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Rocky
The Reactionary

 

"As long as I am true to God and true to myself, what is waiting for me after this life is far better than anything that can happen now.  You might as well kill me here and now if the price of my life is more than giving you my name, rank and serial number."

 

Army Captain Jack Nicholson listened time and again to the reports of the local villagers.  It was late in 1963, and Captain Nicholson made frequent patrols in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam.  The reports spoke of a large American who had been captured by the Viet Cong.

As a show of victory, the Viet Cong were known to parade their prisoners before the local villagers.  Shortly after the three Green Berets had been captured the previous October, they had been photographed in a staged setting in the U Minh Forest.  Occasionally, the Viet Cong would tie a rope around the neck of their captives and lead them through the village streets.

What got to Captain Nicholson was the reports of a tall American who had been repeatedly yanked from village to village.  He was rail thin, had no shoes, his skin was yellowed by jaundice, his head swollen, and his hair completely white.

This particular prisoner seemed to stand out, not so much for his appearance, but for his resistance to the enemy.  It was said that he was constantly arguing with his captors, rebutting their propaganda in their own language.  "He had a funny expression about him, a smile, a flashing of teeth, that got their attention," Nicholson later recalled.  As he was forced to walk among the local populations in what the enemy hoped was a humiliating display, he spoke out in fluent Vietnamese and French, words of resistance that began to impress the very people the VC had hoped themselves to impress.  "When they (villagers) heard him speak, they listened, because they couldn't help it."

Throughout the Delta, the story of the defiant American prisoner became something of a legend.  This was a man like no ordinary man...a man with a will beyond the strength of his captivity, his failing health, or his captors.  Captain Nicholson knew the man had to be Captain Rocky Versace, and knew that a man like Captain Versace needed to be rescued.  Three times, based upon intelligence reports, rescue missions were mounted.  Each time, they failed.  Rocky Versace remained in the hands of those who hated him, but could not help but admire his strength of character.

 

November, 1963

 

Lieutenant Nick Rowe shifted uncomfortably in the 4x6 foot bamboo cage that had been his prison cell now for nearly two months.  In that time he had seen or heard little of his two friends, but he knew that like himself, all of them had suffered unbelievable torture and treatment at the hands of their enemies.

After their capture the previous October, the men had been stripped of their boots and socks, blindfolded with their hands bound behind them, and moved under cover of darkness to a small grass hut.  In the early hours of that first long night, they could hear the nearby cries of the badly wounded Captain Versace:  "Bac si!  Bac si!....(doctor)".  

A few hours later the Americans had been placed in a sampan and transported to a makeshift camp within the forest, surrounded by knee-deep mud and heavy vegetation.  There, the three men were placed together into a small cage made of mangrove logs nailed and tied together with barbed wire.  Just large enough to contain the three of them, it was a cramped and uncomfortable prison for three men, all of whom were wounded.  Captain Versace's leg left him groaning in great pain.  One of the BAR rounds appeared to have penetrated the bone near the knee.  Versace also suffered from two wounds in his back.

Lieutenant Rowe was still hurting from the wounds inflicted by the grenade, and SFC Pitzer had done his best to set his own broken ankle.  He pleaded for the enemy to allow him to treat Captain Versace's leg, but not until the next day was any medical attention allowed.  After a breakfast of rice and canned fish none of the Americans could eat, a medic cleansed Versace's wounds and gave him a shot of penicillin.  Four days later the VC took Rocky away to a makeshift hospital.

After about a week, Rowe and Pitzer were taken from their cage, blindfolded, and transported by sampan to what appeared to be a VC training camp deep within the U Minh Forest.  When their blindfolds were removed, they were marched around the camp by the youngest and smallest of the Viet Cong soldiers, while a photographer captured the indignity on film for propaganda purposes.  After several pictures were taken, Captain Versace was brought out of the makeshift hospital, and all three Green Beret prisoners were photographed again, in cleverly arranged settings.  For the most part, it would be the last time either of the men would actually SEE Captain Versace, though they certainly heard from him.

