Hand-written letters are a rarity these days. After all, we have e-mail, Facebook and cell phones. I can’t remember the last time I penned a hand-written letter.
That is perhaps why it is all that much more remarkable for me to reflect on the dozens of hand-written letters that were addressed “To the family of Lt. Col. Carl Karst, C/O VIVA, 10966 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. My mom had saved all of these letters, written in the early 1970s, and I toted them home recently in a suitcase filled with correspondence from family and friends from the period when my dad was missing in action in Viet Nam. I was only 9 when my dad was declared MIA and I was fairly oblivious to the letters at the time my mom received them.
All of the writers of the letters wore the POW/MIA bracelet of my dad, Air Force pilot Carl Karst, who was reported missing in action Nov. 16, 1968. Though he was ruled killed in action in 1974, my dad’s remains were not positively identified until September 1993. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery Oct. 3, 1993. His story is told here.
If you are 50 or older, you may remember the POW/MIA bracelets.
The story of the bracelets is told at this web site. In a campaign initially organized by Carol Bates and Kay Hunter of the California-based organization called Voices in Vital America (VIVA) as a way to remember American prisoners of war and missing in action in Southeast Asia.
Americans responded with enthusiasm to the campaign in the early 1970s. More than 5 million nickel-plated and copper bracelets were distributed at a cost of about $3 each.
Many of those who wore the bracelets wrote to families of the men on their bracelets, with VIVA receiving the letters and sending them in bundles to the wives and parents of the POW/MIAs.
As I look at those letters today, they frankly fill me with a love for America. The letters reflect the strata of society, from the Lt. Governor of Ohio to teenage girls and older men and women. The letters, replete with an eight cent stamp, were handwritten notes with colorful ink on flowered stationary or typed on official government letterhead. Most were written in cursive style by women, young and old.
Many talked about their lives, their family, their towns, their men.
High school girls would mention Homecoming or school activities, sometimes describing themselves or perhaps sending a picture. Many asked for more information about our family and a picture of my dad. Nearly everyone said they would pray for us. “Believe me I pray every night for him like you do,” one young woman from California wrote. Another girl said, “When I put the bracelet on I made the vow that I would not take off the bracelet until either Carl is found or the Red Cross gets into Hanoi.”
After the war was over and my dad was not among the returning prisoners of war, my mom sent a letter to many of those who had written her and let them know. Some sent the bracelets they had worn for so long back to her. Mom says she has enough to give to all her grandchildren and a few more besides. My kids may know only the rough outline of the story of the man whose name is engraved on the bracelet and nothing of the person who first wore it. These letters may help remind them someday - as they did for me today - that the legacy of one American’s sacrifice was honored by the compassion and concern of many others.