|Name:||James Nicholas "Nick" Rowe|
5th Special Forces Group,
1st Special Forces
Tan Phu Special Forces Camp,
|Date of Birth:||03 February 1938|
|Home of Record:||McAllen, TX|
|Date of Loss:||29 October 1963|
|Country of Loss:||South Vietnam|
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Escaped POW|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Humbert R. Versace (missing); and Daniel L. Pitzer (released)|
REMARKS: 681231 ESCAPED
SYNOPSIS: The US Army Special Forces, Vietnam (Provisional) was formed at Saigon in 1962 to advise and assist the South Vietnamese government in the organization, training, equipping and employment of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) forces. The total strength of US personnel in 1963 was 674, all but 98 of whom were on temporary duty from 1st Special Forces Group, Okinawa, Japan, and from the 5th and 7th Special Forces Groups, Ft. Bragg, NC. On 1 July 1963, USSF Provisional was given complete charge of the CIDG program.
The USSF Provisional/CIDG network consisted of fortified, strategically located camps, each one with an airstrip. The area development programs soon evolved into combat operations, and by the end of October 1963, the network also had responsibility for border surveillance. One of the Provisional/CIDG camps was at Tan Phu and was manned by Detachment A-23. This camp was located deep in the U Minh Forest. Its isolated location in the midst of a known heavy enemy presence made the camp vulnerable to attack.
On 28 October 1963, Capt. "Rocky" Versace, Advisory Team 70's intelligence advisor; met with the Thoi Binh district chief and learned that "an irregular platoon of Viet Cong (VC) moved into the small hamlet of Le Coeur" with the intent of establishing a VC command post there. The possibility that it would be used to direct attacks against the Tan Phu Special Forces Camp located on the Ca Mau Peninsula approximately 8 kilometers southeast of the hamlet was unacceptable. After meeting with the district chief, Capt. Versace made a liaison visit Special Forces Team A-23 stationed at Tan Phu Special Forces Camp, Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, South Vietnam.
A hastily planned operation was scheduled to leave before dawn on 29 October 1963. Capt. "Rocky" Versace, then 1st Lt. "Nick" Rowe; and SFC Daniel "Dan" Pitzer, the detachment's medic; accompanied a 129-man a CIDG force comprised of 2 companies of strikers and 1 of CIDG militia from Thoi Binh. Le Coeur was located in a VC-dominated area on one of the main canals leading into the dreaded U Minh Forest. It was also located approximately 17 miles due north of Quan Long, 22 miles east of the Gulf of Thailand, 55 miles west-southwest of Soc Trang, 59 miles southwest of Can Tho and 135 miles southwest of Saigon.
The American and allied troops had never ventured into that area before and the close proximity to the enemy's well-established sanctuary in the legendary "forest of darkness," so named because of the exceptionally dense triple-canopy jungle, made it a cinch that there would be a large scale fire fight.
The basic plan was to roust the small VC unit in the hamlet with one company while the other two formed an ambush between the hamlet and the U Minh Forest. However, when the district militia's assault company led by Vietnamese Special Forces Lt. Lam Quang Tinh, with Capt. Versace as his mission advisor, reached the village, the enemy ran just as the Americans thought they would. As the CIDG troops swept the hamlet for intelligence, 1st Lt. Rowe picked up a spent Mossin-Magant cartridge. The significance of that Russian K-44 shell casing meant that they were not chasing a small irregular Viet Cong unit but either a well-trained, well-armed regional or main force unit.
When the communist force retreated from Le Coeur, they ran in the opposite direction from the U Minh Forest where the rest of the allied troops were waiting to ambush them. The American advisors directed the assault company to return to camp while they joined two ambush companies for the return trip. At approximately 1000 hours, the two ambush companies started back to camp along canal #8. When they were roughly 2 kilometers down the canal, they looked toward the northeast across the rice field separating it from canal #9 and saw a whole line of black clad figures rapidly moving into position to cut them off.
Once the enemy successfully closed to 900 meters, they opened fire with automatic weapons. While ineffective at that distance, the ground fire did pin the friendly forces in place long enough for the communists to begin firing 60mm mortars at them. A group of Vietnamese strikers broke for the bank of a rice paddy, which was all the VC needed to establish the correct range. Then they fired a salvo of 12 mortar rounds that nearly wiped out all the strikers located along that bank.
The allied forces rapidly moved into a tree line to set up a defensive perimeter. Almost immediately the enemy hit them with a blocking force from one side, a pressure force from another side and the assault from the third side across an open rice field. According to Nick Rowe, "I never saw so many VC in my life. They must have had at least three platoons coming across that paddy and they just kept coming. As long as our strikers had ammunition, it was like a turkey shoot." Then the VC tried to lure the US led force across a large open rice paddy with a classic three-sided attack with an ambushed escape route.