As a Captain and the ranking prisoner, Versace had assumed responsibility for the small prison population.  Held in his own cage out of view of Rowe and Pitzer.  Daniel Pitzer later wrote that some of the worst punishment the three men endured as at night.  Guards would come to the cages, tell the prisoners "Under the lenient policy of the National Liberation Front, we're going to wash your mosquito net...and we want your pajamas too."

With a wicked smile, the enemy would thus leave their prisoners naked and totally exposed to the elements.  "I've seen mosquitoes so thick on my ankles that I thought I had black socks on," Pitzer later noted in the book To Bear Any Burden by Al Santoli.

 During those horrible nights, Captain Versace often sang messages to the other prisoners, interlaced in popular songs of the day.  When not using his voice thus to communicate with his fellow Green Berets, he could often be heard arguing loudly with the enemy.  "Rocky stood toe to toe with them.  He told them to go to hell in Vietnamese, French and English," Pitzer continued in Santoli's book.

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

Three weeks after the fateful battle outside Le Coeur, Rocky Versace made his first escape attempt.  Still recovering in the makeshift field hospital, he dragged himself outside and crawled into the dense jungle of the U Minh Forest.  Still suffering from his wounds, even crawling was almost impossible, but crawl he did.  At the slow pace, dragging his body through the jungle, it didn't take the Viet Cong long to recapture him.  Rocky was returned to the camp, placed in leg irons, and received no further treatment for his festering leg wounds.  Placed on a starvation diet of rice and salt, he was beaten and tortured but refused to break.  His Viet Cong jailors told the other American POWs that Versace remained unbroken, even when on at least one occasion, his tormentors had attempted to coerce him into cooperation by twisting his wounded and infected leg.

Because they could not break Versace, the Viet Cong labeled him "reactionary" and "unrepentant" (for his war crimes against the Vietnamese people).  They isolated him from the other prisoners, shackling him on his back in irons.  He was confined to a hot isolation box measuring 6 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 3 feet high.  To quiet him, many nights his mouth was gagged.  When the gag was removed, Rocky Versace would again defy his tormentors in all three languages he spoke.

The Defense Prisoner and Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) reported:  "CPT Versace demonstrated exceptional leadership by communicating positively to his fellow prisoners.  He lifted morale when he passed messages by singing them into the popular songs of the day.  When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment to the guards, CPT Versace was again put into leg irons and gagged.  Unyielding, he steadfastly continued to berate the guards for their inhuman treatment.  The communist guards simply elected harsher treatment by placing him in an isolation box, to put him out of earshot and to keep him away from the other US POWs for the remainder of his stay in camp.  However CPT Versace continued to leave notes in the latrine for his fellow inmates, and continued to sing even louder."

His escape attempt shortly after his capture, despite its futility, also would not deter him.  The unbreakable Rocky Versace is known to have attempted escape at least three times more, each again with futility, and every attempt followed by beatings and torture.  Still, he never gave up, and never quit trying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

February 19, 1964

As two months stretched into four months, all four American prisoners had wasted away, suffering from a meager diet, disease, and their mistreatment at the hands of the enemy.  Captain Versace seemed to suffer the worst.  Whatever the Viet Cong tried to do to him, he resisted.  Rocky lived the the Code of Conduct, refusing to tell the enemy more than his name, rank, serial number and date of birth.  He lived valiantly and heroically by the West Point motto:  Duty, Honor, Country.

Shortly after the capture of the three men, Lieutenant Rowe had concocted a cover story that appeared to be working in his favor.  Realizing that if the Viet Cong recognized him as a Special Forces officer they would do everything in their power, including torture, to make him reveal important information about American operations in Vietnam.  Rowe had told the enemy that he was NOT a soldier, but a civilian engineer under the employ of the U.S. Army and therefore had little military knowledge.  The story had held together, and spared him to this point.

