Table Tradition Honors Lost Vietnam Vets
By BRUCE SMITH, Associated Press Writer
Fri May 27, 4:17 PM ET
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. - The table is set with a white tablecloth, a
black napkin and white candle, and a plate with only a slice of lemon
and salt. An empty chair leans against the table.
The tradition, little known to the general public, of setting an empty
table with a white tablecloth in remembrance of prisoners of war and
those missing in action had its beginnings with a group of fighter pilots
who flew in Vietnam.
But what was started by the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots
Association — the so-called River Rats of Vietnam — has, during the
intervening years, spread to other branches of the military where
remembrance tables, or so-called missing man tables, are set when
units or commands gather for dinners or reunions.
This Memorial Day, the story of the remembrance table will become a
bit better known with the publication of the children's picture book
"America's White Table," which tells the story of the tables.
"It's really thanking everyone who served — not just Vietnam, it has
gone beyond that," said Tom Hanton, a 60-year-old former fighter pilot
who spent nine months as a POW in Vietnam. "It applies to those
serving right now in Iraq and Afghanistan and all around the world."
The book's author, Margot Theis Raven of Mount Pleasant, said she
would like to see white table become a tradition for all Americans, just
like putting out the flag on Independence Day.
"Be it Memorial Day or Veterans Day or the Fourth of July, that's the
point," she said. "The point is every single day of freedom is brought to
you by that person who is not sitting there."
The 32-page hardcover book in a 9 1/2- by 11 1/2-inch format has soft,
colored acrylic illustrations by Mike Benny, whose work has appeared
in Time, The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated. "America's White
Table" is his first children's book.
The book tells the story of little girl who helps her mother set out a
remembrance table in her home and how the sight brings tears to the
eyes of her uncle who served in Vietnam. For adults, the book provides
details of the white table tradition and how it started.
The symbols on the tables may vary depending on the ceremony.
Generally, the tablecloth represents purity of heart, the black napkin
the sorrow of captivity and the white candle, peace. The lemon
represents the missing soldier's bitter fate and the salt, the tears shed
by the families of the missing.
The tradition didn't spread far from the military, perhaps, in part,
because of the controversy that surrounded Vietnam.
"It's characteristic of the Vietnam War," said Chuck Jackson, 59, who
spent eight months as a POW after his plane was shot down over
Vietnam. "It wasn't a war unless you were there. It didn't affect you
unless you were there or had someone who was there."
After the war "the only people who got any sort of recognition were the
POWs, which to me was almost embarrassing," Hanton said.
"First of all, I was there only a short period of time and second there
were guys who slugged it out in the trenches," he said. "A lot of them
died, and many of them got no recognition, and those were a lot worse
conditions than I suffered."
Raven, sitting with the vets in her home, said the book "talks about
people who didn't come home. But in essence, none of you came
"Everybody came home minus something," Jackson said. "The general
public didn't really want to recognize Vietnam — what went on there,
the good and the bad."
That has been changing.
Raven was scheduled to read her book during a Memorial Day
weekend combined meeting of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots
Association and NAM-POWS, the Vietnam War prisoner of war
association, in Washington.
Next month, Vietnam veterans will receive a special tribute in Branson,
Mo., featuring a parade, flyovers by vintage aircraft and music from the
Doobie Brothers, Tony Orlando and the Four Tops.
In July, during a ceremony at the replica of a Vietnam Naval Support
Base at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount
Pleasant, Raven again will read from the book. During that event, which
will feature veterans and POWs, Gov. Mark Sanford's sons are
expected to set a white remembrance table.
Raven would like to see the tradition of the white table spread to
homes and restaurants across the nation.
The table is "the most important image we can ever have, and it's not
political," she said. "Even the flag can get politicized. This has no party
and no agenda except that a person said 'yes' to duty, and that is
always to be honored."