As the battle raged below, two American aircraft passed nearby, one was a T-28 and the other a Caribou. The embattled ground team radioed the pilot of the T-28 requesting immediate emergency air strikes on the advancing VC positions. Unfortunately, the pilot radioed back saying he "could not engage (the enemy) without authorization from Saigon," and continued on his way. Enemy ground fire of all types continued coming in from numerous positions. Allied troops kept up their own accurate fire and were stacking up enemy dead like cord wood 10 to 15 meters in front of the their positions. Nick Rowe believed that the assault company would return to give them a hand when they realized the others were in need of it. Unfortunately, that company had been badly mauled by the VC and was unable to be of assistance.
For 3 hours the allies battled roughly 1,000-seasoned guerrilla fighters of the Main Force 306th VC Battalion. Finally they reached the point of no return when they were nearly out of ammunition and large numbers of VC were still coming at them. Capt. Versace, SFC Pitzer and 1st Lt. Rowe told their troops to pull out and withdraw, that the Americans would cover them and then leap frog back. Dan Pitzer had the M79 grenade launcher, Rocky Versace a carbine and Rick Rowe an M1. As a VC assault squad suddenly came through the trees at close range in front of them, Dan Pitzer hit its pointman in the chest causing him to all but disappear and the sight stopped the squad cold in their tracks. They had never seen the M79 before and the shock of the weapon's power gave the Americans time to get out of there.
As the Americans caught up with the disorganized strikers and militia, they all moved into a cane field with the three advisors continuing to cover the rear. The VC fired a BAR at the retreating column with three rounds striking Rocky Versace in the leg. As he fell to the ground, an enemy grenade exploded nearby peppering him with shrapnel. 1st Lt. Rowe was struck in the face and chest by grenade fragments as he reached to help Capt. Versace. The concussion also knocked him to the ground. As he attempted to get up, the wounded Captain put his arms around the Lieutenant's neck and Nick Rowe tried to drag him off the trail to hide in the cane field until the enemy passed by. The Americans broke reeds back across their trail to camouflage it. During the firefight, SFC Pitzer also suffered grenade fragmentation wounds as well as severely spraining an ankle.
Rocky Versace's wounds were bleeding profusely. Nick Rowe put a compress on one of the wounds and was putting another bandage on the second one when all of a sudden the reeds broke open and they heard someone yell, "Do tay len" - Hands up! As they looked up, there was a Mossin-Nagant and a US carbine pointing down at them. Nick Rowe continued bandaging the second wound. When finished, the VC grabbed him by the arms, pulled him to his feet and tied him with a large VC flag that he had tucked into a pocket after one of the strikers gave it to him in the hamlet. The three Americans were also stripped of their boots before being led into the U Minh Forest.
The forest was a dark maze of mangrove, canals and swamps. The prisoners were kept in small bamboo cages, deprived of food and exposed to insects, heat and disease. In the early days of their captivity the three Americans were photographed together in a staged setting in the U Minh Forest. It was evident from the beginning that Capt. Versace, who spoke fluent French and Vietnamese, was going to be a problem for the Viet Cong. His captors isolated him, kept him in irons, flat on his back and frequently gagged in a dark and hot isolation box that was 6 feet long by 2 feet wide and 3 feet high in an attempt to break him. As the senior ranking officer in the prison camp, Capt. Versace frequently communicated with the others by singing messages to them to the tune of popular songs of the day.
The VC cadre set up indoctrination classes. Dan Pitzer and Nick Rowe "adopted a sit and listen" attitude between bouts of body-wrenching dysentery, feeling the more we said the worse off we would be." Rocky Versace, on the other hand, attended the sessions at the point of a bayonet and engaged the communists in verbal combat at every opportunity that presented itself. At one point the other Americans heard him tell the camp's cadre, "You can make me come to class, but I am an officer in the United States Army. You can make me listen, you can force me to sit here, but I don't believe a word of what you are saying." Further, Nick Rowe added that as Capt. Versace did verbal combat with the cadre, "The instructor's voice would climb an octave from its already high pitch as Rocky tripped him up with verbal gymnastics."
Increasingly the VC separated him from the other prisoners as Rocky Versace continued to strictly adhere to the Code of Conduct, the code all military personnel are required to follow should he or she become a Prisoner of War. He proved very uncooperative; a situation that infuriated the communists and his actions drew much close scrutiny to himself and away from the others. The VC made it clear right from the start they had absolute power of life and death over the prisoners. They frequently stated, "Do not think that merely because the war ends that you will go home. You can rest here long after the war."
