Special Operation Character: Prisoners of War Spec Ops Post #13
I want to present an example of a Special Operator who had both in abundance and this is also the appropriate place because I just mentioned his name: Colonel Nick Rowe.
Nick Rowe was a 1960 graduate of West Point. In 1963 he went to Vietnam as a Special Force officer, when most Americans didn’t even know where Vietnam was. On October 29, 1963, Rowe was on patrol with Captain ‘Rocky’ Versace and Sergeant Daniel Pitzer, advising a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) company. They were searching for a small enemy unit that had been reported in the area. In their pursuit, the unit triggered an ambush, beginning at 10 in the morning. They fought until the late afternoon when they were over-run and captured.
Time to pause again and read the Medal of Honor citation for Captain ‘Rocky’ Versace who was with Rowe:
Captain Humbert R. Versace distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism during the period of 29 October 1963 to 26 September 1965, while serving as S-2 Advisor, Military Assistance Advisory Group, Detachment 52, Ca Mau, Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Captain Versace and the patrol came under sudden and intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a heavily armed enemy battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace, although severely wounded in the knee and back by hostile fire, fought valiantly and continued to engage enemy targets. Weakened by his wounds and fatigued by the fierce firefight, Captain Versace stubbornly resisted capture by the over-powering Viet Cong force with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he exemplified the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into Prisoner of War status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American soldiers, scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and made three unsuccessful attempts to escape, despite his weakened condition which was brought about by his wounds and the extreme privation and hardships he was forced to endure. During his captivity, Captain Versace was segregated in an isolated prisoner of war cage, manacled in irons for prolonged periods of time, and placed on extremely reduced ration. The enemy was unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America. Captain Versace, an American fighting man who epitomized the principles of his country and the Code of Conduct, was executed by the Viet Cong on 26 September 1965. Captain Versace’s gallant actions in close contact with an enemy force and unyielding courage and bravery while a prisoner of war are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect the utmost credit upon himself and the United States Army.
Captain Versace was on his second tour in Vietnam—he had volunteered to stay and help the people he loved. He had been accepted to go into the seminary upon his return from Vietnam and he was only two weeks away from coming back to the States when he volunteered to go on this patrol. When he was isolated from the other prisoners they knew he was still there because he would sing God Bless America at the top of his lungs. In his first attempt to escape, because of wounds to his legs, he crawled. Because of his refusal to break, Versace was eventually executed by the Viet Cong.
Rowe spent sixty-two months in captivity. Every day he could expect to face the same fate as his friend. He suffered from dysentery, beri-beri, fungal diseases, malnutrition, and torture. He lived in a wooden cage three feet by four by six.
Rowe lied to the Vietcong. He told them he was a draftee and an engineer. He told them his job was to build schools. He said he had gone to a small liberal college. To test him, the Vietcong gave him some engineering problems to solve. But because West Point had numerous mandatory engineering courses, he passed these tests.
Despite his efforts, Rowe’s cover story was eventually blown through no fault of his own. An American anti-war activist group came to North Vietnam. They asked to speak to POWs to see if they were being treated fairly. On the top of their list was Rowe’s name, along with his real background and assignment. They had failed to do an effective area study of where they were going and the effect their actions would have beyond the immediate effect they desired.
As a result, Rowe taken out into a swamp and staked down naked for two days. Still Rowe would not talk, even though the information he knew was now dated and useless. He escaped with another wounded POW. Chased and about to be caught, the other POW urged Rowe to go on. He did so, but stopped when he heard the Vietcong calling out that they would execute the man if he did not come back, so he came back.
Would you do that?
Finally, in December 1968, over five years after he’d been captured, Rowe was taken out to be executed. The Vietcong had had enough of him and they also knew any information he had was long past worthless.
As they took him to the place of his death, several American helicopters flew overhead. Rowe took advantage of the diversion, striking down his guards and running into a clearing. Despite being malnourished and dressed in black pajamas, he was recognized as a westerner. A helicopter swooped down and picked him up.
In 1971 he published his story in a book titled: Five Years To Freedom. He retired from active duty and took up writing. But in 1981, his country reached out to him. Realizing he had a unique expertise, he was brought to the JFK Special Warfare Center & School at Fort Bragg to design a training course called SERE: Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. The course is still in existence today and has helped thousands of American soldiers.
In 1987 Colonel Rowe was assigned to the Philippines to provide counter-insurgency training. On April 21, 1989, he was assassinated by terrorists. Colonel Rowe is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is on a hill over-looking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Inscribed on his gravestone are words from a poem he wrote as a POW:
“So look up ahead at time to come,
despair is not for us.
We have a world and more to seem
While this remains behind.”
Versace and Rowe are classic examples of men who exerted strong personal leadership under extremely adverse conditions.