Tell Their Stories, on National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, 2023

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing/Historian's Office

This year, National Former Prisoner of War (POW) Recognition Day, observed annually on April 9, falls on Easter Sunday.  It is on the anniversary of America’s largest military surrender in history at the end of the Bataan Campaign in the Philippines in 1942.  Easter Sunday in 1942 was on April 5, just days before the surrender of our exhausted forces after a hard-fought campaign and their brutal introduction into captivity with the Bataan Death March. 

At the behest of former POWs, in order to remember the plight of our former POWs, President Reagan made the first proclamation of the day 45 years ago in 1988.  This day is related to, but distinct from, the National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Recognition Day observed on the third Friday each September, established in 1979 by President Carter in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Through American history, well over 550,000 men and women have been taken prisoner by the enemy.  Many never survived captivity, especially in the Pacific, Korea and Vietnam in the 20th Century (over 140,000 POWs in that century).  And some whom are believed captured died in captivity, and/or never came home after the war, have never been accounted for since, an issue which is the responsibility of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on American POWs and MIAs in 2006 found that:

4,120 World War I service members were imprisoned; 147 of them died.

130,201 World War II service members were imprisoned; 14,072 of them died.

7,140 Korean War service members were imprisoned; 2,701 of them died.

725 Vietnam War service members were imprisoned; 64 of them died.

37 service members were imprisoned during conflicts since 1991, including both Gulf wars; none is still in captivity

Although the official government position is that no Americans are still likely being held by (former) enemy forces, the report acknowledges community of interest disagreement on that assessment. The official U.S. position is expressed as: “Although we have thus far been unable to prove that Americans are still being held against their will, the information available to us precludes ruling out that possibility. Actions to investigate live-sighting reports receive and will continue to receive necessary priority and resources based on the assumption that at least some Americans are still held captive. Should any report prove true, we will take appropriate action to ensure the return of those involved.”  You can read the full CRS report here.

There are many ways we can honor and remember the service and sacrifice our former POWs made.  Those of recent wars are still with us and we can pay our respects to them when opportunity arises.  This year is the 50th anniversary of Operation Homecoming, the return of many, if not all, POWs held captive in Vietnam/Southeast Asia.

We can fly the POW/MIA Flag as a reminder to all who can see it.  We can be creative with the ways and means of creating awareness of the POW experience in our communities where we live and our communities of mutual interest.  With the aid of modern digital technology, awareness efforts can reach around the world where US forces were active and POWs taken captive.  There is now even a National Prisoner of War Museum at the Anderson National Historic Site in Georgia which honors POWs of all of our nation’s wars.

Closer to home, in its history, the 142nd Wing and the 123rd Fighter Squadron has at least 22 known unit members who became POWs in World War II, and one in Korea.   From year to year, we’ve written and shared about some of these former POWs, and learn more as we explore the history of the units.

To date, there are eight published articles which you can view at links below which chronicle the POW experience of 142nd and 123rd servicemen.  Many of these men, likely most, never received the Prisoner of War Medal which was authorized in 1985, but has to be requested for POWs taken captive beforehand.  Some may have not known about it.  I recall one, P-47 pilot Lee McDuff, who knew about it but he wasn’t interested; it had all happened so long ago.  Lee’s POW story with several others are found at links below:


“An Oregon “Guest” of the Luftwaffe” (TSgt Gerald E. Wilson, B-17 Flying Fortress flight engineer/top turret gunner in Europe) here.

“Kriegie on the Move - The POW experience of Luther P. Canup,” (P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Europe) here.

“Remembering our POW/MIAs - The Wartime Saga of Lee McDuff,” (P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Europe) here

“Caged Thunderbolt – The POW Experience of William Schleppegrell,” (P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Europe) here

“The Mysterious Fate of William T. “Shorty” Bales, Jr.,” (P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Europe) here

“Three Stalags and Out! Remembering Lt. Harry W. Tait, Jr. on National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day” (P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Europe), here.

“Twice Escaped: The POW Story of P-47 Pilot Edward R. Kirkland," here.

“Remembered, Not Forgotten on National POW/MIA Recognition Day 2020,” (Merlin R. Allen, C-47 Skytrain crewman in China) here.

In ongoing historical work we had the opportunity to connect with some other military aviation POW-related people, and wrote the following for veterans of the 6th Bomb Group (Very Heavy), a B-29 Superfortress very heavy bomber unit in the Pacific, 1944-1945 which held a reunion in 2015 in Portland:  See “Sons honor their former POW Fathers,” here.

On this National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, we salute all our brave former POWs who continued to serve our country in captivity.  As we tell their stories, we assure the truth and meaning of the words written on the POW/MIA flag which say, “You are not forgotten.”