In spite of his serious wounds and debilitated condition due to decease and malnutrition, Rocky Versace attempted four escape attempts. With each attempt, his treatment worsened while his fierce determination seemed to increase. The last time Nick Rowe and Dan Pitzer heard him, Rocky Versace was singing "God Bless America" at the top of his lungs from the isolation box. As opportunities presented themselves, Nick Rowe and Dan Pitzer also made escapes, but were recaptured in short order.
There was an important will-to-live factor that SFC Pitzer explained: "When I think about all the guys that died in captivity and the guys that lived, it was a difference of just two words: 'if' and 'when.' A guy saying 'if I go home' or 'if I'm released,' he's buried. But these who said 'when I go home' or 'when I escape' or 'when the war is over' - we survived."
On Sunday, 28 September 1965, "Liberation Radio" announced the execution of Capt. Rocky Versace and Special Forces SFC Kenneth Roraback on 26 September in retaliation for the deaths of 3 terrorists by South Vietnamese officials in DaNang. SFC Roraback was captured a month after Capt. Versace and was equally loyal to the US and the Code of Conduct. However, later a Communist news article stated that the executions were faked. The US Army, who had already changed both men's status from Prisoner of War to Died in Captivity, chose not to reopen either man's case to determine if they had in fact been executed. In the late 1970's all information regarding their "execution" was reclassified, and is no longer part of the public record.
Meanwhile the affect of the reported execution on Dan Pitzer and Nick Rowe was devastating. The VC intensified their pressure on both men to write propaganda statements denouncing the "US government and their puppet regime in Saigon for their illegal war of aggression against the freedom-loving people of Vietnam" as well as to extract military information, whether it be useless or helpful, from them.
The VC believed that any protest in the US was a protest against the war. In the fall of 1967 a black civil rights demonstration in Washington, DC was viewed by the communists as an opportune time to play the race card for their own propaganda purpose. They prepared two black POWs along with Dan Pitzer because he was a medic for release. It was also clear that the VC were not going to release Nick Rowe because of his attitude. It took the 3 prisoners about a month to reach Phnom Penh, Cambodia walking and traveling on sampans along the many canals in the Mekong Delta area bordering Cambodia. Anti-war activist Tom Hayden was their escort on the final leg of the trip home. They reached safety on Veteran's Day, 11 November 1967.
Before leaving camp, Dan Pitzer promised Nick Rowe that he would attempt to get a rescue mission mounted to free him. They agreed that an American Cessna L-19 observation aircraft would fly in from the south to the camp and then gun its engine two or three times as a signal that the rescue operation would commence the next morning. By 12 November 1967, 1st Lt. Rowe had been held a prisoner of war longer than any other American serviceman from either World War II or Korea. Nick Rowe was now alone and facing an uncertain future. His attention turned to thoughts of obtaining enough food to eat, planning a solo escape or hoping for a surprise rescue by American forces.
Soon Nick Rowe heard an L-19 approaching his jungle camp, but instead of gunning its engine to signal an impending rescue, it flew a slow, circling track to show American jets where to and strafe. Soon the lone prisoner of war and guards alike were dodging bombs and bullets intended to kill anyone in his camp. He was lucky to escape with only few flesh wounds from shrapnel. Before long after the bombing incident, the camp's cadre resumed their four-year effort to indoctrinate Nick Rowe. They were constantly after him to provide them with written statements there were critical of the United States, and to admit to personal crimes against the Vietnamese people. His captures once again reverted to torture to break his spirit.
From the beginning Nick Rowe had devised a simple, but convincing cover story that he was a civil engineer who had traded four years of engineering training at the US Armed Forces Institute in Washington, DC for three years active duty in the US Army. The ruse worked for five years until the day when members of the National Liberation Front's Central Committee confronted him with extensive documentary evidence provided them by an American Peace Committee that refuted each and every point of his cover story. Nick Rowe was shocked and angered that American citizens would have supplied information to the VC that would endanger another American's life.
According to 1st Lt. Rowe's account of the decision handed down by the Central Committee meeting, he was sentenced to b moved to zone headquarters for execution on or about 30 January 1969. Because he knew he was marked for execution, he knew his only hope for salvation was to escape. Likewise, his chances for succeeding were increased because of the quality of his guard force had greatly been reduced by the slaughter of so many experienced VC soldiers during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In the past his guards had been 25 to 36 year old hardened combat veterans, they were now mostly inexperienced kids aged 12 to 17. Because there were only half as many guards now as before Tet, only one VC cadre and 5 guards were assigned to transfer him to VC zone headquarters.
On 22 December 1968, 1st Lt. Rowe's camp was struck by a B-52 Arc Light mission. That air strike started a chain of events that would result in his successful escape beginning with the initiation of his transfer. As the small group moved their prisoner through the dense countryside, the group was caught up in an active ARVN combat operation on 31 December 1968 that could have resulted in all of their deaths.
