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New book highlights grassroots campaign to bring POWs home

 May 24, 2023 at 3:00 PM PDT

S1: In the history of America's wars , the nation has always tried to give fallen soldiers the respect and honors they deserve. But what about those listed as missing ? The new book , Unwavering , says those who were missing in war were just left missing until the Vietnam War , when a small group of women changed all that. A group of wives and relatives of missing military men took matters into their own hands and , quote , made the fate of the missing a national priority. I'd like to welcome Taylor Kelland. Taylor , welcome.

S2: Thank you very much.

S1: Judy Gray. Hi , Judy. Hi.

S3: Thanks for having us.

S1: They are the authors of Unwavering The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind. And also joining us is Pat Mearns. She's an activist and wife of Arthur Mearns , whose plane was shot down during the Vietnam War in 1966. Pat , thanks so much for joining us.

S4: Thank you for having me.

S1: Now , Taylor , let me start with you. You come from a military family. How much did you know about the creation of the Maya movement before you started this book ? Well.

S2: Maureen , I know a lot more about the POW movement because I grew up in Coronado , California , and I was six years old when the POWs returned home. And I have memories of their homecoming , but I knew less about the Maya wives and the long term suffering that they went through until one of the husbands called me and said , you know , there's been so much written about our epic battle in Vietnam , but much less written about the wives of the captive and the missing who waged such a homefront battle. And so that prompted me to recruit my friend Judy and to go on this long term quest to find some answers and do some extensive research on the history of of the movement.


S3: It's a question that warrants a lot of thought because the women were also echoing the role of women at the time. They weren't necessarily listened to. Women didn't speak out. Military wives didn't speak out and disparage their husbands service. But the women in this movement pulled together and focused on the goal of finding out what happened to America's missing men. And it was personal for them. But it was also something they dedicated their lives to working on and searching for answers. So that was interesting to me. I knew about Maya was only peripherally , but I was shocked to find out how little was done to care for those who just needed answers.

S1: You lived the not knowing and the wondering and the years of not knowing and wondering. How did it start for you.

S4: 57 years ago ? My husband was shot down over North Vietnam and my life fell apart. I was devastated. That was complete shock. Terrible situation for me. I wasn't prepared to see this episode ending so dramatically.


S4: We as a group of women who didn't know whether our men were alive or dead went various places. We did wrote letters , we telephone calls , people. We went and met them and. Told them that we needed to have answers and. So we just kept on one foot at a time , getting as much information from anybody we could get it from. And it worked. This group of ladies who were just tremendous , they all did their best to do whatever they could do to help find out what happened to their their men.

S1: Now , Taylor , you just told us that you actually remember as a child when the POW was from the Vietnam War were released. That must have given a wave of hope to many families who didn't know where their missing soldiers were.

S2: That's right. There was a tremendous national celebration when our POWs returned home. There were homecoming parades , a White House dinner , national media tours. And most of those POWs went back to their lives as military men and husbands and fathers and pursued their careers and lives. But for the MIAs and there was about 2500 at the at the war's end. The the state of limbo continued. And of course , with the fall of Saigon in 1975 , we had a wave of refugees that started coming to the United States , and they had strange stories to tell. They said that they had seen many , many Americans still held against their will , and it spawned this conspiracy and this national obsession over the fate of our missing , which reached a crescendo in the 90s and has somewhat abated. But the fate of our missing still remains a big question.


S2: Many of those cases have been resolved. It's now down to about 1500. So the government has done a tremendous job in trying to resolve the fate of the missing. But that is only been at the insistence of these women and these families who urged the government to to to do this.


