Saturday, April 21, 2012

Raise a Glass to Legendary Green Beret Col. Nick Rowe, On the Anniversary of His Murder

Nick Rowe in Vietnam
Let's all raise a glass in memory of an old pal and legendary Green Beret, Col. James Nicholas Rowe, who died 23 years ago today. Nick was ambushed and killed on 21 April, 1989, while driving to work in the Philippines. At the time, he was assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in Manila.

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."

"Gun him!"

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 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.


Anonymous said...

To Nick. God bless him always.

USMA60 said...

To Nick and Rocky.

The Constitutional Insurgent said...

This one's for you Col. Rowe...

Good write up Susan...thank you for reminding us.

BillT said...

He was one of only 34 Americans to make the break to freedom during the Vietnam War.

And the only POW to make it out of the Delta alive.

*slow hand salute*

Susan Katz Keating said...

Thanks to that comment from Bill, I have spent much of the morning going through my beacoup cubic feet of POW files to find any trace of another PW who made it out of the Delta alive.

I can't find a single one.


BillT said...

I was on two of the three POW camp raids my unit conducted in the Delta. The POWs in the first camp had died and were buried in the holes in the tunnel walls that were their cages. The ones in the second camp were executed just as the raiders we dropped off were storming the camp.

We had a success in Cambodia, but the prisoners were all ARVNs and Cambodian soldiers...

Susan Katz Keating said...

I sure wish you would write about those missions. Yes, I surely do.

BillT said...

I wrote about the first one. It's in the Castle archives, if John didn't lose it when he redecorated. I'll see if I can find it...

Susan Katz Keating said...

Is it the one with the Singer sewing machines? Because that was really cool and funny. But I sort of had something else in mind when I said I'd like to read about those missions.

Just sayin'...

BillT said...

Different mission, same area. The underground complexes in the U Minh weren't as extensive (or as numerous) as the ones at Cu Chi, but they were just as effective. They only dug there when they wanted to hide something important, because they had to keep pumps going 24 hours a day.

Susan Katz Keating said...

Holy God.

Susan Katz Keating said...

How did those men die?

BillT said...

Malnutrition or disease, most likely.

The VC dug cells in the side of the tunnels, just big enough for one man to crawl into, then closed the entries with bamboo lattice. When they died, the VC just collapsed their cell roofs onto them and stuck their dogtags on a stick in the wall next to each cell.

It kinda reinforced my intention to die fighting, should the occasion arise...

Susan Katz Keating said...

That brief description alone makes me feel all sorts of really bad feelings. On a whole lot of levels, from a whole lot of perspectives.

Did we ever recover the bodies of those men?

BillT said...

Yes. The advisor with the ARVN raiders told me they'd found three sets of US dogtags and "several" sets of ARVN ID on one wall. The guy who drew the recovery mission the next day said they put eight body bags on board.

Susan Katz Keating said...

God rest their souls.

And may God bless those of you who went in after them.

BillT said...

…seeking adventure on the high road,
to right wrong,
to overcome evil,
to suffer wounds and
endure pain if need be,
but in all things to serve you
bravely, faithfully, joyfully
that at the end of the day's labor,
kneeling for your blessing,
you may find no blot upon my shield.

--- The Knight's Prayer