Captain Versace's own resistance became the primary focus of the enemy, shifting attention away from the other prisoners and focusing the efforts and anger of the Viet Cong on himself.  It was a cross the young soldier bore with dignity.

More recently, the VC had begun a program of indoctrination for their American POWs, a litany of re-education sessions of Vietnamese history, Communist propaganda, and accusations of American aggression against the people of Vietnam.  

Rowe and Pitzer adopted what they called a sit and listen attitude to these session, accepting the fact that they were forced to be present for the tirade of enemy propaganda.  They quietly tuned it out, knowing to argue or otherwise respond, would be fruitless and would only result in harsher treatment.  Not so Rocky Versace.

Promised better food and better treatment if only he would:
     1)  Quit arguing with his indoctrinators, and
     2)  Accept their propaganda....
Captain Versace still would not bend.  Time and again during the sessions, from a distance, Rowe and Pitzer could hear Rocky arguing with the re-educators, rebutting their philosophies in their own language.

On this night late in February, Lieutenant Rowe could hear the re-educators arguing once again as they tried to break the unbreakable.  It had taken TWO guards just to force the intrepid Green Beret to attend the classes.  Across the darkness of the camp, he could hear the voice of Captain Humbert R. Versace loudly proclaim:

"You can make me come to this 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."

Writing about that night in his subsequent book, Lieutenant Rowe said of that night while he was sitting alone in the darkness listening to the exchange:  "I felt my back straighten and my face grow warm with a feeling of pride."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

April 8, 1964

Nick Rowe stirred uncomfortably in his cramped bamboo cage as he heard the commotion in the darkness, coming from the distant vicinity of Rocky Versace's prison cage.  Nick was weak, suffering from frequent bouts with dysentery, and wasted away to mere skin and bones.  Sergeant Pitzer was in no better shape but, despite their own deplorable condition, neither of the men were as bad off as was Captain Versace.  

Rising above the commotion, he could hear the voice of Rocky, still defying his captors.  In full resistance, Rocky filled the darkness of the U Minh Forest with a song that echoed the beliefs of his valiant spirit.

The following morning Nick was released from his leg irons and cage long enough to walk to the camp kitchen for his meager ration of rice.  As he walked past the area where Captain Versace had been held, all that remained was a twisted piece of aluminum that had been Rocky's cup and pan, and a pile of bloody rags...what remained of Rocky's gray POW pajamas.  The cage itself was wrecked, and Lieutenant Rowe quickly deduced that his comrade must have sustained a horrible beating during the previous night, and was perhaps dead.  That night one of the guards came to Lieutenant Rowe's cage and told him that the National Liberation Front had been forced to take drastic action against Captain Versace because he continued to be opposed to the Front.

Indeed, that was the last night Lieutenant Rowe or any other American would ever hear the voice of Captain Rocky Versace.  Nick Rowe would never forget the valiant warriors last words, sung defiantly into the darkness:


God Bless America,
Land that I Love.
Stand beside her, and guide her,
Through the night with the light from Above.

From the Mountains,
To the Prairies,
To the Oceans...White with foam.

God Bless America...My Home Sweet Home.
God Bless America...My Home Sweet Home.

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

On January 24, 1965 Lieutenant Rowe was pulled from his cage and taken to the canal to be moved by boat to a new prison camp.  As he trudged to the sampan he looked off in the distance.  Standing chained next to the guards along the bank was a tall man, now extremely gaunt and the once steel-gray hair turned snow white.  In that brief glance from a distance, Nick Rowe was shocked and shattered by how badly Rocky Versace looked, despite a sense of relief that he was still alive.  Nick wrote:

"The Alien force, applied with hate, could not break him, failed to bend him.  Though solitary imprisonment gave him no friends, he drew upon his inner self to create a force so strong that those who sought to destroy his will, met an army his to command."

