James Nicholas “Nick” Rowe was born on February 8, 1938 in McAllen, Texas, to Lee Delavan and Florence [nee Survillo] Rowe, a Russian immigrant who had lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. His older brother, Richard, attended West Point in preparation for a military career. Tragically, Richard died just prior to graduation. Richard’s classmates invited the family to attend the graduation in Richard’s honor, and the ceremony so inspired six-year-old Nick that he vowed to fulfill Richard’s unfinished military destiny.
Rowe qualified as a U.S. Special Forces officer and in July 1963 was sent to Vietnam as the executive and intelligence officer of a 12-man team assigned 6-monthâs temporary duty that would end in mid-December 1963. His teamâs camp, Detachment A-23, was built deep in the U Minh Forest on the site of a former French fort in Tan Phu, Thoi Binh District in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam.Their primary mission was to work with their South Vietnamese Special Forces counterparts to organize and train Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) strikers to kill and capture VC in an area. The campâs isolated location in the midst of a known heavy enemy presence made it vulnerable to attack, and the close proximity came with a cost: when it was time to return stateside, all but two of the teamâs original 12 members had been wounded in combat, five of them from a single mortar airburst above their sleeping quarters during only their second night in-country.On October 28, 1963, U.S. Army Military Assistance Advisory Group intelligence adviser Capt. Humbert R. “Rocky” Versace met with the Thoi Binh district chief and learned that an irregular platoon of VC (Viet Cong) had 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 approximately eight kilometers southeast of the hamlet was unacceptable. After meeting with the district chief, Capt. Versace made a liaison visit to Special Forces Team A-23 stationed at Tan Phu Special Forces Camp.
Although unauthorized to accompany CIDG field operations, Versace joined a hastily planned operation at Tan Phu scheduled to leave before dawn the next morning on October 29, 1963 to attack the Le Coeur hamlet’s VC outpost. Also accompanying the 129-man CIDG force, comprised of two mobile strike force (striker) companies from Tan Phu and one Thoi Binh district militia company, were Sgt. First Class Daniel “Dan” Pitzer, the detachment’s medic, and Rowe, who had growing reservations about the finalized plan as it called for passing through a number of occupied hamlets in VC-controlled territory, increasing the risk of early detection and mission compromise.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 with the district militia’s assault company, forcing them from the hamlet toward the U Minh Forest and into an ambush laid by the two striker companies. When the district militia’s assault company led by Vietnamese Special Forces Lt. Lam Quang Tinh, with Versace as his mission advisor, reached the village, the enemy fled as expected. The CIDG troops swept the hamlet for intelligence, and Rowe picked up a Russian K-44 shell casing, signifying that instead of a small irregular VC unit, they had rousted a well-trained and well-armed regional or main force unit.
However, when the VC fled Le Coeur, instead of running toward the U Minh Forest and the ambush as expected, they went in the opposite direction. The American advisors subsequently directed the assault company to return to camp while they joined the two ambush companies for the return trip which included following the retreating VC a short distance. At approximately 10 AM, the two ambush companies started back to Tan Phu camp, traveling along a canal. After a short and fruitless pursuit occasionally punctuated by ineffective VC sniper rounds, the two companies turned toward Tan Phu down an intersecting canal to return to camp. Roughly two kilometers down the canal, after discovering and destroying a VC arms factory, they spotted a line of black-clad figures rapidly moving into position from the northeast across an adjacent rice paddy that separated them from a nearby canal.
As it turned out, the VC had their own ambush plans, and were attempting to cut off their return route to camp. The enemy jammed radio communications, preventing immediate fire support from the mortars at Tan Phu or the 155mm howitzers at Thoi Binh. And the hastily planned operation lacked the dedicated air support or immediate helicopter reinforcements necessary to prevent the unfolding blood bath.
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 for easier and faster traveling, which was all the VC needed as they already had the correct range. The VC proceeded to fire a salvo of 12 mortar rounds that nearly wiped out all the strikers located along that bank.
As the allied forces moved rapidly into a tree lined hamlet to set up a defensive perimeter, the VC immediately tried to lure them across an open rice field into a classic three-sided ambush: a blocking force from the direction of Tan Phu camp, a pressure force from a second side, and the main force of 3 platoons on the third side in the trees lining the open rice paddy waiting in ambush.
