Bracelets to Remember
Who remembers the early 70's? Who remembers P.O.W.- M.I.A. bracelets? The Vietnam War was a big deal during my High School years. Don't waste too much time trying to figure out how old I am. If you were in High School in the 70's you would already have a good idea. These bracelets were a big part of my High School experience. They were first created in May 1970 by VIVA (Voices in Vital America). Their purpose was, and still is to increase public awareness regarding the plight of American Prisoners of War, still missing and unaccounted for. (Find Memorial Bracelets)
My mother worked at the Air Force Academy for several years in the 70's and she brought home two of the first P.O.W/M.I.A. bracelets that had been seen there. She gifted one to me and came home wearing her own. I remember us wearing them faithfully for James W. Widdis, Jr. missing, 23 Mar 1969 and Ralph Thomas Browning missing, 8 Jul 1966.
I always wore my bracelet, even though it was really too big for me. It was bent in the middle from trying to make it a little smaller for my wrist size. I kept the little plastic bag and card explaining its use and purpose. The instructions were to wear it and never take it off until your soldier returned home. I had been so resolute and committed, until my resolve quietly faded away. Graduating High School, getting a job and becoming a responsible adult was next on the list. As life in general took over, my M.I.A. soldier, James W. Widdis, Jr., became more of a precious and sentimental High School memory, still tucked safely away in my tiny little childhood jewelry box.
While my M.I.A. soldier remained missing, my mom's P.O.W, Ralph Thomas Browning came home alive. He had been kept prisoner at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" and the news of his return was better than most could hope for. Ralph Thomas Browning was alive and returned, 12 Feb 1973, at which time he was a United States Air Force command pilot.
In Veteran Tributes.org it is told that Browning, "Was forced to eject over North Vietnam and was taken as a Prisoner of War on July 8, 1966. After spending 2,412 days in captivity, Capt. Browning was released during Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. He was briefly hospitalized to recover from his injuries at Maxwell AFB."
"His Silver Star Citation reads:
For gallantry and intrepidity in action in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force during the period from July 8, 1966 to July 20, 1966, while a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. Ignoring international agreements on treatment of prisoners of war, the enemy resorted to mental and physical cruelties to obtain information, confessions, and propaganda materials. Captain Browning resisted their demands by calling upon his deepest inner strengths in a manner which reflected his devotion to duty and great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force ."
After having a successful military career he retired Sept 1, 1992, as Brigadier General Ralph T. Browning!
So, my mom's P.O.W came home! As exciting and thankful as I was, it was a bittersweet moment. Where was my M.I.A, James W. Widdis, Jr. and what was he doing at that exact moment in time? He was still not accounted for.
Then in 1991 my mom sadly passed away at the age of 52. I inherited her jewelry box and inside was her P.O.W. bracelet for Ralph Thomas Browning. It brought back a flood of memories and motivation to again prevail in my search for the fate of James W. Widdis, Jr.. Unfortunately, I still could not acquire any news of his fate. My tiny little jewelry box now holds two bracelets.
What seemed a lifetime went by quickly. I realized that I should, once again, try to find James Widdis' final fate. It was surprisingly easy to discover what I had been waiting for and hoping to uncover for so long. I found a final report for James W. Widdis, Jr. who was brought home to his final resting place, October 18, 1996. It had happened! He was brought home and I finally understood his fate and happy he didn't have to wait for me to make that discovery. Not really knowing how to feel about how long it took me to know his final fate, I was still elated to know that James W. Widdis was home, where he belonged.
Here is what is said to have happened to him: (found at pownetwork.org.)
"Some of these A26s were assigned to the 609th Special Operations Squadron at NKP. On March 23, 1969, an A26A departed NKP on a combat mission with a crew consisting of Capt. James W. Widdis Jr., pilot, and Capt. Robert C. Davis, navigator. As the two were about 15 miles west of the Ban Karai Pass, the aircraft was struck by hostile fire.
No parachutes were seen and no beepers were heard, but the opportunity
existed for the two to safely eject, and they were listed missing in action.
Davis was determined presumed dead in 1975, and Widdis in 1978. During the
period they were listed missing, Widdis was promoted to the rank of
Lieutenant Colonel and Davis to Major" and "On October 18, 1996, Joint Task Force–Full Accounting (JTF-FA, now DPAA) identified the remains of Major James Wesley Widdis Jr., missing from the Vietnam War."
All of the sudden, my questions were answered and I was at a loss. What do I do now with the bracelet in my tiny little jewelry box? I had previously contemplated that if I could find his family, I would give it to them. However, I quickly realized, I had no personal relationship with James W. Widdis. None the less; still just as real to me. It was like reading an exciting mystery novel that ends abruptly in the middle and no happy ending. Not knowing what to do next, I asked myself a question. What would be the best way for me to honor his life and the life he gave for his country?
Hmmm? I don't live too far from Colorado Springs, why don't I go pay my respects to him at his final resting place and say my goodbye's there. He lies in the Air Force Academy Cemetery in Colorado Springs. When I get there, I will be wearing James W. Widdis' bracelet from my tiny little jewelry box; where it will stay.
My mom saved a newspaper article from March 18, 1973 in the Colorado Springs, Gazette. It is an article from the "Associated Press" titled: Poetry Was Written by POWs in N. Viet Camps. The article begins: "Their bodies were imprisoned, but their minds sought freedom. They sought it through verse, the poet POWs of the Hanoi Hilton. One of the poems was written by Air Force Captain, Ralph "Tom" Browning. This is what was written:
Air Force Capt. Ralph "Tom" Browning, 32, shot down July 1966 over North Vietnam, wrote a poem to his wife Ann, upon learning of the cease-fire:
The brilliance of sunlight in adolescent morn
More radian than crystal
It seems to say
There will be warmth and calm today . . .
Love's flame burns brighter than every before
I pledge you my love Evermore
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Stacey Wallace Rehbein
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