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By Marc Leepson

Newton Heisley died May 14 at his home in Colorado Springs. He was 88 years old. The Williamsport, Pennsylvania, native flew C-46 transports for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, then went on to a long career as a commercial artist and graphic designer for advertising agencies in New York, New Jersey, and Colorado.

Newt Heisley created countless images during his long, fruitful career. One of those images, which he sketched in pencil in 1971, has made an indelible mark on American culture and society. That year the agency Heisley was working for received a contract from Annin & Co., the nation’s oldest and largest flag manufacturer, to design a flag for the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia. The idea for such a flag came from League member Mary Hoff, the wife of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hoff. An A-7 Sidewinder pilot, Hoff had been listed as missing in action since January 7, 1970, after he did not return from an armed reconnaissance mission over Laos.

Heisley sat at his drawing table and sketched three different designs. He chose the one with a black-and-white image of a gaunt man in profile with a guard tower and a strand of barbed wire in the background—an image that now blankets the nation.

Historians and vexilollogists (flag experts) believe that Heisley’s POW/MIA flag is the only non-national flag that any federal government in history has mandated to be flown regularly. Two laws put that practice in place. The first went into effect on August 10, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed Public Law 101-355. That measure designated the third Friday of September as National POW/MIA Recognition Day and also officially recognized the POW/MIA flag. The law designated the flag as “the symbol of our nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing, and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.”

In 1998, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law that year’s Defense Authorization Act. Section 1082 of that law mandated that the POW/MIA flag be flown over the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials, the offices of the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Veterans Affairs, of the Selective Service System, and in the grounds or in the lobbies of every major military installation, every post office, and all VA Medical Centers and national cemeteries on six days: POW/MIA Recognition Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day.

Heisley had no idea his flag would turn into such a ubiquitous symbol when he drew it up in 1971. In fact, he was still working on the design, planning to add color to the black and white image, when Annin & Co. began production. He based the silhouette on his son, Jeffrey, then 24, who was home on leave from Marine Corps training and getting over a bout of hepatitis. Heisley chose the words “You are not forgotten” thinking back to his long, solo flights over the South Pacific during World War II when he pondered his fate if he were to be taken prisoner.

The flag “was intended for a small group,” Heisely told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1997. “No one realized it was going to get national attention.” That attention includes several firsts. The POW/MIA flag is the only flag, other than the Stars and Stripes, ever to fly over the White House. It was first displayed there on POW/MIA Recognition Day 1982. The flag was installed in 1989 in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where it remains on permanent display.

In addition to the federal government, many states mandate flying the flag. Oregon, for example, requires the POW flag be flown on or near the state capitol on the same holidays as the national law. In Vermont, state law requires the flag to be flown on all state-owned flagpoles. In Washington, every state agency, every state institution of higher education, and every county, city, and town must display the flag on the same six holidays. In Ohio, the General Assembly “encourages” the display of the flag during normal business hours at all public buildings. Nearly all American veterans’ groups have adopted the flag enthusiastically. Every official VVA ceremony on the local, state, and national levels includes the display of the POW/MIA flag. VVA’s national POW/MIA Committee operates under a continuing Resolution to “sustain and spread the use of the flag and to educate the public on its meaning.”

As for Nate Heisely, he was initially taken aback by the flag’s popularity. “At first he was almost embarrassed, but he got kind of used to it,” his son James told the Gazette after his father’s death. Nate Heisely wore the image on his hat, his lapel, and his license plate. “It defined his life,” James Heisely said.

VVA Veteran Arts Editor Marc Leepson’s books include Flag: An American Biography, a history of the American flag from its beginnings.



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