In the midst of protests, cultural upheaval, social unrest, and a protracted conflict in Southeast Asia, America in 1969–70 was at what felt like a fearful crossroads. The Zeitgeist was infused with a burdensome sense of uncertainty—and nothing circa 1970 epitomized uncertainty more than concern over the fate of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. Out of that angst, a movement sprang up to show support for the POWs and those missing in action. The effort began humbly, then gained momentum and grew to be an early-’70s cultural phenomenon: the Vietnam POW/MIA bracelet.
“The idea for the bracelets was started by a fellow college student, Kay Hunter, and me, as a way to remember American prisoners of war suffering in captivity in Southeast Asia,” recalled Carol Bates Brown at the website of the National League of POW/MIA Families (www.pow-miafamilies.org). “I was the national chairman of the POW/MIA Bracelet Campaign for VIVA [Voices in Vital America], the Los Angeles–based student organization that produced and distributed the bracelets.”
The idea attracted high-visibility support; Bob Hope signed on as one of the honorary co-chairs. “On Veterans Day, November 11, 1970, we officially kicked off the bracelet program with a news conference,” said Brown. “Public response quickly grew, and we eventually got to the point we were receiving over 12,000 requests a day.” By the Vietnam War’s end, “In all, VIVA distributed nearly 5 million bracelets and raised enough money to produce untold millions of bumper stickers, buttons, brochures, matchbooks, newspaper ads, etc., to draw attention to the missing men.”
This particular POW/MIA bracelet bears the name of U.S. Navy Commander John H. Fellowes (1932–2010), who was on his 55th bombing mission, piloting an A-6 Intruder off the USS Constellation (CVA-64), when he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. For six and a half years (more than two of them in solitary confinement), being shuffled among five different POW camps (including the infamous Hanoi Hilton), “Jack” Fellowes was starved, beaten, and tortured—including a 12-hour torture ordeal that left his arms permanently damaged. Released in 1973, he was awarded the Silver Star and continued to serve in the Navy, retiring as a captain in 1986.
The Fellowes bracelet recently was donated to the U.S. Naval Institute’s archives by Karen Messineo, who had purchased the bracelet and worn it during her years as a high school girl in the early ’70s. By her donation, the bracelet has found its way to the selfsame Institute that conducted and published the oral history of Jack Fellowes in 1975. Now, after many years, these pieces of the past have come together—one rediscovered while going through an old box of teen-years memorabilia, one featuring the frank remembrances of Hell from a freed POW willing to bare his story while the memories were still fresh. And on the hill just outside Naval Institute headquarters, Captain Fellowes himself lies in his eternal rest in the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.
“I get a feeling sometimes we’re treated a little too much like heroes,” Fellowes mused in his oral history. “We’re just American fighting men, but . . . we did serve our country well.”