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The POW/MIA Bracelet Memorial on the campus of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge is made from more than 7,000 POW/MIA bracelets worn by people from every state during the Vietnam War as a way of remembering prisoners of war held captive during the conflict and those declared missing in action.
The idea for the monument came from Ellen M. Ewing, associate editor of the Inland Registar, the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Wash. She had spoken with Faye Schierman, who had received several hundred bracelets from people who had worn them during the almost eight years her husband, Air Force Maj. Wesley Schierman, was a POW in North Vietnam. What could she possibly do with all these bracelets, Faye asked.
The 250-pound stylized wreath, 48 inches in diameter, represents the races of man and the oneness of the world. It was created by Spokane sculptor Harold R. Balazs Jr., and cast free of charge at the Spokane Steel Industry. The wreath is mounted on a seven-foot-high, five-ton polished pedestal of gray granite donated by the Barrie Granite Association in Vermont. Martin Hammond, owner of the Phoenixville Memorial Works, used his expertise to mount the sculpture on the pedestal on the Freedoms Foundation campus. Engraved on the pedestal are the words:
“This memorial, cast of the bracelets worn for Prisoners of War, is dedicated to those Killed in Action and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. Lest We Forget — 1974.”
Bracelets came from all over the country in hopes that they would be included in the memorial. Marilyn L. Ulmer, of Upper Darby, PA, wrote the following when she sent her bracelet to Ewing:
“I want so much to have my bracelet included in the melting for the Vietnam POW Memorial. My major was one of the 55 who died in captivity, so he certainly belongs in the memorial mold. I hope this doesn’t reach you too late for it to be included. I live close enough to Valley Forge should it be put there — to visit and know that a small part of me is there.”
There is a small vault at the base of the memorial for additional bracelets to be added to the site.
The dedication address on April 6, 1974, was given by Army Col. Benjamin H. Purcell, who had been a POW in Hanoi from 1968 to 1973. He said, in part:
“I am humbly grateful for this privilege to have a part in dedicating this fitting memorial to all Americans Killed in Action and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. It is a beautiful work of art which preserves for future generations the respect which we Americans today have for our brothers who have sacrificed so much for us. …
“No returnee considers himself a hero, but only a soldier who did his best under difficult circumstances to keep faith with his country and with his fellow prisoners, to maintain his health, and to keep alive the hope that eventually he would come home with honor.
“Each returnee has his own unique story to tell and I can speak today only of my own personal experiences. I’ve already forgotten many things which happened during the past five years; there are other things I want to forget but have been unable to do so. Yet there remains vivid in my mind some facts and lessons which seem appropriate to relate to you at this time.
“Perhaps above all else, I learned the true meaning of “life,” for it is “Man’s most precious possession, it is given to him but once and he ought to live it so as to have no torturous regrets of wasted years. To never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past. So live that dying he might say, All my life, all my strength I’ve given to the greatest cause in all the world, the struggle for the liberation of mankind.” Those inspiring words, written by Nikolai Ostrovsky in his book How the Steel Was Tempered, provided me with a great deal of encouragement.
“Throughout the time I was a prisoner, I never questioned that some day I would be free to come home. For me it was only a matter of patience and of staying alive; of making the best use of my time to maintain my physical and mental health. Ever present was the assurance that America had never forsaken her sons who became prisoners of war and she would not forsake us either!
“Irrespective of that assurance, I tried to help my own cause and did manage to escape twice while detained in solitary near Hanoi but I simply could not get out of the country without assistance. Consequently, I am here today as a returned prisoner from the Southeast Asian conflict not because of my own abilities but because our nation’s leaders, backed up by the strength of the American people, had the courage of their convictions and kept faith with us. …
“During imprisonment, most of the prisoners suffered in various ways. The greatest cross I bore was 58 months of solitary confinement — out of touch with fellow prisoners and my loved ones. We’ve all been put to the test … much like those loyal troops of Gen. Washington who were tested here at Valley Forge that severe winter almost 200 years ago. Our experiences have helped us see more clearly the need of human beings to associate with others and to be able to work and be of useful service.
“Having served as a Survivor Assistance Officer prior to my departure for Vietnam, I knew the policy of our government was to take care of the next of kin of those servicemen who met with misfortune. This knowledge helped me not to worry too much about the welfare of my wife and our five children, even though I received no news from them for more than five years. Further, I was always confident of my wife’s love and of her love for our children — this contributed a lot toward my ‘peace of mind’ and helped me withstand the rigors of prison life.
“Man’s most precious possession, second only to life, is freedom.” These were the first words I spoke upon arrival at Clark Air Base on 27 March last year. For many years I had taken freedom too much for granted, and after losing it for awhile realized how great a blessing it is. The founders of the United States thought that true freedom was obedience to moral laws. Today, we know that the lack of respect for order, justice and sound authority work to diminish this wonderful gift that has been handed down for generations.