Nick Rowe nicknamed one of his guards "Porky," and he was the one guard he could convince with simple logic to break away from the rest of the group. He explained that the entire group was cutting a wide swath walking abreast through the swampy reeds - a move that was sure to bring all of them to the attention of the helicopter gunships and get everybody in the group killed. If Porky wanted to survive, all he had to do was to slowly move away from the group and he might well live another day.
Despite the noise and confusion of nearby combat, the cadre continued to walk abreastthrough the reeds, drawing the attention of the gunships to them like a blazing neon sign. 1st Lt. Rowe continued to guide Porky away from the killing zone, and in the process disorienting the VC guard to the point where he could not figure out exactly where the main group was since they were hidden by the reeds.
Porky was armed with a Korean War vintage PPSh-41 submachine gun slung across his back. When the guard got hung up in some brush, Nick Rowe was able to silently reach up and release the magazine allowing it to drop into the muck below. Porky still had two Chinese hand grenades, but his prisoner believed he was totally incapable of handling them with any degree of control or accuracy and therefore they were of no real threat. After a while Porky realized that his magazine was gone and that there was no round in his weapon's chamber. At that point Nick Rowe was able to drop the guard with a well-delivered blow to the back of his head with a tree branch along with two karate chops to the neck.
Although he was free of his guard, Nick Rowe was barefoot, unarmed and dress in black pajamas in a free-fire zone during an active combat operation against the VC in the area. Overhead were 2 Cobra and 4 Huey gunships along with a command ship all of whom were firing away at targets in his general vicinity. Nick Rowe frantically waved his mosquito net as he tried to get the attention of the helicopter aircrews. Several of the helicopter gunners had him in their sites when the command ship radioed to hold their fire, and that the command helicopter was going down to get a prisoner.
The door gunner realized he had an American in his sights when he saw Nick Rowe's black beard. The command ship landed and Nick Rowe leaped onboard yelling for the pilot to take off. 20 minutes later the helicopter landed at Ca Mau airfield with their unexpected passenger. Once on the ground, Nick Rowe learned he had been promoted from 1st Lieutenant to Major while in captivity. He was immediately flown from Ca Mau to the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh for a brief medical examination before boarding an evacuation flight to San Antonio, Texas.
In November 1969, Major Rowe described his experiences to President Nixon in the White House. At the same time he submitted a Medal of Honor recommendation for Capt. Versace citing the Captain's courage and self-sacrifice in focusing VC attention on himself instead of on the others and referring to him as "the greatest example of what an officer should be." Because there was no Army precedent for awarding a Medal of Honor to a soldier who had been executed by the enemy, the matter was dropped. In 1971, the Army downgraded Rocky Versace's award to a posthumous Silver Star.
On 22 December 1970, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), better known as the Viet Cong, released a list containing the names of American POWs who they reported died while under their control. The PRG list included Ken Roraback as having Died in Captivity. Ironically, at the end of the war the VC refused to return the remains of SFC Roraback in spite of the fact they acknowledged holding him prisoner and executing him in reprisal.
In 1974, Nick Rowe left the military to try his hand at writing, then at Texas politics. He narrowly missed being elected to the state's comptroller position. In 1981, he returned to active duty with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to create the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course at Fort Brag, NC. Later he served as the commander of the 1st Special Warfare Training Battalion at Fort Bragg. After a promotion to Colonel, he transferred to the Philippines as Chief of the ground forces division of the joint US Military Advisory Group in Manila. That office was responsible for coordinating security matters with the Philippine military.
On 21 April 1989, a team of professional assassins reportedly from the New People's Army of the Communist Party of the Philippines killed Colonel Rowe in his chauffer-driven embassy staff car as he was being driven to work in Quezon City. Newspaper reports of the incident stated that "two hooded assassins fired M-16 rifles and .45 caliber pistols from a stolen automobile that pulled alongside of Col. Rowe's vehicle while both cars were turning in a traffic circle" three blocks from his headquarters. After the hit, the assassin's car made a U-turn and escaped. According to another report, "Twenty bullets missed their mark. One didn't." Col. Rowe died instantly from a single gunshot wound to the head. He driver was also wounded, but recovered.
For Dan Pitzer and Nick Rowe, captivity had a successful conclusion with their safe return to their families and friends. However, for Rocky Versace, if he died under the direct control of the VC, the Vietnamese could return his remains to his family, friends and country. However, if the report of his execution was merely a propaganda ruse, his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way there is no doubt the communists know the truth and could return Rocky Versace or his remains, any time they had the desire to do so.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners,missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fly and fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.
James Nicholas Rowe graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in December 1960. He was buried with full military honors on a hillside behind the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.