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Yellow Ribbon phenomena takes over Hawaii roadways

by Lindsey Rowland, editor


The “We Support our Troops” yellow ribbon has made itself a permanent home on cars all over Hawai‘i, large or small, one or two, magnet or sticker. The yellow ribbon is everywhere. But have you ever wondered about the origins of the symbol we use to support our troops?

The idea came from the song written by Irwin Levine, copyrighted in 1972, called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” The song sold millions of copies. The song was said to be written about a folktale of a man returning from jail after three years of being away.


The story was found in a prisoners reform handbook. The man had written to his wife telling her that, if she wanted him to come home, she should tie a yellow ribbon on the oak tree by the bus station, so he could see it as he passed on the bus. If he saw the yellow ribbon, he would know she wanted him to come home and he should get off the bus. As the man neared his town the whole bus held their breath as they looked for the yellow ribbon. And then finally a cheer went up on the bus as the yellow ribbon appeared.

The idea behind using ribbons made a comeback during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1970. In support of the families and hostages, Americans tied yellow ribbons to anything that stood still. Hostage Support, Amnesty International, Political Prisoners Support, The UN’s Amnesty International Support Campaign for Human Rights, POW/MIA Activism and Troop Support would take on the yellow ribbon as their symbol.

Penelope Laingen, the wife of a U.S. hostage, was shown on the news tying a yellow ribbon to a tree. Laingen felt it gave everyone something positive to do. “It just came to me,” she said. “To give people something to do, rather than get upset at the Iranians, why don’t they ‘tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree.’ That’s how it started,” she said. And that’s just what the American public did; from coast to coast yellow ribbons were tied.

It is odd, though, that the color yellow was picked for the ribbon, because yellow indicates cowardliness in the military, yet it has prevailed through the Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Enduring Freedom as a trendy symbol of support by the public, like ‘leaving a light in the window,’ in anticipation of the safe arrival home of the troops.

Today the yellow ribbon is used in support of all troops and not just for POW/MIA or ex-cons. The yellow ribbon is a way for the everyday citizen to show support for U.S. troops overseas. If the number of ribbons on Hawai‘i roads is any indication, that support is widespread.

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