Enemy ground fire of all types continued coming in from both pressuring sides. Allied troops maintained an accurate and lethal return fire, stacking the enemy dead like cord wood a mere 10 to 15 meters away. Rowe believed that the assault company would return to give them a hand as they had previously been informed by radio prior to the jamming that the others were in trouble. Unfortunately, that company had also been ambushed and subsequently decimated by the VC while returning to help, and could not provide assistance.
For three hours the allies battled roughly 1,000 seasoned guerrilla fighters of the Main Force 306th VC Battalion, a unit the CIDG had whipped soundly in an all-night battle just three months prior, which had re-emerged re-energized and re-armed and re-manned. With dwindling ammunition supplies and endless waves of VC still attacking, Versace, Pitzer and Rowe told their troops to pull out and withdraw, saying that the Americans would cover them and then leap frog back. As a VC assault squad suddenly came through the trees at close range in front of them, Pitzer vaporized the point man with his M-79 grenade launcher, stopping the attackers dead in their tracks. Nearly two years before it was officially deployed to American troops in Vietnam, the 40mm weapon’s unexpectedly destructive power also took down several adjacent attackers and gave the Americans time to escape.
As the Americans caught up with the disorganized strikers, they moved together into a field of reeds with the three advisors continuing to cover the rear. The VC fired a captured BAR at the retreating column with three rounds striking Versace in the leg. As he fell to the ground, an enemy grenade exploded nearby, peppering him with shrapnel. Rowe was struck in the face and chest by grenade fragments as he reached to help Versace, and the concussion knocked him to the ground. As he attempted to get up, the wounded Versace put his arms around Rowe, and he tried to drag him off the trail to hide in the reeds until the enemy passed by. The Americans broke reeds back across their trail to camouflage it.
Versace’s wounds were bleeding profusely. Rowe put a compress on one of the wounds and was putting another bandage on the second one when the VC suddenly broke through the reeds yelling, “Do tay len!” (“Hands up!”), and they looked up to see dozens of weapons pointing down at them. Rowe continued bandaging the second wound. When he 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.
During the firefight, in addition to the wounds suffered by Rowe and Versace, Pitzer also suffered grenade fragmentation wounds and a severely sprained ankle. The CIDG suffered roughly 60 dead, a like number wounded, and 30 missing in action. The wounded CIDG strikers had their hands tied behind their backs by the VC and were forced to lay face down in rows, then each was shot once in the back of the head.
Spared from execution because the VC wanted American prisoners for their propaganda value, the three Americans were stripped of their boots before being led into the U Minh Forest – 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 Versace, who spoke fluent French and Vietnamese, was going to be a problem for the Viet Cong. In an attempt to break him, his captors kept him isolated, frequently gagged, and flat on his back in irons, in a dark hot box barely larger than a coffin. As the senior ranking officer in the prison camp, Versace frequently communicated with the others by singing messages to them to the tune of popular songs of the day.
Increasingly the VC separated Versace from the other prisoners as he 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 more scrutiny onto 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.”
One day Versace was gone. The last time Rowe and Pitzer heard him, Versace was singing “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs from the isolation box. On Sunday, September 28, 1965, Hanoi “Liberation Radio” announced the execution of Capt. Rocky Versace and Special Forces Sgt. First Class Kenneth Roraback in retaliation for the deaths of three terrorists by South Vietnamese officials in Da Nang.
As opportunities presented themselves, Rowe and Pitzer also attempted escapes (3 by Rowe alone), but were quickly recaptured and punished. Rowe himself spent a total of five years confined to a small bamboo cage while being permitted to venture out to a distance of only 40 yards during the day. He fought disease and malnutrition (something that 2 fellow POWs fatally succumbed to while with Rowe), all while being submitted to continuous brainwashing and attempts to break his will and admit to his ‘crimes.’ He busied himself chopping firewood and setting traps to capture small animals to supplement his diet of rice and fish.
As his team’s intelligence officer, Rowe retained valuable knowledge that could be exploited by the VC, so he fooled them for years by claiming to be an engineer, a claim they repeatedly and unsuccessfully tested. The VC eventually uncovered the truth and began trying to extract the info in earnest. Rowe remained unbroken, and became known to his captors as “Mr. Trouble” for his resistance. Fed up with his actions, they sentenced him to be executed in January of 1969. The execution was to take place in front of higher ranking VC officials. Knowing that would mean travel through the jungle, he planned another escape.
