- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — The table is set with a white tablecloth, a black napkin and white candle, and a plate with only a slice of lemon and salt. An empty chair leans against the table.

The tradition, little known to the general public, of setting an empty table with a white tablecloth in remembrance of prisoners of war and those missing in action had its beginnings with a group of fighter pilots who flew in Vietnam.

This Memorial Day, the story of the remembrance table will become a bit better known with the publication of the children’s picture book “America’s White Table.”

“It’s really thanking everyone who served — not just Vietnam, it has gone beyond that,” said Tom Hanton, a 60-year-old former fighter pilot who spent nine months as a POW in Vietnam. “It applies to those serving right now in Iraq and Afghanistan and all around the world.”

The book’s author, Margot Theis Raven of Mount Pleasant, said she would like to see the white table become a tradition for all Americans, just like putting out the flag on Independence Day.

“Be it Memorial Day or Veterans Day or the Fourth of July, that’s the point,” she said. “The point is every single day of freedom is brought to you by that person who is not sitting there.”

The book tells the story of a girl who helps her mother set a remembrance table in her home and how the sight brings tears to the eyes of her uncle, who served in Vietnam. For adults, the book provides details of the white table tradition and how it started.

The tradition, started by the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association — the so-called River Rats of Vietnam — has spread to other branches of the military where remembrance tables are set when units or commands gather for dinners or reunions.

The symbols on the tables may vary depending on the ceremony.

Generally, the tablecloth represents purity of heart, the black napkin the sorrow of captivity and the white candle, peace. The lemon represents the missing service member’s bitter fate and the salt, the tears shed by the families of the missing.

The tradition didn’t spread far from the military, perhaps, in part, because of the controversy that surrounded Vietnam.

“It’s characteristic of the Vietnam War,” said Chuck Jackson, 59, who spent eight months as a POW after his plane was shot down over Vietnam. “It wasn’t a war unless you were there. It didn’t affect you unless you were there or had someone who was there.”

After the war “the only people who got any sort of recognition were the POWs, which to me was almost embarrassing,” Mr. Hanton said.

Miss Raven, sitting with the vets in her home, said the book “talks about people who didn’t come home. But in essence, none of you came home.”

“Everybody came home minus something,” Mr. Jackson said. “The general public didn’t really want to recognize Vietnam — what went on there, the good and the bad.”

That has been changing.

Miss Raven is scheduled to read her book during a Memorial Day weekend combined meeting of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association and NAM-POWS, the Vietnam War prisoner of war association, in Washington.

Next month, Vietnam veterans will receive a special tribute in Branson, Mo., featuring a parade, flyovers by vintage aircraft and music from the Doobie Brothers, Tony Orlando and the Four Tops.

In July, during a ceremony at the replica of a Vietnam naval support base at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, Miss Raven again will read from the book. During that event, which will feature veterans and POWs, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s sons are expected to set a white remembrance table.

Miss Raven would like to see the tradition of the white table spread to homes and restaurants across the nation.

The table is “the most important image we can ever have, and it’s not political,” she said. “Even the flag can get politicized. This has no party and no agenda except that a person said ‘yes’ to duty, and that is always to be honored.”

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