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POW/MIA day brings somber ceremony, one quietly symbolic tradition

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
A small table covered in a simple cloth on board the USS Wasp pays tribute to the 83,000 prisoners of war and missing in action.
A small table covered in a simple cloth on board the USS Wasp pays tribute to the 83,000 prisoners of war and missing in action.
  • Some 83,000 Americans are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action
  • They will be honored in ceremonies throughout the U.S. on Friday
  • Empty table set in mess halls is a less public tradition

(CNN) -- Around the country on Friday, you'll likely see the iconic black and white POW-MIA flag flying over federal buildings. At military bases, there will be ceremonies with troops in dress uniforms marching and leaders speaking.

At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will oversee a ceremony that will conclude with a flyover by warplanes and helicopters in honor of the 83,000 known service members still listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.

But not every remembrance of those Americans will include such pomp and activity.

If you were to walk through the mess hall of a Navy ship or an Army installation, you might see a small table covered in a simple cloth. One chair sits in front of a single formal place setting. On the plate, salt and a slice of lemon. Next to the plate, a glass vase containing a red rose with a red ribbon around the base.

This silent tribute is full of symbolism.

The table is round "to show our everlasting concern" according to the National League of POW/MIA Families website.

The cloth is white, "symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to duty."

The rose reminds "us of the lives of these men ... and their loved ones and friends who keep the faith, while seeking answers."

The red ribbon "symbolizes our continued determination to account for them."

The slice of lemon "reminds us of the bitter fate of those captured and missing in a foreign land."

The salt "symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families who long for answers after decades of uncertainty."

A Bible represents the "strength gained through faith in our country, founded as one nation under God, to sustain those lost from our midst."

A glass is inverted on the table "to symbolize their inability to share this evening's toast."

Finally, there is the empty chair, with that obvious symbolism.

At larger events where POW/MIA groups gather, a similar table will be set, but with identical place settings, one for each of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, and a sixth for civilians still missing.

Pam Cain, secretary of the League of POW/MIA Families, said when an explanation is read of what each item symbolizes, she "can barely get through it to the end."

Cain's father, Col. Oscar Mauterer, disappeared after bailing out from his burning plane during a mission over Laos in 1966.

She said the POW/MIA table is an important, if not well known, part of her organization's efforts to remember the missing.

Friday night, as you sit down for dinner, look at the salt or perhaps the chair with a loved one next to you and remember there are those still waiting for a loved one to come home.