“Many people today have trouble understanding that for all citizens to have the maximum freedom, each must give up some freedom, for no one is entitled to more than his fair share. At this point, and just for the record, let me say that the visits to North Vietnam by various U.S. personalities damaged my morale and the morale of others, and in my opinion prolonged the war by encouraging the enemy to have false hopes that our national will was weakening. I cannot accept the premise that their ‘freedoms’ were so broad as to permit them to act in such a way as to deprive American POWs of our basic rights, specifically our right to expect and receive the full backing of our nation, but most importantly to experience an early end of the war and subsequent repatriation.
“It has been just over one year since ‘Operation Homecoming’ went into full swing and 588 prisoners of war came home. I think Operation Homecoming was a tremendous effort on the part of the Defense Department to make our return as smooth as possible, and I can attest that all persons involved in it did a magnificent job. At first I was embarrassed by all the attention, and still am for that matter, but soon realized it was an expression of sincere sentiment by the American people who seemed to consider our homecoming as the outward sign that American involvement in Southeast Asia had ended. It was a time for rejoicing, but it was also a time to access the cost. It was a time we as a people realized that ‘All have given some, some have given all.’
“Unfortunately for many families, the waiting and hoping has not yet ended. We have in our midst representatives of a unique and courageous group who continue to bear a personal burden — a burden of grief and of anxiety, of not knowing for sure what has happened to their loved ones.
“It is a pressing and justifiable desire of each returned prisoner of war that this nation’s leaders continue with utmost urgency to press for a full accounting of our fellow countrymen who are still Missing in Action. Our own freedom and happiness can never be complete so long as their status remains unresolved. …
“Upon my return to the United States last year, I learned of how millions of Americans, concerned with the plight of U.S. prisoners and MIAs labored diligently to bring the issue before U.S. and world public opinion. I believe their efforts contributed to the overall improvement of our food, living conditions and treatment. They are now continuing their effort to keep the MIA issue alive and though we have often expressed our gratitude for their efforts, on behalf of POWs once again I say, Thank you.
“One of the most visible devices used by these concerned Americans was the well-known POW/MIA bracelet. Consequently, it is most fitting to have a memorial dedicated to all Americans Killed or Missing in Action fashioned from a large number of these bracelets. Further, I can think of no more appropriate location for such a memorial than here in the vicinity of Valley Forge, a place which has become such a very real part of our American tradition and a lasting tribute to the dedication of those first patriotic Americans who loved Freedom so much they were willing to die that we might be free.
“The solitude I experienced provided me with time to think, and though I do not pretend to be a philosopher, I would like to share a few thoughts with you before I close. I wish I could say to you today that peace is guaranteed — that peace is permanent, but that would be unrealistic as history shows a different pattern. Will Durant has written that ‘In the last 3,400 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.’ America must remain strong, morally as well as militarily, ‘Not to promote war, but to preserve the peace.’
“Today our world faces many problems of major importance but in no other area do I perceive a greater need for the advancement of knowledge than in the field of human relations. We need to develop an understanding between all peoples of the world recognizing and guaranteeing true freedom and equality, and we need to base our actions, not upon force and violence, but upon an unselfish love and concern for each other.
“Prior to going to Vietnam, I accepted on blind faith the teachings of Christ. I unashamedly state that this faith, though blind as it was, helped sustain me during the more difficult years as a prisoner. As time passed, my beliefs matured to the point that I now see that the essence of Christianity, and of happiness, is a matter of living each day for others and being confident the future will take care of itself.
“Though I have great confidence in our American youth and believe they are searching for a place of service, I sometimes have an uneasy feeling as I see what appears to be a misuse of personal freedom and perhaps even an inordinate desire for pleasure and material wealth. I sincerely hope that our young people today will not waste their lives in such vain pursuits but rather will search for a worthwhile endeavor and prepare well for one of the many challenges before us as a nation, for in so doing, they will help preserve our nation’s freedom and contribute their worthy share to making the world a better place in which to live.
“At the same time, and with due recognition for the purpose of this beautiful memorial, a life dedicated to the cause they served is the most appropriate way for you and I to honor the memory of our friends who have fallen in battle, to remember the contribution of those who have suffered the wounds of war and to keep faith with those stalwart men who remain Missing in Action — for they all have had a role in defending freedom from the bridge at Concord to Pearl Harbor, and from the Pusan perimeter to the jungles of Vietnam
“So, as we approach the 200th anniversary of our nation’s birth, let us not forget those difficult battles throughout our history when our servicemen provided the strength to secure ‘peace with honor’ in order that we here today may be free to choose how best to serve, not our own selfish interests, but the happiness of mankind.”