For New Jersey Sons of The American Legion member David Page, the issue of honoring U.S. prisoners of war and those servicemembers missing in action has been almost a life-long cause.
Page’s father made the Air Force a career and served during the Vietnam War. At the same time, as a teenager in the mid-1970s, Page wore POW bracelets.
“I had seven bracelets. Four of my guys came back,” Page said. “I heard (from my dad) growing up about guys not making it back, his buddies not making it back.”
That history is one of the reasons why Page has become so involved in the Detachment of New Jersey’s POW/MIA Watchfire vigil, which took place for 12 hours Sept. 19-20 in Seaside Heights, N.J. Now in its 30th year, the Watchfire – a 12-hour bonfire – “is a tribute, and a beacon of light so that the missing in action can find their way home,” Page said, noting the names of New Jersey’s missing servicemembers from the Korean War on are read aloud, while the names of the state’s World War II MIAs are displayed on a screen. Members of the entire American Legion Family participate in the event, including Legionnaires reading the names of the missing.
Page said around 120 people came to the Watchfire this year, “but we’ve had as many as 250 and 300 show up. We got a lot of people that come and don’t know about the POW-MIA situation. And they’ll come back later that night. It raises awareness.”
Page is a member of SAL Squadron 445 in New Egypt and currently serves as detachment finance officer. He also served as Detachment of New Jersey commander from 2017 to 2018 and had run the Watchfire vigil the previous five years before this year beginning the transition to hand off stewardship of the event to Rich Hodum. “I’m not going to be leaving it,” Page said. “I’ll still be involved, but I’m just getting away from the leadership part of it.
“A lot of this is respect for our Legionnaires that are here. Those are the guys that lost their buddies, their comrades, brothers.”
Around 95 miles northeast, in Morris County, N.J., the Morris County American Legion was staging its third annual POW/MIA Remembrance 24-Hour Vigil at the All Veterans Memorial in Mount Olive Township’s Turkey Brook Park. From 4 p.m. Sept. 18 to 4 p.m. Sept. 19, American Legion Family members and others maintained a memorial fire while reading the names of all 3,700 unaccounted for New Jersey veterans. And once an hour, the memorial’s “Ascension Bell” was rang 21 times to honor their memory.
And during the vigil, Mount Olive High School Air Force JROTC cadets hiked 14 miles to commemorate the Bataan Death March. Each cadet who completed the march earned the Bataan Death March Memorial Ribbon.
Morris County Commander Amery Vasso, commander of William J. Hocking Post 91 in Wharton, said the number of ceremonies and events honoring military service “seem to be shrinking.” The vigil, which started during Vasso’s first year as county commander in 2018, “was a great way of partnering with others in acknowledging and remembering the important sacrifices of veterans. This has been my main focus for a countywide effort the past three years.”
Morris County has 21 posts and 2,300 members. Members of the American Legion Family throughout the county took part in the vigil, as did Department of New Jersey Commander Robert B. Newell, members of other veterans service organizations and the public. Vasso believes around 200 people came by the vigil over the 24-hour period.
“It’s kind of grown each year with people knowing about it and more participation, which is great,” Vasso said. “We want this to be sustainable.”
Vasso stayed for the entire 24-hour vigil. “People say ‘you stayed up the whole time?’” he said. “I say ‘yeah. For POWs and what they went through, I think the 24 hours that I do this, I can make that.’”
Throughout the nation, American Legion Family members staged remembrance ceremonies to ensure their communities remain aware of the nation’s prisoners of war and missing in action.
In Millsboro on POW-MIA Recognition Day, the Oak Orchard/Riverdale Post 28 American Legion Family dedicated a Rolling Thunder Chair of Honor in the presence of veterans of the Korean, Vietnam and more recent wars, as well as elected officials.
Also in attendance was special guest and 96-year-old Harvey Boswell, who was a prisoner of war held by German forces for nine months during World War II. Boswell was presented a POW-MIA flag by Auxiliary Unit 28 Vice President June Jones on behalf of the post’s American Legion Family.
