Museum exhibit tells story of POW wife’s efforts

By Anthony Welch

Helene Knapp never gave up hope.

Knapp’s Air Force pilot husband, Col. Herman Knapp, was declared missing in action on April 24, 1967 during a bombing mission in North Vietnam. Despite at least six excavations of the crash site, his remains were never found. Since that time, Knapp has dedicated herself to raising awareness and money for POW/MIA initiatives.

“It was quite a change of life,” Knapp said. “I call April 24, 1967 my day of infamy.”

Knapp’s story is now being told in a traveling exhibit, “The League of Wives: Vietnam’s POW/MIA Allies and Advocates,” which opened to the public March 24 at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. It will be on display through December 2018. The exhibit debuted at the Robert J. Dole Institute for Politics at the University of Kansas in May 2017.

Knapp and her husband lived in the Upper Skyway neighborhood in Colorado Springs. Following the tragic news, Knapp said she found solace in comfort provided by her neighbors. But she was determined to bring her husband’s remains home.

“He belongs to us and we want to bring him home,” Knapp added.

In the early 1970s, Knapp successfully led influential letter-writing and fundraising campaigns for POW/MIA advocacy. She also testified before Congress on POW/MIA issues and represented Colorado Springs POW/MIA families at the 1971 Geneva Conference on International Human Rights.

In 1972, she was elected as the national coordinator for the National League of Families, a volunteer position which temporarily relocated her and her two children to Washington, D.C., where she continued to advocate for the cause as the first POW/MIA wife from Colorado to be elected to this national office.

“The men were worth it. They were all patriotic and devoted officers that were imprisoned, and they were worth fighting for,” Knapp said. “After the war, the number of prisoners that came back that was nowhere near the number we had. Most families want their human remains, if they’re there. They want to bring them home. That was the whole idea – we’d work to bring the prisoners home and work to get a full accounting.”

Author and curator Heath Lee, who was working on her book, “The League of Wives: A True Story of Survival and Rescue from the Vietnam Homefront,” discovered how compelling the story of Knapp and the League of Wives was. The Dole Institute put the exhibit together, and the Pioneers Museum was chosen as the first museum to host it, according Leah Davis Witherow, Curator of History for the Pioneers Museum.

“This story has never been told. We’re four or five decades out now and I think Americans still struggle to understand it and its relevancy and its legacy,” Witherow said. “And no one has ever examined the work of these women. What’s fascinating is they were told to not talk about their husbands for fear of endangering their lives.”

The exhibit includes artifacts about the Knapp and her efforts from the Dole Institute, the Richard Nixon Archives and from Knapp herself. Included are photos of Knapp with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon.

“Helene plays a huge role in this story, both on a local level and a national one,” Witherow added.

Coinciding with the exhibits opening on March 24, Mayor John Suthers presented the Spirit of the Springs Celebration Award to Knapp.

““Helene’s outstanding leadership and service has brought national and international attention to the strong Colorado Springs military community and the homegrown POW/MIA advocacy organization Colorado Springs for POWs,” Mayor Suthers said.

Knapp is pleased to see that today there are still efforts being made in Congress to continue to search for remains of Vietnam War POWs.

“We will never give up,” she said.

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