|Nick Rowe in Vietnam|
He was only 51 when he died. I got to know him when I wrote about Vietnam-era prisoners of war for The Washington Times. I wanted Nick to tell me about POWs. He was happy to comply. But he wanted something, also - for me to join his effort to secure a posthumous Medal of Honor for his fellow Vietnam War captive, Rocky Versace. I included Nick's story and words in my 'Nam POW book, Prisoners of Hope.
Nick's story is an inspiration.
By the time the bad guys finally got him in Manila, Nick had evaded death many times. First, while fighting in Vietnam; and then, while being held captive in the hands of Viet Cong guerrillas. In 1968, Nick pulled off one of the most spectacular POW escapes in history. He was one of only 34 Americans to make the break to freedom during the Vietnam War. He was a prisoner for five years. During that time, he repeatedly tried to get away. He never accepted the lessons his captors tried to beat into him every time they recaptured him. Finally, his guards got tired of him. They decided to kill him.
On New Year's eve, a band of Viet Cong marched Nick to where they planned to shoot him.
"When I saw Cobras, it meant only one thing.... we were in for a bad day."The mission quickly became complicated. The band stumbled into the kill zone of a flight of American helicopters: the deadly Cobras. As Nick told me in 1987: "When I saw Cobras, I knew it meant only one thing. If they spotted us, we were in for a bad day."
There ensued a bizarre sequence of events, in which the communists relied on Nick to help them evade the lethal choppers. Nick - who was carrying his injured pet dove - complied, all the while formulating a plan and waiting his opportunity. At one point, he somehow got access to the group's radio. While tuning the frequencies, he found Petula Clark singing Happy Heart. The song, he told me, bolstered his courage to act.
When the timing seemed right, Nick overpowered a guard and broke into the open. He waved his arms at the helicopters. It was a calculated risk. He knew he likely would be shot on sight. He was right.
According to Nick, the Cobra chatter went something like this:
"There's a VC out in the open."
But the flight leader, Major Dave Thompson, wanted a prisoner. Thompson took his Huey down for a capture. With the Cobras and supporting LOHs providing violent protective cover, Thompson closed in under fire. Everyone in the flight expected a trap. The Huey gunners kept Nick in their sights, ready to take him out with the squeeze of a finger.
Then one of the gunners spotted Nick's beard. This meant he was an American.
The capture now became a rescue.
The Huey landed in water (and we know why, thanks to our CIC). Nick raced hell-bent through the muck, all the while expecting a bullet in the back. Finally he dove into the open Huey doorway, shouting, "Go! Go!"
Thompson powered up, and off they went.
This time, Nick really did get away from the Forest of Darkness. His countrymen brought him to safety.
Afterwards, Nick had every justification to say goodbye forever to the Army. He'd earned the right to resign his commission. He did, in fact, get out for a while. But in 1981, he went back in to help other soldiers who might find themselves in enemy hands. He used the lessons he learned in captivity to form the Special Forces Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) course.
"We took all the lessons we learned the hard way and incorporated them into the curriculum," Nick told me. "We don't want anyone going through on-the-job training." The SERE school teaches soldiers to evade capture; but, if caught, to survive and return home with honor.
Nick was doing important work in the Philippines when another communist hit squad tracked him and killed him. His death sent hard ripples through the Army, especially through the Special Forces community. The day Nick died, Green Berets cried openly on the streets of Fayetteville. His funeral at Ft. Bragg was an unforgettable display of love and gratitude.
You can read more about Nick in a story I wrote a while back for Military.com. Better yet, pick up a copy of his book, Five Years to Freedom. You won't regret immersing yourself in the tale.
And don't forget to lift that glass.
More from my Nick Rowe files, here.