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News From The Past


January 18, 2001

Versace To Receive Medal of Honor

By Dave Eberhart, 
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor

Thirty-eight years after his capture in a firefight in South Vietnam, Rocky Versace, inducted last year in the U.S. Army's Ranger Hall of Fame, is to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

"It's finally done!" Mike Faber, president of the Friends of Rocky Versace, exclaimed yesterday. He said final approval of the medal reached Army Secretary Louis Caldera's desk this week.

On Dec. 31, 1968, Maj. Nick Rowe miraculously escaped his Viet Cong captors in South Vietnam. Until his death in an ambush in the Philippines 20 years later, Rowe, the author of Five Years to Freedom, told anyone who would listen, including President Richard Nixon, of the incredible bravery of his fellow prisoner, Capt. Humbert "Rocky" Versace.

Silver Star in 1969

Rowe drafted the original Medal of Honor recommendation for Versace, which was downgraded to a Silver Star that was awarded posthumously in 1969.

The Medal of Honor now is before the Senate, marking the end of a decades-long crusade that had its latest resurgence two years ago when the Friends of Rocky Versace and members of the West Point Class of '59 began a concerted effort to have Versace's Silver Star elevated to the Medal of Honor.

His courage, his stubborn and even vehement rejection of the Viet Cong's indoctrination efforts and his insistence that fellow prisoners be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention marked him as a soldier and leader of extraordinary heroism. The conditions of his captivity were brutal. Only a man of deeply-rooted character could have performed as he did.

"I was privileged to lead our nation's forces in South Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 as commander, Military Assistance Command Vietnam," said retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland. "In that capacity, I was frequently briefed on the circumstances of Capt. Versace's 23-month captivity. His courage, his stubborn and even vehement rejection of the Viet Cong's indoctrination efforts and his insistence that fellow prisoners be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention marked him as a soldier and leader of extraordinary heroism. The conditions of his captivity were brutal. Only a man of deeply-rooted character could have performed as he did."

On Nov. 11 2000, the City of Alexandria, Va., unveiled a proposed memorial to Versace and 61 other Alexandria residents who died in the Vietnam War. The "Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial" will be built with funds donated by the public.

'He Would Never Give Up'

At the unveiling at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center in Alexandria, Pete Dawkins, a West Point classmate of Versace and a Heisman Trophy winner, told how Versace held the academy's intramural wrestling championship three years in a row: "He was not fast, he certainly was not skilled, but he would never give up."

The event included an unveiling by Heather French Henry, Miss America 2000, of a display case in the recreation center's foyer containing Versace's military decorations, his beret, the flag used at his interment at Arlington National Cemetery (his body has never been recovered), his POW Medal and various artifacts from his years at West Point.

Also included is a framed cover page from The Stars and Stripes featuring a smiling Versace and the news that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones had endorsed a posthumous Medal of Honor for Versace.

"Centered in the plaza will be the bronze figure of Rocky embraced by two children of Vietnam," said Maryland sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez, winner of the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial design competition.

"The smiling figure is turning toward the children, who in kind return his joy. He is in military fatigues and is standing at peace without any weaponry. The sculpture stands as a symbolic reminder of what could have been and what could be. It is what all of Alexandria's Vietnam Veterans hoped for...peace."

An inscription hand-carved in marble will read: "Dedicated To Captain Humbert Roque 'Rocky' Versace, A Kid From The Neighborhood Who Had The Faith And Never Gave In." Once an altar boy at the nearby St. Rita Catholic Church, Versace lived on Forest Street in Alexandria just 500 yards from the recreation center.

Related Story Follows

2001, by Stars and Stripes
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

News From The Past


July 18, 2000

Top Marine Endorses Medal of Honor for Army Hero

By Dave Eberhart, 
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor

The last thing fellow prisoners heard from "Rocky" Versace was the battered Army captain defiantly singing "God Bless America" in his cell the night before his execution.

The communist Viet Cong executed Capt. Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace in September 1965 following two years of captivity marked by a stubborn refusal to compromise the U.S. military Code of Conduct for prisoners of war and repeated attempts to escape his captors.

Thirty-five years later, in an unprecedented development, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones, is adding the prestige of his office to an effort to bestow the Medal of Honor on the deceased hero. Colleagues nominated him for the Medal of Honor in late 1969, but the Army downgraded it to a posthumous Silver Star.

