From the American Revolution to the Korean War, thousands of U.S. soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have been taken prisoner or gone missing. But it took the Vietnam War—and a sense of abandonment felt by wives and family members of Americans held captive—to bring forth what has evolved into United State's POW/MIA symbol.

The POW/MIA flag is inextricably tied to the National League of POW/MIA Families, which was born in June 1969 as the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia. Its mission was to spread awareness of the mistreatment of prisoners of war at the hands of their captors. It was the brainchild of Karen Butler, wife of Navy pilot Phillip Butler, who had been shot down over North Vietnam in April 1965, and Sybil Stockdale, whose husband, Navy Commander James Bond Stockdale, was the highest-ranking POW in North Vietnam. Stockdale had been held prisoner since September 1965, when his A-4 Skyhawk went down over North Vietnam.

In 1971, League member Mary Hoff came up with the idea of creating a flag as the group’s symbol. Her husband, Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff, had been missing in action since January 7, 1970. Mary Hoff called the country’s oldest and largest flag-maker, Annin Flagmakers of Verona, N.J. “Mary Hoff called out of the blue. I had no idea what the League of Families was when she called,” Norm Rivkees, then Annin’s vice president of sales, said. “She then explained everything and I went to our president, Randy Beard. There was no hesitation. He just said: ‘Absolutely. We would be honoured to create a flag.’”

Rivkees turned over the job of designing the flag to Annin’s small advertising agency, Hayden Advertising, where the task was assigned to graphic artist Newton F. Heisley. Heisley, who died in 2009, had served in World War II as a C-46 twin-engine transport pilot with the 433rd Troop Carrier Group. After coming home from the war with a Bronze Star, he received a degree in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and worked as a graphic artist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette before going to work for Hayden. After getting the POW/MIA flag assignment, Heisley sat down at his drawing table and sketched three different designs. The one he chose had an image of a gaunt man in profile, with a guard tower and a strand of barbed wire in the background—the design that we recognise today. When Annin began producing the flag, Heisley was still tweaking its design. He planned to add colour to the black-and-white image, but those ideas were dropped.

Heisley modelled the flag’s silhouette on his 24-year-old son, who was on leave from the Marines and looking gaunt while getting over hepatitis. Heisley also penned the words that are stitched on the banner, “You are not forgotten.” As Heisley told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1997, the flag “was intended for a small group. No one realised it was going to get national attention.”

It took nearly a decade, but the POW/MIA flag began getting attention in a big way in the early 1980s. In 1982 it became the only flag, other than the Stars and Stripes, to fly over the White House, after it was first displayed there on POW/MIA Recognition Day. In 1989 the flag was installed in the Capitol Rotunda. It also has the distinction, historians and flag experts believe, of being the only non-national flag that any federal government anywhere in the world has mandated to be flown regularly. That began with a 1990 law to recognise the POW/MIA flag and designate the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

If any good came out of American involvement in the Vietnam War, it was that both hawks and doves now agree that the troops of that war were treated poorly when they returned home. The early 1970s saw many protests against the war on college campuses and in the nation’s largest cities. Many antiwar activists lacked the maturity to distinguish between the government that “made” war and those sent to fight it. A student organisation that understood the difference was Voices in Vital America (VIVA), a Los Angeles–based group formed in the 1960s to counteract campus antiwar protests. In 1970 VIVA member Carol Bates Brown, who was in the California chapter, started an initiative to promote awareness of prisoners of war by making and selling metal POW bracelets engraved with the name, rank, service branch and date of loss. VIVA distributed nearly 5 million bracelets, selling them for $2.50 to $3 apiece and raising enough money to purchase untold millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks, newspaper ads and the like to draw attention to the missing service personnel.

One one such bracelet was inscribed “SFC Billy R. Laney, USA, 6-3-67, LAOS.” Billy Ray Laney was born on Aug. 21, 1939, in Blanch, Alabama. He married in 1958 and had three children. Laney joined the Navy in October 1956 and served until Aug. 2, 1960. The next day, he joined the Army. By February 1967 his principal duty was operations and intelligence specialist. Laney was a Special Forces member of an organisation set up by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and called the Studies and Observation Group. MACV-SOG, or simply SOG, was a covert operations group that incorporated units from all branches of the military, including Navy SEALs, Air Force special operations squadrons, Marine Corps reconnaissance units and Army Special Forces troops, the famed Green Berets. Laney was in the Command and Central Detachment, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces.

In June 1967 Laney was part of a Strategic Air Command/SOG operation that targeted the North Vietnamese Army in an area code-named “Oscar-8,” a rugged, jungle-covered mountainous region in eastern Laos about 12 miles southeast of Khe Sanh. That area was the source of more than 1,500 National Security Agency radio intercepts in one 24-hour period. The rise in radio transmissions intended for Hanoi high command led SOG to believe NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap was paying a visit to Oscar. Oscar-8 was the absolute headquarters of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It contained the largest supply warehouse for NVA outside Hanoi and was a critical transportation area. The objective of the Oscar-8 operation was to kill Giap and all other enemy forces along the way using the Strategic Air Command and SOG.

First, B-52s would drop 900 high-explosive bombs onto the target area. Within 15 minutes of the last bombing, Marine CH-46 helicopters would drop off an 80-man SOG commando unit, called a Hatchet Force, consisting of Americans and Nung tribesmen, to assess the situation and gather intelligence. “The actual defensive position and helicopter-landing zone consisted of a very large bomb crater,” according to a July 3 memo from the Marine Aircraft Group, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. “It would only accommodate a single aircraft, so the CH-46s had to go in one at a time.”

