“While I was thinking about the ceremony today, I was trying to think of a way to have people understand what it means to be looking for our POWs and MIAs,” said Thomas Buchanan, commander of American Legion Post, at the Sept. 16 POW/MIA Remembrance Day ceremony in Fitzpatrick Park in Bayonne. “The younger generation doesn’t even seem to know what MIA and POW stand for. Some call it ‘POW/MIA’ and they wonder what it’s all about. Maybe it would be easier for these young people to think about the first time they went away on a field trip with a large group, how they would be concerned in the new environment and about what if they got left behind in the woods. If that happened, what would they do? How would they get back? They would need for people to come look for them and find them. If you are a parent, you would do everything you could to look for them.”
He added, “Well, these missing men and women are the children of America and this country is their mother. We are the heart and the mind of America. We cannot let them feel like they are forgotten and even though they are not with us, their spirits must know that their brothers and sisters from America are looking for them.”
Organized by the Post 19 American Legion Auxiliary, the ceremony brought together a handful of veterans, public officials and others to pay tribute and keep the memory alive of military people listed as missing in action or possible prisoners of war.
Hudson County has only one listed MIA soldier, Douglas O’Neill, of Bayonne, although New Jersey has 43.
“This,” Buchanan said, referring to the MIA/POW movement, “was started by the League of Families who really pushed in the Vietnam era to have an account for all the POW/MIAs. World War II had a different account, a mandate from the government.”
While the need to account for missing soldiers dates back to just after the American Civil War, the MIA/POW became a powerful force towards the end of the Vietnam War.
“We had a lot of problems with the government [of Vietnam] during the transition after the war was over. There was a lot of doubt that they were being truthful about the prisoners they might have still had in captivity.”
This has since improved significantly, Buchanan said.
“Now when it’s not rainy season, they make arrangements to go and look for wreckage and any place where there might be signs of a missing military person,” he said.
Although many Americans were listed as missing because they did not meet the specific requirements the military set for categorizing them as “killed in action,” many family members back home sought closure of one kind or another, fueling a move to require the government to provide better accountability for those military people lost as a result of military deployment.
This movement is considered responsible for the significant change in military philosophy in Iraq and Afghanistan, which mandates that no military person be unaccounted for.
“’No man left behind’ has always been the motto of the U.S. military,” Buchanan said. “But it wasn’t always possible.”
The film Black Hawk Down depicts some of the dangers of the effort to recover military people from a scene.
“They went back and wound up losing more than they had originally,” he said.
Since World War I, more than 142,000 American service members have been captured and imprisoned. Americans missing in action include more than 78,000 from World War II; 8,200 from Korea; and, at one time, 1,900 from the war in Vietnam.
“September is National POW/MIA Month,” said Roberta Buchanan, president of the American Legion Auxiliary Post Unit 19. “It is a month dedicated to the 88,000 since World War II that have yet to come home. Forgetting these heroes is not an option. Generations to come, we must continue until every one of these troops is accounted for and back on American soil. Progress has been made over the last few years through different programs, but we have a long way to go. Educating the next generation assures these heroes will not be forgotten and the search will continue.”
Part of the ceremony explains the significance of the different elements in the familiar black and white POW/MIA flag. A single chair with the image of the MIA/POW flag stood near the front of the park as a symbol of the chair waiting for the return of the missing solider.
Mayor Mark Smith, who attended the event along with Council President Terrence Ruane, Councilmembers Ray Greaves and Joseph Hurley, and Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, said he was stunned by the number of missing.
“The numbers are staggering,” Smith said. “It is incumbent upon us to be here so that the next generation doesn’t for the sacrifices made by others.”
“The numbers are staggering.” – Mayor Mark Smith
Last year, Michael Wilson, Hudson County commander of the American Legion, said another site has been found one kilometer from the original impact zone that they found five years ago that help promise for recovery of the remains.
“A survey of the site was supposed to have been conducted earlier this year,” he said. “Thank God it wasn’t done. They had the wrong coordinates.”
Had the survey been done and nothing found, another survey would not likely have taken place in the foreseeable future.
As it is, with the right coordinates, a survey may take place in early 2013, and if there are any indications that there might be remains, a dig may well take place after that.
O’Neill and three other soldiers lifted off in a U.S. Army helicopter from Marble Mountain Airfield in Danang, one of the key American military bases in Central Vietnam, on April 3, 1972.
At 9:45 a.m. on April 3, the radar installation reported O’Neill was flying his copter under “Visual Flight Rules” above the cloud cover in the general vicinity of Quang Tri City. These rules allow a pilot to operate the craft in weather conditions where there is significant visibility. O’Neill, however, requested radar vectors, and radar operators believed he might be off-course. At 10 minutes after 10 a.m., communications ceased. The craft could not be located on radar. For all concerned, the helicopter had simply disappeared. The Army searched the area between Highway 1 and the coast, but could not find any wreckage.
A tree, commonly called “The Freedom Tree,” was planted near 38th Street and Kennedy Boulevard in O’Neill’s honor, where family members and supporters gather each April 3 on the anniversary of his disappearance.
Ralph Hodkinson, a member of Legion Riders, the world’s largest motorcycle group with a chapter in every American Legion Post, said his group stands guard in front of the tree on Memorial Day every year. Several members were on hand for this year’s Sept. 16 ceremony in Fitzpatrick Park.
“We’re here to show our support,” Hodkinson said, noting that during the year the group goes to veterans’ hospitals, conducts fundraising coin drops and holds other events, including bringing veterans to the post for events.