In the months that followed, other American prisoners were moved in and out of prison camps deep within the Forest of Darkness.  Among them were four Special Forces advisors who had been captured a month after the battle near Le Coeur.  Sergeants Isaac "Ike Camacho, Kenneth M. Roraback, George E. "Smitty" Smith, and Claude D. McClure were captured on November 24, 1963 when their camp at Hiep Hoa was overrun by Viet Cong forces.  Initially the four were held at prison camps in the Plain of Reeds southwest of Hiep Hoa, but were later moved to the U Minh Forest where they were held in a separate camp from that which housed Versace, Rowe and Pitzer.

Other prisoners also came and went including Marine Captain Donald Cook who died in captivity and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.  On July 9, 1964 Sergeant Ike Camacho escaped the camp and eluded recapture for four days before finding his way to freedom.  He was the first American to escape from a Viet Cong prison during the Vietnam War.  

On Sunday, September 26, 1965 the Viet Cong interrogators gathered their American prisoners and forced them to listen to a National Liberation Front Radio broadcast in English.  The practice was not new, prisoners had previously been encouraged to listen to these propaganda messages.  On this day the voice across the radio spoke of two American prisoners, Captain Humbert Rocky Versace and Sergeant First Class Kenneth Roraback.  The announcer told his audience that both men were "unrepentant reactionaries who had been punished for their crimes" by order of the high command of the National Liberation Front.  Both men, the voice announced, had been executed.

The news crushed the hearts of the American prisoners.  The same news was subsequently carried on radio and television stations in the United States, where the families of both soldiers first heard of the death of their sons on the six o'clock news.  For Roque Versace's father, according to one of his surviving sons, learning of Rocky's death from the nightly news was one of the most crushing aspects of the sad turn of events.

Sergeants Claude McClure and George Smith were released from captivity in November of 1965.  As the year 1966 dawned in Vietnam, of the seven Green Berets captured from the outposts at Tan Phu and Hiep Hoa two years earlier, only Pitzer and Rowe remained in captivity.  Two (Versace and Roraback) had been executed, Camacho had escaped, and two had been repatriated.  In November 1967, Sergeant First Class Pitzer was released from Cambodia along with two prisoners badly in need of medical attention.  Lieutenant Rowe's cover story about being an engineer had been blown, ironically enough at the hands of a group of American war protestors who had researched the history of POWs identified by the National Liberation Front and passed that information on to his captors.  Betrayed by citizens of his own Nation, Rowe was severely punished for his deception and scheduled for execution.

In December 1968, with nothing to loose, Lieutenant Rowe struck down his guard when a flight of American helicopters ventured into the area where he was held.  Running into a clearing, the American pilots saw and rescued him.  In 1971 Major Rowe, who had been promoted during his captivity, wrote his experiences in the book titled Five Years to Freedom.  

Rowe remained in the Army and in 1987 was assigned to duty in the Philippines where he assisted in training anti-communist forces.  On April 21, 1989 a machine gun sniper attacked his car, killing him instantly in a planned assassination.  Daniel Pitzer retired from the US Army as a Sergeant Major.  He died in 1998.  With the loss of these two soldiers, men who suffered with Captain Versace, one might have though the story of THE ROCK would fade into oblivion.  But Rocky's story was too bold, too inspiring, to ever be forgotten.



Shortly after his daring escape in 1968, Major Rowe was invited to the White House to meet with President Richard Nixon and recount the events of his captivity.  Colonel Ray Nutter, an Army congressional liaison officer attended the private meeting and recalled:

"Mr. Nixon wasn't really prepared for what Nick had to say.  I don't think any of us were.  Maybe later, we got hardened to this sort of thing.  But in '69, to hear the story Nick told was very emotional.
"When Major Rowe was finished, the President didn't say anything.  He was very emotional and moved.  He got up and shook the major's hand, gave him a hug and had tears in his eyes.  He said it was one of the most amazing stories he had ever heard.  He turned to me and said, 'Did you understand what the major wanted?'  
"I said, 'Yes, sir.'  
"He said, 'Can you take care of this Colonel?'
"And I said, 'After being in here, sir, I can take care of most anything.'"