Laney landed on June 2 with SOG forces on the first transport copter, piloted by Major Richard E. Romine. But a mistake in timing authorised the insertion before a command helicopter could sweep the target zone for an initial assessment. Consequently, the commando unit found itself surrounded and under attack. “The B-52 bombing had done significant damage, but it clearly had not destroyed the NVA defences,” said an observer, who was at the target area in a fixed-wing aircraft when the Hatchet Force troops and chopper crews loaded at Khe Sanh.

That night Laney and the SOG force hunkered down and waited for a possible pickup. After a tactical airstrike at dawn on June 3, three CH-46s came to get the unit. Romine, the flight leader, flew the first Marine copter in. “Upon being reassured that the surrounding enemy was neutralised by airstrikes, I decided to make the entry into the landing zone after briefing my flight to take sufficient interval so that I could assess the situation prior to their approach into the zone,” he said in a July 3 report from the Marine Aircraft Group to the Marine Corps commandant.

The major managed to pick up eight Nungs but had trouble when he tried to lift out of the bomb crater landing zone. “Almost immediately the number two engine quit,” he reported. “I managed to make a controlled crash approximately 150 feet from my objective, sometime after being hit and before I crashed,” Romine added, “I broadcast a mayday and informed the flight to break off and not attempt the extraction at that time.”

The other rescue helicopters did not hear the transmission, however, “for reasons unknown to myself,” Romine reported. The No. 2 helicopter successfully retrieved a group of soldiers, mostly from a Nung platoon, but encountered automatic-weapons fire and was hit several times. The No. 3 helicopter, piloted by Captain Stephen P. Hanson, also attempted a troop pickup.

Hanson’s CH-46 loaded 15 passengers, including Laney and SOG sergeants Ronald J. Dexter and Charles F. Wilklow. As the chopper took off, however, Hanson unknowingly turned into the heaviest concentration of NVA forces. “We began to receive fire as soon as we lifted off,” Wilklow said, “and it became more intense.” The aircraft veered out of control, broke in half and landed about 4½ feet above the ground, suspended by jungle foliage.

The door gunner, Lance Cpl. Frank E. Cius, was able to get off a few hundred rounds from his machine gun before the impact, which knocked him on his back. Dexter, Wilklow and a couple of Nungs were in good enough shape to engage the North Vietnamese. Laney was wounded in the back before they got on the chopper, according to Wilklow. After the crash, “I noticed SFC Laney under a seat,” he said. “He had a badly broken ankle in addition to his previous wound. When I started to examine him, he said, ‘Please don’t touch me.’ I don’t recall seeing or hearing any more from him after that.”

Out of ammunition and shot in the leg, Wilklow crawled away from the wreckage, looking for Dexter, and passed out. Unknown to him, Dexter, Cius and nine of the Nungs had formed a perimeter about 200 meters from the downed aircraft. Enemy fire continued after the crash with heavy streams of bullets coming in the helicopter windows.

From the next morning, June 4th, until late in the afternoon, gunships and fixed-wing aircraft pummelled Oscar-8 in preparation for additional troop pickups and resupply attempts, which continued late into the day. Dexter, Cius and the Nungs had been forced away from the area, and reconnaissance overflights the next day failed to reveal any survivors at Oscar-8, so further extraction efforts were called off.

Billy Ray Laney was officially reported as missing in action on June 3. Other reports indicate that Dexter, Cius and the Nungs were captured on June 5th. Wilklow, who had crawled away from the landing zone with an injured leg, was also captured and wound up in an NVA base camp but escaped on the fourth day. The next day, against all odds, Wilklow was spotted by Waugh, on an airborne observation mission, and rescued.

“The raid on Oscar-8 had been a disaster,” wrote Robert Gillespie in his book Black Ops Vietnam: An Operational History of MACVSOG. “Seven aircraft had been shot down. Twenty-three Americans—SOG team members, USAF pilots and Marine helicopter crewmen—were lost, along with about 50 of the Nung raiders.”

By all accounts, including those from NVA personnel, Sergeant Dexter died in captivity on July 29, 1967. Marine Corporal Cius was released on March 5, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. He now lives in New York and is very active in veterans issues. Sergeant Wilklow’s son told me that his father died in July 1992 after a long fight with cancer.

On March 20, 1978, following a review of Laney’s missing person’s status, the Army made a determination to change his status from missing in action, June 3, 1967, to dead, as of March 20. Sergeant Laney’s remains were recovered later from the Laos crash site and positively identified through DNA testing in 1999, as were those of Captain Hanson, who also died on the ground in Laos. On Oct. 5, 2000, Laney’s remains were returned to Alabama, and there was a grand ceremony in Huntsville, where his widow and children and an assembly of country music stars, politicians, veterans and many others paid homage to him.

A memo was sent from MACV to the 5th Special Forces Group commanding officer, dated June 28, 1967—just 25 days after Oscar-8—informing him that the MIA Board had made a determination that Laney’s status be changed from MIA to KIA as a result of hostile action. This, for reasons unknown, was never done. In the interim, Laney’s wife and parents were provided with practically no information. His wife even received a Postal Authorisation Card in 1972 permitting her to send a Christmas package to her husband.

Even though the Oscar-8 operation has been labeled a failure by some, had this Special Forces operation succeeded in its objective to kill General Giap, it can be argued that North Vietnam’s military would have been totally disrupted. The war might have ended sooner, saving more than 38,000 American lives lost in the Vietnam conflict in the following six years.