The Friends of Rocky Versace, an informal group that has lobbied in support of the medal application, has provided The Stars and Stripes a letter dated April 28 and addressed to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki that came to their attention only two weeks ago. The letter says, in part:

"[Capt. Versace] was captured by the Viet Cong and held as a prisoner for nearly two years. Throughout his captivity he vehemently rejected his captors' indoctrination efforts and attempted to escape four times. Despite the brutal physical and mental abuse to which he was subjected, he never lost his will to resist. His focused determination so confounded his captors that they executed him in September 1965.

"His absolute adherence to the West Point Creed of 'Duty, Honor, Country' provided an inspirational example to his fellow prisoners. Furthermore his heroic determination to resist reflected an extraordinary amount of valor and conspicuous personal sacrifice. It would be fitting for our nation to recognize this by awarding Captain Humbert Versace the Medal of Honor," Jones wrote.

Word of Versace's heroism first emerged from the jungle when a fellow prisoner, Army Col. Nick Rowe, escaped on Dec. 31, 1968, and began telling the world about him.

"They couldn't break him, they couldn't even bend him," said Rowe, who went on to write a memoir on his captivity, "Five Years to Freedom," and to lobby to have his friend awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

"He set an example for me in particular and the other POWs in the camp," Rowe said in a 1969 speech at West Point. "He died for what he believed in. He died for his actions, but he is a man who I believe will be remembered, and I am going to see that he is remembered." Rowe was killed by communist rebels in the Philippines in 1988.

The quest for a Medal of Honor for Versace languished until the Friends of Rocky Versace re-ignited the crusade in early 1999. The medal application so far has been screened by the Awards Branch of the Army's Personnel Command and evaluated by the standing committee of four Army lieutenant generals.

The arduous process also involves scrutiny by the Army Chief of Staff, the Secretary of the Army, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, the Senate Armed Services Committee and, finally, the president.

 Related Story follows

2000, by Stars and Stripes
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

News From The Past


October 7, 2000

Fort Benning Honors for Rocky Versace

By Mike Fabar, 
Stars and Stripes Veterans Affairs Editor

"Rocky set an example. He died for what he believed in. He died for his actions. But he is a man who I believe will be remembered, and I'm going to see that he is remembered," Maj. Nick Rowe told the Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) in the spring of 1969.

Rowe, the author of "Five Years to Freedom," was imprisoned with Capt. Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace in Vietnam. The Viet Cong executed Versace in September 1965 after two years of resolute adherence by the Army Ranger to the military Code of Conduct.

On Oct. 4, Versace was remembered in a solemn mid-morning ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., during which his 1959 West Point classmates honored Versace and seven other Rangers at Benning's Ranger Memorial.

New Ceremony

In a precedent-setting ceremony, USMA Class of '59 Rangers who were killed in action and one who died in the rugged Ranger training were honored with engraved stones in the memorial's walkway.

Gen. Fred Franks delivered an emotional eulogy before about 250 family members, classmates and friends of the fallen heroes. In addition to Versace, those honored were Clayton A. Fannin, Francis G. Gercz Jr., Richard K. Jordan, Roger A. Quinn, Lawrence H. Shuck Jr., William F. Train III and Walter B. Tully.

Franks, famous in military circles for his "left hook" attack during the 1991 Gulf War, ended his tribute with a quote from the West Point Alma Mater: "And when our course on Earth is run, let it be said, Well done, be thou at peace."

In the afternoon, Versace and others including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell (USA-ret.) and Col. Walter J. Marm, Jr., a Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient, were inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame.

Dr. Steve Versace, Rocky's brother, represented the Versace family.

Editor's Note: Mike Faber is a founding member of "The Friends of Rocky Versace," an organization advocating the Medal of Honor for Versace. At 2:30 p.m. on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Memorial will be dedicated in Alexandria, Va., and a model of a Versace statue and a display case of his memorabilia unveiled. The Vietnam Memorial honors the 62 Alexandria residents who lost their lives in Vietnam.

Heather French, Miss America 2000, will be a special guest and an honor guard from The Old Guard at Fort Myer, Va., will appear. The site is next to the Mt. Vernon Recreation Center at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Commonwealth avenues. The event is open to the public.

 

2000, by Stars And Stripes
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

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