What Major Rowe had wanted was the Medal of Honor, not for himself, but for the man who's example had so inspired him, and motivated him through five years of captivity.  Almost as quickly as the private meeting ended, Major Rowe submitted the paperwork nominating Special Forces Captain Humbert Roque Versace for the Medal of Honor.

In moves that infuriated Major Rowe for the rest of his life, for some reason and in spite of the President's own endorsement during that 1969 meeting, Rocky's Medal of Honor was not to be.  The paperwork sat without official attention for two years, and then the award was downgraded to the Silver Star.


The Memorial

Even after the deaths of Rowe and Pitzer, Rocky Versace could not be forgotten.  He was remembered with reverence in the halls of the US Military Academy where he had graduated.  He was also remembered at home in Alexandria, Virginia by surviving family and admiring patriots.  

On July 6, 2002 a memorial to the intrepid man who wouldn't break, wouldn't bend, was unveiled.  Among those in attendance was a former Special Forces Captain and member of the West Point Class of 1959.  Though he left the Academy before graduation and never met Rocky Versace while they were students together, Captain Roger Donlon felt a unique kinship to the American hero.  On July 6, 1965 while Rocky Versace was still resisting his captors, Captain Roger Donlon and Detachment A-726 fought into the early morning hours to repulse an overwhelming enemy force in an attack on their outpost at Nam Dong.  In that action Captain Donlon became the FIRST Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War.

The memorial at the Mount Vernon Recreation Area displays a bronze image of Roque Versace embraced by two children of Vietnam.  "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."  Carved in the marble base are the words:

Dedicated to Captain Humbert Roque 'Rocky' Versace,
A Kid from The Neighborhood Who Had the Faith And Never Gave In.


The Medal of Honor

On Monday, July 8, 2002 Captain Donlon and other members of the West Point Class of 1959 were invited to the White House for another special event to honor the valiant spirit of Rocky Versace.  The Friends of Rocky Versace, a group of veterans and civilians determined to see him remembered not as a prisoner but as one of our Nation's greatest heroes refused to let history forget his shining example of Duty, Honor and Country.  On that day, President George W. Bush finally granted the request made more than 30 years earlier by Nick Rowe, and Rocky Versace's family received his award of the Medal of Honor. 

 

Sources:
Five Years to Freedom by Nick Rowe
"The Animal Called POW" by MSgt Daniel Pitzer, Look Magazine, Feb 18, 1969
"Honoring the Defiant One", by Steve Vogel, The Washington Post, May 27, 2001
Pacific Stars and Stripes, VIETNAM Front Pages, 1986
Neil Mishalov's Vietnam War Medal of Honor Website

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Five Years To Freedom

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Home Page

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FOOTNOTES
In
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NEW
Looking for a Hero or trying to verify awards? We have posted the names of more than 120,000 recipients of the highest awards in a BRAND NEW FREE SECTION
DECORATIONS 1862 - Present
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Military Medals & Awards 

Information and Images of ALL Military Medals
The Purple Heart 
How to Request Records/Medals Earned
  How to Obtain Military Records of a Family Member 

Honor Roll of America's Military Heroes


Brevet Medal


DSC 


Navy Cross 


Air Force Cross 

Distinguished Service Medals

Defense - Army - Navy - Air Force - Coast Guard - Merchant Marine



Silver Star

U.S. History and Information
The History Room | U.S. Flag HistoryHistory of the Flag |
How to Display the Flag
| The National Anthem | The Pledge of Allegiance The American Creed | The Seal of our Nation | Our National Symbol
Arthur MacArthur's Flag | William Carney's Flag | FDR's Flag of Liberation]

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