In 1971, Pam Williams of South Haven, Miss., saw an advertisement in the Memphis Commercial Appeal for POW bracelets. They were being sold for $3 as a way to remember U.S. missing troops and prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.
The high school freshman ordered one and wore it with pride until it got thin and brittle. She then kept it packed safely away with her jewelry for 47 years.
“A lot of girls sent off for bracelets,” said Williams, now of Gallatin, Tenn. “We wore them faithfully. It was our contribution to the war.”
Recently, she wondered what happened to her hero, Jack Van Loan, now of Columbia. Van Loan was a fighter pilot who was captured after being shot down, held and tortured for nealy six years in the notorious Hanoi Hilton with future senator and presidential candidate John McCain.
“I didn’t know where he was from or anything,” she said. “I felt so terrible that I didn’t know what happened to him.”
Williams wanted to return the bracelet to Van Loan’s family, assuming he was dead. But to her surprise, she found out through an online search that Van Loan was alive and well and living in Columbia. And on Friday, at Columbia’s Veterans Day Parade, Williams met Van Loan, who was being honored as grand marshal, for the first time.
“Things happen like they’re supposed to,” said Williams, who drove to Columbia Thursday from Tennessee with her husband, Larry. “This is really special. I just thanked him for his service and told him how much I admire his story. I should have done that 10 years ago.”
A U.S. Air Force pilot, Van Loan was shot down over North Vietnam on May 20, 1967. He injured his knee when he parachuted to Earth, and his captors made the injury worse through torture.
The torture, which became more horrifying, continued for most of his six years of captivity. Van Loan was released on March 4, 1973, with the second large group of POWs to be freed after the Paris Peace Accords ended America’s involvement in the war. He had been held for 70 months.
Van Loan, a colonel, settled in Columbia after retiring from duty at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. He served for 20 years as executive director of the the Five Points Association, and is credited with being the force behind the success of the urban village’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Van Loan, 85, who is honored with a statue in Five Points, said he was surprised to hear about William’s visit.
“My surprise never ceases,” he said. “I’m surprised every day I wake up.”
There were about 5 million POW bracelets distributed across the nation between 1970 and 1976 with the intention that U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam not be forgotten. Van Loan said the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton had no idea such a thing existed until they returned home.
“None of us could believe it,” he said. “We thought they must of flipped or something. But we found out later (the show of support for the prisoners) totally unsettled the Vietnamese.”
The wearers were supposed to keep them on until the service member named on the bracelet, or his remains, were returned to America. Through the years, those who wore the bracelets, like Williams, often sought out the families of the missing service members and returned them.
Van Loan said he has received about 300 personally. “I got two just the other day,” he said.
But it is rare, he said, that he ever gets to meet the wearer. And to have that occur on the same day that he is the grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade “is overwhelming,” he said.
“I guess they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he joked.
“It’s been a long time since I got out of jail,” he said, referring to his captivity. “This is a great honor and I am grateful.”
Williams said, “It’s an honor and privilege to meet him. I’m just grateful for the experience and very proud to be an American.”