In Fayetteville, Fayette County American Legion Post 105 hosted a POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony that was attended by other veterans organizations and included the POW-MIA table and a brief ceremony. The ceremony concluded with a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
In Tupelo, retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris thought he was attending a POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at American Legion Post 49. But the post surprised him by staging a ceremony to honor Harris with a homecoming room at the post.
Harris was piloting an F-105 Thunderchief when it was shot down over Vietnam on April 4, 1965. He spent the next eight years in the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he taught the other POWs a code they could tap on the wall that would allow them to communicate through the cell walls.
The homecoming room features memorabilia from Harris’ military career. “We want future generations to understand that simple men and women sometimes go above and beyond in the name of God, country and family,” Post 49 Commander Mike Pettigrew told the Daily Journal.
“I am so honored,” Harris said. “Thank you and Post 49 for everything. I am proud to be part of this wonderful organization.”
In Laurel, American Legion Post 123 conducted a remembrance ceremony that attracted veterans, community members and local students. The event included speakers, the playing of Taps and a volley from the post’s honor guard.
The ceremony honored all of the U.S.’s prisoners of war and missing in action, including former Yellowstone County resident Alan Ashall, who was shot down over Vietnam. Both he and his plane remain unaccounted for.
“In 2014, we were able to get in contact with his family and we placed a memorial stone at the National Cemetery here in Laurel for Alan, as a remembrance,” Post 123 Legionnaire Richard Klose told KTVQ.
In Binghamton, the outside of American Legion Post 1645 served as the site for the post’s POW MIA remembrance ceremony. The event included the reading of names of local servicemembers still missing in action.
“We remember all POW’s and all MIA’s from all wars,” Post 1645 Commander Jon Yeager told News Channel 34. “It’s a horrible thing to see a loved one come home in a casket or injured badly. It’s even more devastating when that person never returns. We need to remember them.
In Williamston, Eddie Morgan Post 121 conducted a ceremony to honor the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon, Flight 93 and the U.S. servicemembers who have died in the war against terrorism while other members of the service continue to fight.
“The ceremony not only honors those who have died, but also those who live and continue to fight for the freedom of this great nation,” Post 121 Commander Pair said during the ceremony. “As a nation united, we must remain committed to supporting the men and women of our armed forces as they serve with honor and courage.”
In Rogersville, a POW/MIA Recognition program at the Hawkins County American Legion Post 21 featured 89-year-old Korean War veteran Emmett Harrison, who spent 27 months as a prisoner of war.
“I never talk about this,” Harrison told the Times News. “I’m glad they asked me this year because next year — we just don’t know. God was keeping me around for some reason. He wanted me to be around maybe as a testimonial. To know that it is possible. What can happen.”
The event also recognized POW/MIA soldiers from Hawkins County and their families, many of whom attended the ceremony.
In Rockwall, Terry Fisher American Legion Post 117 local government officials and community members for a POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial of the Rockwall County Courthouse.
“The hardship experienced by those prisoners of war and the family members of those who have gone missing in action is unimaginable to most Americans,” Post 117 Vice Commander K.C. Ashmore said during the ceremony. “It is our country’s solemn obligation to bring these heroes back home, and to support the families who each day carry on without knowing the peace of being united with their loved ones. In honor of those who have not yet come home and the families who struggle with the fear of unknown fate, we renew our fierce commitment to our patriots in uniform and pledge never to leave anyone behind.”
Dozens of area veterans took part in a silent march that started at Paul Herrick American Legion Post 21 and went through downtown Kenosha to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action. Several march participants wore black POW/MIA t-shirts that listed the names of missing servicemembers from southeastern Wisconsin, including the name of Kenosha County’s David Leet, a member of the U.S. Marine Corp.
“At least there is something to make us feel good about the day with all that has gone on,” Post 21 Commander Thomas Visintainer told the Kenosha News. “And it’s a beautiful day, too.”
A stop along the march at the Civil War Museum included a half-hour ceremony, where Post 21 First Vice Commander Crystal Carter explained the significance of the POW-MIA table.