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Prisoner Of War - Missing In Action

Last modified: 2022-10-22 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | pow | mia | prisoner of war |
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[Flag for the U.S. Prisoners of War-Missing in Action] image by Rick Wyatt, 28 February 1998

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Meaning and use of the flag

Excerpted from March 5, 2001 Washington Post,

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Staff Writer

The man's head is bowed in silhouette. Above is a guard tower; below are the words "You are not forgotten." And three decades after a former Army pilot first sketched the stark image to commemorate those missing in action from America's longest war, it has become an enduring emblem of Vietnam, a flag second in popularity only to Old Glory itself.

The POW/MIA flag, appearing almost always in mournful black and white, has flown over the White House and the Super Bowl, at the New York Stock Exchange and at every post office. It has grown beyond the wildest hopes of its creators to become a quiet yet persistent reminder that not all the wounds of Vietnam have healed.

The POW/MIA flag was created in 1971 by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Historians and flag experts call the proliferation of the POW/MIA flag unprecedented in the history of the United States and perhaps the world. Never before, they say, have sovereign states and nations required that the flag of a political movement regularly be flown alongside their own. The flag grew from Vietnam, but to veterans organizations it has come to represent all the missing from U.S. military actions dating back to World War II, a group totaling 88,000. Most are from World War II; fewer than 2,000 are from Vietnam.

Sharing his surprise is the flag's creator, a former World War II Army Air Forces pilot named Newton Heisley, now 80. He first sketched the imagery in pencil while working for an advertising agency contracted to design the POW/MIA flag. He intended to add color to the black and white image but never got a chance before flag manufacturer started production. The man's head shown bowed forward in the center is a silhouette of Heisley's son Jeffrey, then 24 and suffering from hepatitis after a Marine Corps training program at Quantico. The words "You are not forgotten" came from Heisley's memory of long military flights across the South Pacific, when he sometimes found himself imagining the terror of being downed, captured and forgotten.

It first flew over the White House in 1988 and was installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1989, making it the only flag ever permanently displayed there, according to flag experts. And in 1990, Congress adopted the flag as "the symbol of our nation's concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia."

Congress later passed a law requiring that on six holidays the flag be flown at all post offices, the Capitol, the White House, national cemeteries, military bases and the memorials for the Korean and Vietnam wars. The holidays are Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day and National POW/MIA Day (the third Friday of September).
submitted by Phil Nelson, 5 March 2001

It is safe to say that there is no federal law on the protocol order of the POW-MIA flag vis-a-vis flags other than the S&S. We do have the proposed House of Representatives language which was not enacted into law. I would suggest that it may not have been enacted precisely because someone in the Senate had the nerve to object to flying the POW-MIA flag superior to state flags, although that's just speculation unless someone finds evidence in the records of committee consideration of the bill or in the Congressional Record transcript of the floor debates, if there were any.

Beyond that, what we have to go on is the assertion by the groups that promote the use of this flag, particularly the National League of Families of POWs and MIAs, that it takes precedence over every flag other than the S&S.

On the other hand, the entire territory of the United States proper is divided into the territories of states and the District of Columbia. Many of those states have laws saying that only the S&S takes precedence over the state flag. So if I wanted to justify flying the POW-MIA flag below or to the left of the state flag, I'd look first at the flag laws of the state concerned.

One can, of course, finesse the problem by not flying or carrying the state flag (or other flags) when the POW-MIA flag is displayed.
Joe McMillan, 29 November 2003

Air Force Instruction (AFI) 34-1201 ( includes some much needed clarity on the status of the POW/MIA flag.
Please see:
AFI 34-1201
2.11.10 The POW/MIA flag will always be the last flag in any display. There is no precedence for the POW/MIA flag. It shall always be displayed in a location subordinate to all other flags.
James Ferrigan, 5 January 2007

More details on the flag and its desginer are available at the "Home of Heroes" website:
Ivan Sache, 17 May 2009

Postal Bulletin

While looking over the POW-MIA information on FOTW, I was reminded of an notation I had come across in the U.S. Postal Bulletin (21967, dated 3/12/1998, ). As a result of the Defense Authorization Act, P.L. 105-85, Section 1082, POW-MIA flags are now required to be flown over U.S. Postal facilities on Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May), Memorial Day (last Monday in May), Flag Day (June 14), Independence Day (July 4), national POW-MIA Recognition Day (third Friday in September), and Veterans Day (November 11). If the postal facility is closed because of a non-business day, the flag is to be displayed on the last business day preceding the designated date. As the first of these days is upon us, and having noted some traffic on the matter, the relevance of this posting:

The Administrative Support Manual was amended to read:

Sec. 471.1
*Except as governed by host facilities, [the only flags] to be displayed at postal facilities are the flag of the United States of America, the Postal Service Flag, the POW-MIA flag, and, when authorized by the senior vice president of Corporate Relations, flags directly related to the programs, missions and activities of the United States Postal Service. Flags of states, commonwealths, or local governments must not be displayed.*

