those listed not only are someone’s husband, father, grandfather and son, but also people at the center of a controversy surrounding the fate of the POWs left in Vietnam and charges of a cover-up.
“There are significances in all of those names. Each name deserves an accounting,”
One of those stories is Richard R. Kane who was reported missing in action in 1967 and reportedly seen in a chain gang southwest of Hanoi in 1983. With no star beside his name on the wall, aviator Major Kane, United States Marines, was just 24 when he was listed as missing in action on Sept. 12, 1967, after his plane was shot down over South Vietnam. In an oft-told story, Kane was reported to have been spotted in a chain gang with other Americans by a Greek merchant seaman. The seaman was a crew member aboard a Greek ship that reportedly docked in Haiphong in August of 1983. While sightseeing ashore southwest of Hanoi, the seaman came upon the chain gang. Kane shouted his name and military rank to the merchant seaman before guards intervened and the frightened seaman ran away.
The United States of America’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assigned the report as case #3055 and, following an investigation, declared it a fabrication based in large part on the ship’s owner denying that the ship was docked in Haiphong although the ship was in the region at that time. Experts and researchers who disagree with the pronouncement argue that the ship’s owners would certainly deny being docked in Haiphong because that would have been a violation of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. In 1983, U.S. law barred any loans, credits or grants to any country that allowed its ships to transport cargo to Vietnam.
In 1993, New York’s Rep. Peter T. King introduced H.R. 111 establishing a select committee on POW and MIA affairs.
“Over 88,000 American military personnel are still unaccounted for from the wars and military conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries. To this day, many families still do not know the fate of their loved ones who went to combat for our nation,” Rep. King wrote in a letter in April of 2008 to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asking for her support.
Up until last year every time King reintroduced the bill, the bill had few co-sponsors (in 2001 it had eight.) Last year the bill was updated to include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 54 members of Congress signed on as original co-sponsors. According to the National Alliance of Families, it now has 126 co-sponsors. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Rules on Feb. 3.
“In an exceptional way, the current wars may help draw attention to the past wars,” said Groninger, who helped Voss find the permanent home for his wall. “We hope the placement of the wall will encourage the public to pressure the government to release more information. That is the same goal of H.R. 111. It has the support of not only Branson VVA, but also the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Rolling Thunder, National Alliance of Families and the Korea Cold-War Families of the Missing, World War II Families for Return of the Missing, VietNow and others.
King wrote in his letter to Pelosi, “A House Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs would allow us to develop broader and more thorough records on our missing armed forces personnel. It will lead to information that will resolve many unanswered questions. This is the very least we owe these patriotic and courageous Americans.”
Supporters of H.R. 111 cite new information since the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA published a final report in January of 1993. The new information includes two memos by a former DIA analyst who was an investigator on that committee. The memos, discovered in 2005 and 2006, noted inconsistencies in Vietnamese reports that some 19 servicemen listed as dead were officially acknowledged as “survived into captivity” and “Today, Defense Department files contain evidence that at least 59 Americans were – or may have been taken prisoner and their precise fate is still unclear. This includes the 29-30 not officially acknowledged by Vietnam in 1973. This represents the minimum number of possible live POWs today…U.S. field teams in Vietnam, since 1989 have uncovered evidence that more Americans were in fact taken captive than officially recorded.”
The fate of H.R. 111 rests in the hands of Pelosi and to date, she has not responded to any requests for action and support of the bill, a Washington source said. No comment came from Pelosi’s office following repeated requests by a spokesperson for the Branson VVA.
“Unfortunately, many feel powerless to make a difference. It is out of sight – out of mind. I was there (in Vietnam) and I have been complacent. Today Major Kane would be 66. It is important that men like him not be forgotten. Get involved. Call your representative about H.R. 111. Call Nancy Pelosi’s office and ask that she bring this bill to a vote,” Groninger said.
Groninger said, “Our group is helping update the list of names on the wall to keep it current. As the Memorial Wall’s creator, Leo Voss has completed the research on those from his home state of Minnesota. We want to help him with the rest. Another way the public can be involved is by supporting this project. The Branson VVA may be contacted at 417-230-6446.
“Each individual name counts. The wall’s last panel sums up the philosophy of those involved in this project, ‘We demand their release, all information and documentation, the return of all remains and the truth.’ The first panel sums up our promise, ‘Our American POW/MIA - you are not forgotten.’”
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