S3: And they were wildly successful. They sold nearly 5 million bracelets. I remember wearing one that a camp counselor sold to us and very passionately said , These are men who are missing and you're not to take it off until the last man comes home. So what they did with both the bracelets and the flag , which was another very recognizable symbol , was to rally a nation that was deeply divided during a very bitter war around an issue that was humanitarian and purpose. It was brilliant. And likewise , the flag was created as a way to show that we never leave anyone behind and that we never forget. And it flies to this day , every day over every federal building. Our capital and the White House and every post office. So you really can't drive five miles without seeing the black and white flag with the silhouette of the hat.


S4: And pretty soon they had to listen. We were right in their face and they knew that we were still there waiting for our men.


S3: In fact , there are roughly 72,000 men still missing from World War Two , more than 7600 missing from the Korean War. And pretty much every few months there's a report of remains found from other wars. So the women insisted on having an agency that would actually be permanent and would spare no expense in searching and finding , searching for and finding our missing and repatriating them home. The other byproduct was that the women recognized it became intolerable for families to not have the support they needed during these times of loss. And so family assistance is more available and services take into account the stress and the burden that families. Of military members carry when their loved one goes off to a conflict.


S3: And it's no accident that that happened. We fight our wars differently. We fly higher than we did during Vietnam. We use drones. We try very hard to avoid having any POW during conflict.

S1: Now , Pat , you , like many wives of soldiers listed as missing in action in Vietnam , you waited years for news and then received only partial remains of your missing husband.

S4: The North Vietnamese communists knew what happened to him. He was alive in his parachute. So if he was killed on the ground. That's another story. But. He was missing in action until the fellas came home. Every day we waited to see. The prisoners returning and he was not among them. So we knew at that particular time that he wasn't going to come home.


S4: Well , when you lose somebody , that's so important to you. There's never really a closure. It's a soothing. The hurt and the heartbreak that you've had , but it really never closes things. You will always have remembrance of them. And I think that's what our parents and wives have for these men.


S2: The most notorious one was the Senate Select Committee in 1991 and 1992 , chaired by John McCain and John Kerry and Senator Bob Smith from New Hampshire. That Senate select committee interviewed thousands of people and spent two years investigating that very question. And their conclusion was that there is no evidence that we left any men behind in captivity.

S1: There are , as you mentioned , Taylor's families still waiting for news about their loved ones missing in action in Vietnam. It's been so long , I wonder.

S2: Every month , it seems , they make an announcement that they are returning and repatriating remains from World War Two , Korea and Vietnam. So these families are still getting answers. There are , of course , many families that are still waiting , but America never gives up. And I think that is one of the sort of unheralded and little known legacies of the Vietnam War , is that we really have upheld this policy of no man leave behind since the Vietnam War because of a promise we made to these handful of military wives during the Vietnam War.

S1: Pat , I don't think you'll mind if I mention the fact that you are almost 91 years old and you've made a commitment to join others marching across the Coronado Bridge in just a few months. Tell us about that.

S4: In September , the military and other interested citizens of San Diego and Coronado have a walk across the Coronado Bridge. Some people run and some people will. Some people just join in and and saunter across the bridge every year in honor of the POW MIAs , The return.

S1: And you'll be there.

S4: I will be there with bells on.

S1: The new book Unwavering The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man Is Left Behind. The authors are Taylor Kelland and Judy Gray. I've been speaking to them along with Pat Mearns , one of the women whose stories are told in the new book. I want to thank you all so much for speaking with us. It's a very difficult and important topic.

S2: Thank you. Thank you , Maureen , for having us on.

S4: Thank you , Maureen , for telling this story.

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Former World War II POWs from San Diego look at historic aircraft at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, April 30, 2015.
Susan Murphy
Former World War II POWs from San Diego look at historic aircraft at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, April 30, 2015.

America tries to give fallen soldiers the respect and honors they deserve, but what about those listed as missing?

A new book highlights how a group of wives and relatives of missing military men took matters into their own hands and made the search for their missing loved ones a national priority.


Taylor Baldwin Kiland, co-author of "Unwavering"

Judy Silverstein Gray, co-author of "Unwavering"

Pat Mearns