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What does the flag mean to you?

Flag, the bookI have written before that I use author Marc Leepson‘s wonderful book Flag: An American Biography. This book needs to be in every home, especially if you have school-aged children in the home, because it is such a splendid resource, and a delight to read.

I want to share a story with you, that has appeared in various forms in the press, on television, and on the Internet. But it is worth repeating, and I am going to quote it precisely from Leepson’s book and hope that he doesn’t mind.

This is a story about the flag: my flag, your flag, our flag.

The American flag proved to be an unequivocally positive symbol during the Vietnam War to the  men held as prisoners of war in Hanoi. The U.S. Navy pilot Michael Christian, who was shot down in North Vietnam and taken prisoner on April 24, 1967, was perhaps the most devoted to the flag. When he was held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp, Christian fashioned an American flag out  a few ragged bits of red and white cloth that he sewed into the inside of his prison-issue blue pajamas with a bamboo needle.

"Every afternoon we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance," said U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former navy pilot who was held with Christian. "For those men in that stark prison cell, it was indeed the most important and meaningful event of our day." When the prison guards discovered the flag in 1971, they beat Christian mercilessly, battering his face and breaking his ribs. While recovering from his wounds, Christian secretly made a replacement flag.

A few days after the beating, "Mike approached me, He said ‘Major, they got the flag, but they didn’t get the needle I made it with. If you agree, I’m making another flag,’ " said Air Force colonel George "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient held at the Hanoi Hilton from 1967 to 1973. "My answer was, ‘Do it.’ "

It took Christian "several weeks" to make that second flag, Day said. After he finished it, "there was never a day from that day forward that the Stars and Stripes did not fly in my room, with forty American pilots proudly saluting."

Al Kroboth, a U.S. Marine Corps A-6 navigator, was shot down July 7, 1972, over South Vietnam. Severely wounded, he was forced to march to the Hanoi Hilton where he was held until March 27, 1973, when the North Vietnamese released him and the other American POWs. When he saw the U.S. Air Force transport plane land in Hanoi to pick up the POWs that day, Kroboth said, he did not feel emotional until he noticed the large American flag painted on the airplane’s tail.

"That flag," he told the novelist Pat Conroy, a college classmate.  "It had the biggest American flag on it I ever saw. To this day, I cry when I think of it. Seeing that flag, I started crying. I couldn’t see the plane; I just saw the flag. All the guys started cheering. But that flag … that flag."

3 thoughts on “What does the flag mean to you?

  1. Dear Deborah,

    I don’t mind at all. In fact, I’d like to thank you for excerpting what I wrote and for your kind words about Flag.

    I will have the lead article in the Washington Post Outlook section this Sunday on the flag and the Flag Code. And in today’s Wall Street Journal, I reviewed a new book about the origins of the Fourth of July holiday. Both may be of interest to you.

    Best regards,

  2. Oh thank you Marc. This morning I read the book review you wrote for WSJ, and it prompted me to sit and thumb through “Flag.” I do that occasionally, seeking inspiration! Yesterday I’d planned on writing today about flags from the Revolutionary War, but that flew out of my memory when I came across the Michael Christian story again. I look forward to the Washington Post article on the Flag Code.

  3. what does the american flag mean to you.

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