Constable: Vietnam bracelets still make bold statement
Gently lifting the lid of her wooden jewelry box, Barbara Van Slambrouck, 60, reveals a vintage stash whose value is known only to her. There's a yarn bracelet made a generation ago by one of her children, a necklace fashioned from beads and clothespins, a Mickey Mouse wristwatch, a few baby teeth, a "World's Greatest Mom" ribbon and a modest stainless-steel bracelet engraved with the name Richard Girard Morin.
"I bought it in high school. I used my baby-sitting money," Van Slambrouck, of Des Plaines, says of the bracelet. "I wasn't real political but the Vietnam War was always on the news, and I wanted to help the POWs and the missing."
Morin, a husband and Marine from Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and pilot Robert D. Kent, 28, of Dallas, Texas, took off in their two-seat McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II jet for a mission across the Vietnam border into Laos on Dec. 20, 1968. Under hostile fire, their plane went down and they were listed as missing in action.
The bracelet with Morin's name arrived in the mail to Van Slambrouck's New Jersey home in 1973 or 1974. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, I got this old guy.' He was 24," she says.
For many teenagers in the 1970s, those bracelets, bearing different names of soldiers that were either missing or prisoners of war, were an uncontroversial way to connect with a war on the other side of the world that was dividing our nation at home. Some no doubt wore them as a statement against the war. Others wore them in support of our troops. And some probably wore them simply because they were a phenomenon that sold in every state, in farm towns and cities.
"We have no idea how many were sold, millions," says Ann Mills-Griffiths, 76, chief executive officer of the National League of Families, an organization she has spearheaded for the past 40 years. The League continues to work toward the goal of getting our government to account for every military person taken prisoner or missing.
Looking for a way to publicize the plight of prisoners of war, college students Carol Bates and Kay Hunter hatched the bracelet idea while part of a Los Angeles-based group called Voices in Vital America. Launched on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1970, with the help of many volunteers, including celebrities such as Bob Hope and Martha Raye, the bracelet (originally selling at $2.50 for students and $3 for adults) became an instant success.
"Public response quickly grew and we eventually got to the point we were receiving over 12,000 requests a day," writes Bates in her story on the National League of Families' website. She dropped out of college to work full time on the bracelets and other POW-MIA programs. The group sold some bracelets on consignment to relatives of the missing men, who resold them to raise money for local organizations.
"None of us got rich off the bracelets," Bates says, noting they distributed nearly 5 million bracelets and untold millions of buttons, bumper stickers, brochures, matchboxes, newspaper ads and more "to draw attention to the missing men." As soon as the original bracelets hit the market, other manufacturers copied the bracelet idea. On April 30, 1975, the last Americans were airlifted out of Saigon. The next year, VIVA closed its doors.
"By then, the American public was tired of hearing about Vietnam and showed no interest in the POW/MIA issue," Bates concluded.
But the bracelets still spark conversations.
"We hear from people constantly: 'My mother just passed away and we found this bracelet with her jewelry,'" Mills-Griffiths says. The National League of Families website, pow-miafamilies.org, provides a wealth of information to visitors who want to buy a bracelet, or directs individuals to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, dpaa.mil, to learn what happened to the man whose name became a part of their daily life in the 1970s.
Connie Riggs, a former Libertyville teacher and longtime librarian at Rockland Elementary School, remembers bringing the bracelet she bought in 1972 into a classroom to help students studying the Vietnam War. "It was a very scary time for me," Riggs says, explaining how her older brother narrowly missed being drafted. She wore the bracelet for Navy Lt. Walter O. Estes Jr., 28, who was shot down over North Vietnam on Nov. 19, 1967, and believed to be taken prisoner. The bracelet has been tucked away in a roll-top desk for decades.
"I come across it every now and then, and take it out and look at it," says Riggs, who now lives in her hometown of Rockford. Alongside her bracelet is a letter sent to her after she wrote to see what had happened to the name on her bracelet. Estes died while in captivity and his remains were returned to the U.S. in 1977.
Van Slambrouck remembers praying for her soldier and indulging herself with a fantasy. "Wouldn't it be nice if he met a Vietnamese woman and they had 10 kids or something and he was happy?" she remembers thinking. But the reality is that all those still unaccounted for are "presumed dead," says Mills-Griffiths, whose own brother, Capt. James B. Mills, 26, with the Naval Reserves from California, has been missing since his plane disappeared off radar on Sept. 21, 1966.
In 2011, the canopy frame from her brother's plane was discovered in 30 feet of water off the coast of Vietnam, as was a bone, which DNA matched to Mills' pilot, Lt. Cmdr. James R. Bauder, and returned to the U.S. in 2017. Her brother's remains are still missing. He is among the 1,598 Americans still "unaccounted for" in Southeast Asia, including Wheaton natives Gregory Lee Anderson, 22, Air Force, killed in action in 1970; Kenneth Keith Knabb Jr., 30, Navy, presumed dead since 1968; and Floyd Warren Olsen, 29, presumed dead since 1968; Des Plaines Marines Leonard J. Lewandowski Jr., 19, presumed dead since 1966, and David William Skibbe, 23, killed in 1970; and Waukegan native Leland Charles Cooke Sage, 25, Navy, killed in action in 1969.
When the traveling, half-size replica of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., came to Lake Park in Des Plaines last fall, Van Slambrouck dug out her bracelet with Morin's name. "I put it on and went to visit the wall," Van Slambrouck says, recalling the bittersweet closure for her. "I'm glad I found his name on the wall. I'm glad they didn't just make up a name and send me a bracelet. This was proof. It represented his life."