Voices of Freedom

PHOTO ABOVE: Helene Knapp (left) and Jenny Connell Robertson (right) were members of the League of Wives. Knapp’s husband, Air Force Col. Herman Knapp, is one of more than 1,300 men still missing in action from the Vietnam War; Robertson’s husband, Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Connell, was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1966 and died in a POW camp in 1971.   


Wives’ courageous efforts helped bring soldiers home

The League of Wives exhibit opened at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in May. The multimedia display tells the story of courageous military wives who, during the Vietnam War, went against government protocol and publicly voiced concerns about their prisoner-of-war and missing-in-action husbands. The wives sought influential supporters to help further their cause. One of these was a freshman senator from Kansas — Robert J. Dole.

The exhibit, curated by Dole Archives Curatorial Fellow Heath Hardage Lee, was made possible by a gift from KU alumni Harlan and Alice Ann Ochs, of Colorado Springs, Colo., in memory of Harlan’s late brother, KU alumnus Larry Ochs. Larry played a key role in supporting the League of Wives. 

Unsung heroes

Sybil Stockdale didn’t set out to be a hero. She set out to free her husband, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale, who was captured by the North Vietnamese when his plane was shot down in 1965. At that time, the U.S. government forbade POW and MIA spouses from speaking publicly about their husbands. 

In 1967, with the Vietnam War raging and Stockdale’s husband still in captivity, she invited other women whose husbands were prisoners of war to her home for lunch. Her goal: to start an advocacy group to raise awareness that would result in bringing POWs safely home and to gain information about those who were missing in action. 

From that initial gathering, the League of Wives became a national voice, evolving into the National League for POW-MIA in Southeast Asia. 

Honoring their vision

A World War II veteran wounded in combat, Senator Dole was empathetic to the Wives’ cause from the start. Appalled by the lack of support for the POW-MIA cause when he attended their rally at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., Dole vowed to fill the hall for a bipartisan POW tribute by the end of the year. 

“I recall the first big rally of the National League of Families at Constitution Hall on May 1, 1970,” Dole said. “It was obvious to me that this exceptional group, primarily comprised of POW-MIA wives, needed congressional support. So I was honored to play a significant role in bringing their plight to the national stage. Over the years, I spent considerable time with the families. It was a unique and effective partnership.”

In 1973, as a result of six years of pressure from the League of Wives, the Nixon administration included a provision in the Paris Peace Agreement that North Vietnam would return the POWs and account for the MIAs. Within months, through “Operation Homecoming,” nearly 600 POWs arrived safely home.

Colorado Springs connection

In December 1970, Colorado Springs Vice Mayor Larry Ochs traveled to Paris with a League of Wives delegation in an attempt to meet with North Vietnamese representatives. They delivered 125,000 letters of support for the POWS to the North Vietnamese Embassy. Throughout the war, he was a supporter of the POW-MIA cause.

“Larry responded to requests by several women in Colorado Springs whose husbands were missing in action or prisoners of war,” Harlan Ochs said. “He made the trip to Paris at his own expense and on his own time. He went above and beyond the call of duty.”

HONORED TO SUPPORT: Harlan and Alice Ann Ochs are connected to the League of Wives through his late brother, Larry, who worked to further their cause.
SHARING THEIR STORIES: Helene Knapp (left), Heath Hardage Lee (center), League of Wives exhibit curator and author; and Jenny Connell Robertson (right), spoke at the exhibit’s opening. Lee is wearing a pin that was given to POW wives in 1971 when they went to Sweden to lobby North Vietnamese diplomats for the release of American POWs.

Harlan said he was pleased that his and Alice’s gift honored not only his brother, but also Bob Dole, whom Harlan looked up to while growing up and whose political career he has followed since.

“I’ve known the Ochs family since we were all kids growing up in Russell, Kansas,” Dole said. “Larry was about my age, so we became close friends. He joined me as a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity at KU. I knew the Ochs family well, and they were a big asset to our community. Harlan, Larry, Ruth, Donald and Kenny were all wonderful role models for the younger children in Russell.”

The exhibit, featuring documents, photos, oral histories and memorabilia from the Dole Archives, personal collections of POW-MIA families, and other institutions, was produced by Senior Dole Archivist Audrey Coleman. Project contributors include Minda Stockdale, assistant curator and granddaughter of Sybil Stockdale, and Kristine Bartley, a Des Moines, Iowa-based filmmaker and a Vietnam War wife. 

The exhibit, based on Lee’s upcoming book, The League of Wives: A True Story of Survival and Rescue from the Vietnam Homefront, St. Martin’s Press, 2019, will be at the Dole Institute through December 2017. It will then travel to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in March 2018 and the Virginia Historical Society in 2019.