“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
September 1966 – Cal State University, Northridge: When 18-year-old, freshman Carol Bates arrived on campus, she was greeted by anti-war demonstrations in response to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to increase U.S. troops in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. As the bloody war dragged on, anti-war sentiments led to frequent protests and class boycotts at Cal State.
A girl scout, Carol was raised in a conservative Republican household in Orange County, California. She was studying political science, had joined a sorority and was upset by the constant turmoil on campus. She also joined the Young Republicans organization and Voices in Vital America (VIVA), a student group fighting the unrest on campus.
Meanwhile, on May 12, 1967, 7,600 miles away, 44-year-old U.S. Air Force Colonel Norman Gaddis, a fighter pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam. It was his 73rd mission. Norman parachuted to the ground from his F-4 Phantom and was immediately surrounded by enemy soldiers. After beating him with rifle butts, they placed him in solitary confinement at the notorious Hanoi Hilton POW (Prisoner of War) camp. Three years later, a small, nickel-plated bracelet would link Norman and Carol’s life.
Back at Cal State, the National Guard arrested 275 protestors during a campus demonstration. Carol became increasingly bothered by the anti-war sentiment and the plight of POWs in Vietnam. In late 1969, at a Young Republican’s meeting, Carol and a sorority friend, Kay Hunter, met three women whose husbands were MIA in Vietnam. The wives were getting little traction from the U.S. Government to help them locate their fighter pilot husbands. POWs and MIAs were not talked about much by the national media. The only people concerned were the families who suffered in silence.
Determined to help, Carol got an idea for a bracelet from Bob Dornan, a conservative Los Angeles talk show host. The two sorority sisters created a bracelet to ensure Americans remembered POWs and MIAs (those Missing in Action) in Vietnam. The nickel-plated brass bracelets were engraved with the service man’s name, service rank and the date they were lost or missing. Carol got enough metal donated to make 1,500 bracelets. She had no idea how popular they would be.
On Veterans Day 1970, Carol, Kay and other VIVA members held a press conference to officially kick off their bracelet program. The idea was that those who wore the bracelets vowed to keep them on until the individual on the bracelet, or their remains, were returned to America.
The POW/MIA bracelets struck a chord with people in Southern California. Public response snowballed across the country. Carol began charging $2.50 per bracelet to cover the 75-cent cost to make it and reinvesting the profit to make more bracelets. Requests poured into VIVA for bracelets. By 1972, they were receiving 12,000 requests daily. They added staff and hired another bracelet maker.
The bracelets brought attention to POW/MIAs and helped unite a fractured nation. In February and March 1973, American POWs were released for the first time from Hanoi when 591 servicemen were flown home.
One of those released during Operation Homecoming was Colonel Norman Gaddis. He had been a POW for almost six years. Kept in solitary confinement and tortured numerous times, he never lost hope. It was three years before the first letter got through from his wife, Hazel, in Knoxville, Tennessee. It mentioned prayers and bracelets. Hazel bought hundreds of bracelets for family, friends and anyone who would wear her POWs bracelet. On March 4, 1975, their prayers were answered.
Five million bracelets were distributed from VIVA’s tiny office before the Vietnam War ended in April 1975. Carol never imagined the impact they would have. After the war, she went to work in the Pentagon’s POW/MIA Intelligence Office. As assistant director, she visited Vietnam many times and was responsible for helping search for Vietnam MIAs. She brought closure to many families.
Carol retired after 22 years in the Pentagon but still talks to the office weekly. Fifty years after the war, 1,587 servicemen remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Retired General Norman Gaddis celebrated his 100 birthday on October 1, 2023. He still has many of Carol’s bracelets.