Sec. 475.21
*The POW-MIA flag that may be flown at postal facilities is the National League of Families POW-MIA flag that is recognized officially and designated by Public Law 101-355, section 2.*
Also noted in the revision is that the flag is to be displayed to ensure visibility by the public.
Phil Nelson, 10 May 1998 

Red POW/MIA flag

In a recent issue of Time magazine two flags are visible behind the Governor of Minnesota Jessie Ventura. One is the flag of Minnesota and the other is a red POW-MIA flag. This has been confirmed on a video by Zachary Harden.
Ned Smith, 26 June 2002

I have seen Pow/Mia flags in red used locally (Nevada) by Native American Indians at powwows. I have also observed the following variants:
Green with white logo & lettering
White with black logo & lettering
White with green logo & lettering
White with blue logo & lettering
Black with red and white logo & lettering

Without exception they were polyester from offshore.
Jim Ferrigan, 26 June 2002

"Chains" Version

[POW flag - chains version] image by Rick Prohaska, 19 February 2007

Text of Section 1082 of HR 1119

The link referred to above quotes language from Section 1054 of HR 1119, the fiscal year 1998 National Defense Authorization Act. But the 1998 National Defense Authorization Act as finally passed into law has no section 1054. And section 1082, which is where the language on the POW-MIA flag was finally located, says nothing about the relative precedence of the flag vis-a-vis other flags. Here's section 1082 in its entirety, from the Library of Congress's THOMAS legislative archive:


(a) REQUIRED DISPLAY- The POW/MIA flag shall be displayed at the locations specified in subsection (c) on POW/MIA flag display days. Such display shall serve (1) as the symbol of the Nation's concern and commitment to achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans who, having been prisoners of war or missing in action, still remain unaccounted for, and (2) as the symbol of the Nation's commitment to achieving the fullest possible accounting for Americans who in the future may become prisoners of war, missing in action, or otherwise unaccounted for as a result of hostile action.

(b) DAYS FOR FLAG DISPLAY- (1) For purposes of this section, POW/MIA flag display days are the following:

(A) Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May.
(B) Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.
(C) Flag Day, June 14.
(D) Independence Day, July 4.
(E) National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
(F) Veterans Day, November 11.

(2) In addition to the days specified in paragraph (1), POW/MIA flag display days include--

(A) in the case of display at medical centers of the Department of Veterans Affairs (required by subsection (c)(7)), any day on which the flag of the United States is displayed; and
(B) in the case of display at United States Postal Service post offices (required by subsection (c)(8)), the last business day before a day specified in paragraph (1) that in any year is not itself a business day.

(c) LOCATIONS FOR FLAG DISPLAY- The locations for the display of the POW/MIA flag under subsection (a) are the following:

(1) The Capitol.
(2) The White House.
(3) The Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
(4) Each national cemetery.
(5) The buildings containing the official office of--
    (A) the Secretary of State;
    (B) the Secretary of Defense ;
    (C) the Secretary of Veterans Affairs; and
    (D) the Director of the Selective Service System.
(6) Each major military installation, as designated by the Secretary of Defense.
(7) Each medical center of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
(8) Each United States Postal Service post office.

(d) COORDINATION WITH OTHER DISPLAY REQUIREMENT- Display of the POW/MIA flag at the Capitol pursuant to paragraph (1) of subsection (c) is in addition to the display of that flag in the Rotunda of the Capitol pursuant to Senate Concurrent Resolution 5 of the 101st Congress, agreed to on February 22, 1989 (103 Stat. 2533).

(e) DISPLAY TO BE IN A MANNER VISIBLE TO THE PUBLIC- Display of the POW/MIA flag pursuant to this section shall be in a manner designed to ensure visibility to the public.

(f) LIMITATION- This section may not be construed or applied so as to require any employee to report to work solely for the purpose of providing for the display of the POW/MIA flag.

(g) POW/MIA FLAG DEFINED- As used in this section, the term 'POW/MIA flag' means the National League of Families POW/MIA flag recognized officially and designated by section 2 of Public Law 101-355 (36 U.S.C. 189).

(h) REGULATIONS FOR IMPLEMENTATION- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the head of each department, agency, or other establishment responsible for a location specified in subsection (c) (other than the Capitol) shall prescribe such regulations as necessary to carry out this section.

(i) PROCUREMENT AND DISTRIBUTION OF FLAGS- Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Administrator of General Services shall procure POW/MIA flags and distribute them as necessary to carry out this section.

(j) REPEAL OF SUPERSEDED LAW- Section 1084 of Public Law 102-190 (36 U.S.C. 189 note) is repealed.

Joe McMillan, 4 October 2006