Published November 11th, 2019 at 6:00 AM
There is a memorial marker at Sunset Hills Christian Church in Kansas City, Kansas, for one of its members that reads, in part: “In honor of Larry Welsh MIA since January 1969.”
More than 500 miles away in a small Tennessee town, there is a simple bracelet on the right wrist of Mike McFerrin that reads, in part: “Larry D. Welsh, Sgt. MIA 01-07-69.”
The marker and bracelet each represent the immeasurably difficult remembrance of a young man who went to war but has yet to come home.
“Why I have I worn it this long? I can sum it up in two words – honor and hope,” says the 71-year-old McFerrin. “I would like to think that if it were me, I would want to know that I was not forgotten and that someone still holds out hope that I will someday get to come home.”
McFerrin’s bracelet is a part of a massive remembrance by the general public during the Vietnam War.
A Los Angeles-based college student organization, Voices in Vital America, originated the bracelets as a way to bring public awareness to prisoners of war and service members missing in action in the war. An official kickoff of the bracelets took place on Veterans Day 1970.
For $2.50 (a price determined by a student admission to a movie theater), people could receive a nickel-plated bracelet with the rank, name and loss date of an American service member captured or missing. The service member’s name was randomly chosen for the recipient.
The organization says it distributed about 5 million bracelets before closing its doors in 1976. Proceeds from the bracelets were used to produce bumper stickers and newspaper ads to draw attention to missing servicemen.
Even now, these bracelets can be purchased on the Internet from numerous vendors.
McFerrin got Welsh’s bracelet when he was in the Air Force stationed in the Philippines in 1970. He requested an enlisted man, like himself.
“It’s the only jewelry we were allowed to wear on the flight line as I was in a maintenance squadron and jewelry was forbidden,” he says.
McFerrin wore the original bracelet every day until his arm turned green. He ordered a sterling silver bracelet to wear, although he has kept the original bracelet.
“I had it engraved exactly like the original only I added the GPS coordinates of the last place Larry was seen alive according to the after-action report from the military,” McFerrin says. “I have worn the bracelet every single day of my life, twenty-four hours a day, except for two days about a month-and-a-half ago when I had to undergo some minor surgery.”
According to reports, U.S. Army Sgt. Larry Welsh’s platoon “was engaged in a firefight with the Viet Cong on Jan. 7, 1969, northwest of Tay Ninh City, Tay Ninh Province, about eight miles from the border of South Vietnam and Cambodia. Welsh, slightly injured by fragmentation wounds, removed his shirt and told another wounded soldier that he was going for help. The soldier then observed Welsh walk down a path toward an area where artillery shells were falling. Returning to the battle scene the next day, searchers found one man dead and a wounded man hiding in a hollow log. The search team found Welsh’s eyeglasses, wallet, shirt and the watch with the silver chain wristband that he wore, but Larry was not seen again.“
Welsh, then 21, was the only man unaccounted for in Vietnam on that day. He was sent to Vietnam only one month earlier.
The bracelets helped stress the importance of accountability for missing service members – even to this day, says Randy Barnett, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 317, in Kansas City.
There are 1,587 service members still reported missing from the Vietnam War.
“The bracelets drove home the fact we need to know what happened to them,” says Barnett, who himself has two POW/MIA bracelets he plans to one day leave at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
The POW/MIA bracelets and military dog tags are the most frequently left items at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, funded and built by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
The nonprofit’s website has a virtual Wall of Faces that includes countless posts of remembrances.
There are five pages of remembrances on the Wall of Faces for Welsh.
“It is nice people are still thinking of my brother,” says Charlotte Alderson, who lives in the Kansas City area. “I’m really grateful that they still think of our vets. A lot of people don’t realize what our military does for us… I think of my brother every day. If he isn’t alive, I know he’s in a better place.”
The POW/MIA bracelets were to be worn until a service member came home.
Laura Hessell Hewitt of Prairie Village was able to take her POW/MIA bracelet off under the happiest of circumstances.
Hewitt received her bracelet in 1970 when she was a student at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan.
“I got the bracelet to make a statement – bring these guys home,” she says. “I wore it every day all the time.”
In one of Hewitt’s photographs, a small sliver of her POW/MIA bracelet can be glimpsed near the cuff of her long-sleeved dress she wore on her wedding day in January 1973.
Later that same year, Hewitt was stunned while watching a television news report of troops returning home from Vietnam.
“His name came up on the screen,” she says. “I took it off.”
Hewitt doesn’t remember the name on her bracelet nor what happened to her bracelet. She does have her late mother’s bracelet of George J. Pollin, an Air Force major.
Pollin’s remains were returned and identified in December 1990. He was interred a month later at Arlington National Cemetery.
The emotional bond these bracelets created is strong, says Heidi Zimmerman, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s vice president of programs and communications. She says often POW/MIA bracelet owners call ahead of visiting the memorial to seek the exact location of a service member’s name.
Zimmerman had only been working at the nonprofit for a few weeks in 2014 when she took one of her most memorable phone calls.
A woman wanted the location on the memorial of the service member on a bracelet she had since 1973. Zimmerman couldn’t find the name, that is, until she looked at a different resource.
“He had come home alive,” Zimmerman recalls. “She started crying hysterically. She didn’t know he had come home and she had the bracelet since 1973. She was so happy to know he had come home.”
McFerrin, back in Tennessee, hopes every day that Larry Welsh will return home to KCK.
“I made a vow to myself to always wear his bracelet until his remains were found and returned home or until my death,” McFerrin says. “I still hold out hope that one day his remains will be found and returned home.”
On Veterans Day, the National World War I Museum and Memorial is hosting a 10 a.m. ceremony featuring a keynote address by Pellom McDaniels III, a former member of the Kansas City Chiefs and current curator of African-American Collections at Emory University’s Rose Library in Atlanta. The event is free.
A new exhibit, “The Vietnam War: 1945-1975,” also has opened at the World War I Museum and runs through next May. Free general admission is available to veterans and active duty military personnel on Veterans Day. A detailed list of activities is available at the museum’s website, theworldwar.org.
Also, episodes of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” documentary are scheduled to be shown throughout November on Kansas City PBS’ KCPT2.
Debra Skodack is a Kansas City area freelance writer. She received Larry Welsh’s POW/MIA bracelet almost 50 years ago when she was a student at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She has kept his bracelet with her ever since.