The Confederate Stars and Bars tipped off a debate this summer along racial lines.
Now, the widely recognized POW-MIA flag, designed by a Jacksonville woman, is coming under fire.
A columnist — who referred to the POW/MIA flag as a “racist flag,” a “banner of lies” and called for it to be taken down on Tuesday — touched off a tornado of criticism.
The column by Rick Perlstein, the national correspondent for the little-known and left-leaning Washington Spectator, came to national attention after it was picked up and posted on Newsweek’s website.
In the column, Perlstein asserts the flag and the issue of POWs, were just tools of the Nixon administration to drum up support for what had become an unpopular war in Vietnam.
“In 1971, that damned flag went up,” Perlstein wrote. “The flag was the creation of the National League of Families of Prisoners of War, later the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, a fascinating part of the story in itself.”
There, Perlstein got it wrong.
The flag wasn’t a creation of the group.
The flag was an effort by one Jacksonville woman to make sure Americans did not forget that men were fighting, dying and missing in Southeast Asia.
One of the missing was her husband, Navy Cmdr. Michael G. Hoff, who was shot down in his F-4 Phantom over Laos in 1970.
“In World War II they had the banners people would hang from their windows with the blue stars or gold stars,” Ret. Col. Carl Crumpler said. “She started thinking, ‘Well, here I am an MIA’s wife and I don’t really have anything to identify me as such.’ “
Crumpler and his wife became life-long friends with Hoff.
Crumpler, an Air Force pilot, was shot down in 1968 and was a prisoner at the infamous Hanoi Hilton when Hoff was shot down.
He’d moved his wife to Jacksonville, his hometown, when he deployed so his family could help out with their four children.
“My wife and the kids were going to St. Catherine’s Catholic Church on Kingsley Avenue in Orange Park,” Crumpler said. “Mary Hoff had been a longtime member there and, when her husband was shot down, the priest asked my wife to go and visit her.”
Crumpler had already been missing two years by 1970.
“He’d just been shot down,” Jane Crumpler said. “She was just like all the rest of us, just in shock.
“We knew nothing and had to wait to find out because, being shot down over Laos, it was almost impossible to get anything.”
With five children, Hoff could barely leave the house. Still, she wanted to do something for her husband, Jane Crumpler said.
One day Hoff read a story in the Times-Union about Annin & Co. The flagmaker had refused to produce flags for the Chinese communists to display at the United Nations.
Hoff reached out to the company’s vice president and proposed the creation of the POW/MIA flag.
The company contracted graphic designer Newt Heisley to design the emblem.
Heisley’s first attempt didn’t suit Hoff and she returned it.
“I said, ‘I don’t want a lot of colors,’ “ Hoff told the Times-Union in 2009. “I had seen a picture of one of those POWs wearing black-and-white pajamas. And because of that I said, ‘We need a stark, black-and-white flag.’“
The first flags were actually hanging, verticle banners like the blue and gold star-adorned banners of World War II. They were sold out of Hoff’s home.
“She took the banner to a local meeting of the National League of Families of Prisoners of War and asked them what they thought about it,” Carl Crumpler said. “Then they took it to the state group and that’s when they turned it into a flag.”
The POW/MIA flag is today, for many Americans, the instantly recognizable and stark reminder Mary Hoff hoped it would be.
“For me, that flag represents a lot of friends that didn’t come back,” Carl Crumpler said. “A lot of guys would crash land, make contact with their camp — and then, poof! they were gone.”
As far as Perlstein’s column, Carl Crumpler threw up his hands in exasperation.
“Oh my god,” he said. “There’s always going to be those people who run around and say things like this.
“There was no racism in it — none.”
As for Perlstein, he issued an apology of sorts that has since been attached to his column at the Washington Spectator’s website.
“I sincerely regret the use of the word ‘racist’ to describe how the POW/MIA flag distorts the history of the Vietnam War,” he wrote. “The word was over the top and not called for.”
However, both he and his editor said they stood by the column.
For Mary Hoff, it’s unclear whether she knows of the controversy.
According to the Crumplers, the 84-year-old woman’s health is quickly deteriorating and she is being cared for by family.
Her husband’s body was never recovered.
“I never stopped thinking he wasn’t coming home,” Hoff told the Times-Union in 2004. “I know he isn’t coming home alive, but I never stopped thinking he wasn’t coming home.”
by Clifford Davis