This May, an exhibit dedicated to the stories of the wives and families of prisoners of war and missing in action during the Vietnam War was opened with a panel discussion with two of the women who lived — and are living — through it.
“Our idyllic life ended on April 24, 1967 — which is 50 years ago,” Helene Knapp told an audience who gathered May 7 to learn more about “The League of Wives: Vietnam’s POW/MIA Allies and Advocates” exhibit at the Robert J. Dole Institute for Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.
Mrs. Knapp’s Air Force pilot husband, Col. Herman Knapp, “was bombing a MIG base in North Vietnam and he was shot down,” she said. No further word came about him, and although the crash site has now been excavated at least six times, no human remains have been found.
So “we’re still waiting,” said Mrs. Knapp. “I am called a Missing in Action wife from the Vietnam War. And I have two grown children who were referred to as Missing in Action children.”
Jenny Connell Robertson told the audience that the last time she saw her husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Connell, was in 1965, when he left for Vietnam.
In July 1966, he was shot down but captured alive, she said. However, unbenownst to her for several years, he was subjected to severe torture and deprivation, and died in captivity in 1969.
Initially, when military wives received word that their husbands were POW/MIA, they were strongly advised not to talk about their spouses, and they obeyed, despite their loneliness and despair. But as time passed, a few of them — including Sybil Stockdale, wife of Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale, a POW for more than seven years — began planning how to bring their husbands’ plights to light.
The wives’ persistence and lobbying eventually paid off — their National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia (now known as the National League of POW/MIA Families), members of Congress and the Nixon administration achieved the safe return of hundreds of POWs from the North Vietnamese in 1973.
Today, the mission of accounting for all POW/MIA personnel, including those from other wars, continues.
The new exhibit, which will travel to Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum and the Virginia Historical Society, is curated by historian Heath Hardage Lee, author of the upcoming book, “The Reluctant Sorority: A True Story of Survival and Rescue from the Homefront.”
The underwriters of the exhibit are Harlan and Alice Ann Ochs of Colorado Springs, in honor of their late brother, Larry Ochs, former mayor of Colorado Springs and a strong advocate for POW/MIA issues.