National POW/MIA Recognition Day was established in 1979 through a proclamation signed by President Jimmy Carter. Since then, each subsequent president has issued an annual proclamation commemorating the third Friday in September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a national-level ceremony is held on every National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Traditionally held at the Pentagon, it features members from each branch of military service and participation from high-ranking officials.
In addition to the national-level ceremony, observances of National POW/MIA Recognition Day are held across the country on military installations, ships at sea, state capitols, schools, and veterans’ facilities.
No matter where they are held, these National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremonies share the common purpose of honoring those who were held captive and returned, as well as those who remain missing.
Also part of the recognition day is the missing man table and honors ceremony. According to the National League of POW/MIA Families, the ceremony comprises of a table that is set for six. The empty chairs represent Americans who were or are missing from each of the services – Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard – and civilians, all with us in spirit.
The table is round- to show our everlasting concern. The cloth is white – symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to serve. The single red rose reminds us of the lives of these Americans and their loved ones and friends who keep the faith, while seeking answers. The yellow ribbon symbolizes our continued uncertainty, hope for their return, and determination to account for them.
A slice of lemon reminds us of their bitter fate, captured or missing in a foreign land. A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families. The lighted candle reflects our hope for their return. The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God. The glass is inverted – to symbolize their inability to share a toast and the chairs remain empty.
The remains of almost 82,000 Americans are still missing according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
The DPAA reports that the numbers of missing soldiers from conflicts as:
- 73,515 from World War II (an approximate number due to limited or conflicting data)
- 7,841 from the Korean War
- 1,626 from Vietnam
- 126 from the Cold War
- 6 from conflicts since 1991
The DPAA further denotes that about 75 percent of those missing Americans are somewhere in the Asia-Pacific. More than 41,000 have been presumed lost at sea. Efforts to find those men, identify them, and bring them home are constant.
For example, the DPAA said that in the past year it has accounted for 41 men missing during the Korean War: 10 had been previously buried as unknowns, 26 were from remains turned over by North Korea in the 1990s, 1 was from a recovery operation, and 4 were combinations of remains and recovery operations.
Each year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund also honors these lost soldiers along with the National League of POW/MIA Families by hosting a Candle Remembrance at the Vietnam Memorial. It is a unique way to remember the more than 1,500 still missing and otherwise unaccounted-for, as well as their families.