During an ongoing U.S. Helicopter gunship sweep of their area that was intended to wipe out the pockets of VC camps, including several prisoner camps where Rowe had been rotated, Rowe and his guards went on the run through the swamp over a period of several days. A guard Rowe had nicknamed “Porky” was showing resistance to the bumbling tactics of the other guards. As everyone was tiring and running low on food and supplies, Rowe sought to influence Porky with tidbits of info about the gunship tactics that were proving true, and Porky began listening to him. Rowe explained that the entire group was cutting a wide swath walking abreast through the swampy reeds, which was sure to expose their presence to the helicopter gunships and endanger their lives. He explained that if Porky wanted to survive, all he had to do was to slowly move away from the group.
Despite the noise and confusion of nearby combat, the cadre continued to walk abreast through the reeds, drawing the attention of the gunships to them like a blazing neon sign. Rowe continued to guide Porky away from the killing zone, and in the process disorienting him 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, Rowe was able to silently reach up and release the magazine allowing it to drop into the muck below. After a while Porky realized that his magazine was gone and that there was no round in his weapon’s chamber. At that point 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, Rowe was barefoot, unarmed and dressed in black pajamas in a free-fire zone during an active combat operation against the VC in the area. Overhead were two Cobra and four Huey gunships, along with a command ship, all of whom were firing away at targets in his general vicinity. 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.
In 1971, Rowe published ‘Five Years to Freedom, in which he recounted his ordeal as a Viet Cong prisoner, his eventual escape, and his return home. The book was the result of the diary he wrote while a prisoner, writing it in German, Spanish, Chinese, and his own special code in order to deceive his captors. In 1974, he retired from the Army.
The Army recalled Rowe to active duty in 1981 as a lieutenant colonel to use his POW experience to create the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) course, now taught at the Colonel James “Nick” Rowe Training compound at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. Variations of the SERE course are considered the most important advanced training for special operations personnel in every branch of service. In 1985, Lt. Col. Rowe was placed in command of Fort Bragg’s First Special Warfare Training Battalion, a position he held until 1987, when he was promoted to colonel and made chief of the Army Division at the Joint U. S. Military Advisory Group (USMAG) headquarters in Quezon City, Philippines.
In February 1989, the 51-year-old Rowe had acquired intelligence information which indicated that the communists were planning a major terrorist act. He warned Washington that a high-profile figure was about to be assassinated and that he himself was second or third on the assassination list. At around 7 AM in the morning of April 21, 1989, as he was being driven to work, his armored limousine was hit by twenty-one bullets; one round entered through an unarmored portion of the vehicle frame and struck Rowe in the head, killing him instantly. Rowe’s driver, Joaquin Vinuya, was wounded.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Philippine officials said they believed the killers were rebels from the Communist New People’s Army. The rebels had threatened to attack American targets unless the United States closed its military bases in the Philippines and end its support of the Philippine military’s fight against the insurgency.
The Special Forces community was stunned by Rowe’s death. Green Berets cried openly on the streets of Fayetteville, N.C. Many who know of him continue to speak of Rowe with awe. Rowe was survived by two daughters, Deborah and Christina, from his first marriage to Jane Caroline Benson on December 27, 1969, and his widow Mary from his second marriage along with their two sons, Stephen and Brian.
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John, I came back to this article today because I spoke the the new director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) about the Rowe-Versace-Pitzer capture while I was attending the 49th annual meeting of the National League of POW/MIA Families this year. I recommended Nick Rowe’s book to him and gave him a brief version of Rocky Versace’s story. As you may know, my mother & Dan Pitzer grew up together in north central West Virginia. His capture with Rowe and Versace in 1963 was my first brush with the POW/MIA issue.
I took the photo of the arvn solders;
I have the slide and can prove it.
Interesting but I went through S.E.R.E. during trading in U.S. Navy in 1968;which included water-boarding as the first torture when captured.
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John, Col. Rowe developed SERE training for the Army…Navy already had their own version way before the Army.
What a amazing story starting with a promise ending with a hero’s death.
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