Humbert “Rocky” Versace embodied the credo “Duty, Honor Country” of the US Military Academy in West Point. On October 29, 1963, in the early days of the US engagement in Vietnam, Versace, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group, was captured by the Viet Cong. He refused to be indoctrinated by the communists and fiercely resisted. He made his kidnappers so angry that he insisted on following the code of conduct and protesting their treatment of American prisoners of war that the Viet Cong executed him on September 26, 1965. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Versace was the oldest of five children. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1937. His mother was a writer and one of her novels was later turned into the television series “The Flying Nun”. His father was a colonel in the US Army. Like most military families, the Versace clan moved quite frequently, and Rocky grew up in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, DC
After graduating from high school in Norfolk, VA, Versace got an appointment with his father at the US Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1959 as a second lieutenant in the armaments department. He attended Ranger School in Grades 4-60 and graduated on December 18, 1959. After attending the air school, Versace was shipped to Korea, where it was assigned as an M-48 armored train to the 3rd Battalion, 40th Armaments, 1st Cavalry Division from March 1960 to April 1961.
After Versace was promoted to captain, he was assigned to the 3d US Infantry (Old Guard), the army’s ceremonial unit known as the “Escort to the President” located near Washington in Ft. Myer, VA. While in Virginia, Versace volunteered in Vietnam and was transferred to Ft. Holabird, MD for the Intelligence Course and then the Vietnamese Language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, California.
Versace began his career as an intelligence advisor to the 5th Special Forces Group in May 1962. At the end of his year-long tour in May 1963, he volunteered for a six-month extension. In the end, Versace decided to join the seminary, become a Catholic priest, and return to Vietnam as a missionary.
With only two weeks left on his tour and the Army, Versace was visiting an old USMA classmate at 5th Special Forces Camp A-23 in Tan Phu in the Mekong Delta. There the Special Forces men advised a unit of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). The unit, according to Colonel (then LT) Nick Rowe, attempted to evict a 40-person Viet Cong train that was establishing a headquarters in the dense U-Minh forest in the village of Le Coeur. Versace joined the men in the operation. The Viet Cong, however, were not 40 men, but a 900-man regiment and attacked the Montagnard / Special Forces patrol.
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Dan Pitzer, an American Special Forces medic, was racing to the ambush to help when he stepped into a hole and broke his ankle. The A-Team XO, LT Nick Rowe moved to help him. Despite being badly wounded, Versace stayed in place and put down enough deckfire for most of the CIDG forces to retreat safely. However, when they ran out of ammunition, Rowe was beaten from behind by a Viet Cong and he, Pitzer and Versace were captured.
1LT Nick Rowe before his capture in Vietnam.
The Viet Cong really had no idea what to do with American prisoners and subjected them to brutal interrogation and appalling conditions in a small jungle detention center deep in the Minh Forest. In addition to physical torture and interrogation, they tried to starve their American prisoners to death. Despite being very weak and wounded from the ambush action, Versace continued to demonstrate its absolute compliance with the Code of Conduct.
He tried to escape on four different occasions. On one attempt, he was in such a weakened condition that he crawled on his hands and knees outside the compound, where he could be easily recaptured by his guards. This made the Viet Cong angry, but not as much as his other actions. With his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he berated the communists for their treatment of prisoners of war and their complete disregard for the Geneva Conventions. With a mix of Vietnamese and French, he maintained counterattacks on his interrogators. His body was broken, but his mind wasn’t.
The Viet Cong tried to separate him from the other kidnappers. For a while he left him gagged in his cell so that he could not communicate with other Americans. The last time he was seen by his American compatriots, he sang out loud “God Bless America”. His resilience after 23 months of brutal imprisonment inspired his fellow Americans and infuriated the Viet Cong. On September 23, 1965, the Viet Cong National Liberation Radio announced that Versace had been executed. His body was never recovered.
Versace’s brave deeds remained unknown and would have remained forever if Rowe had not escaped captivity on December 31, 1968. Rowe had steadfastly held onto his cover story that he was an engineer hired to build schools and other civil projects in the camp. He knew that if the Viet Cong found out he was a Green Beret, he would be executed immediately. He kept this up for years, even though the Vietnamese tried to expose him by forcing him to solve various technical problems.
It was only when anti-war protesters, including the well-known activist and future governor of California, Tom Hayden, visited Vietnam and provided the Communists with the background of several prisoners, including Rowe, that he was exposed. When the Viet Cong discovered that Rowe were intelligence and special forces, they were furious. They decided to execute him.
As they marched Rowe through the jungle en route to execution, his guards were startled by a nearby attack by US helicopters. Taking the opportunity, Rowe overpowered his guard, plunged into a rice field and caught the attention of the helicopter crew by waving his mosquito net. He was almost killed by the helicopter door gunner, but his beard (which the Vietnamese rarely grew) convinced the crew that he was American.
Upon his return to the United States, Rowe pleaded with President Richard Nixon to give Versace the Medal of Honor. Nixon assured him he would try, but that award was initially downgraded to a Silver Star.
Dan Pitzer during the Vietnam War.
Rowe was inducted back into the Army as a Major in 1981 and LTC shortly thereafter and was tasked with developing and running the Army SERE School at Camp Mackall, NC. His developed course left a lasting legacy in the Special Forces community. SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) is taught to all Special Forces soldiers and other selected Army Special Operations troops. Rowe was assisted in this task by Pitzer, who spoke to almost every SERE class. When they tried to teach all students something, tThe mission is to avoid capture at all costs, but if caught, return home alive and with honor. Rowe wrote a book about his experiences as a prisoner of war called “Five Years Freedom”.
Continue reading: December 1964: Roger Donlon receives the first Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War
In 1989 Colonel Rowe was appointed to the JUSMAG Joint US Military Advisory Group in the Philippines. He was murdered by Filippino communists one morning on his way to work. It was later learned that the communists in Vietnam still held a grudge against their former prisoners of war and were involved in his murder.
Versace’s Silver Star was eventually upgraded to a Medal of Honor, although Rowe was no longer there this time. Many Versace friends and family gave the necessary boost to the upgrade. President Bush presented the medal to Versace’s siblings in the White House on July 8, 2002.
Versace’s brother held his Medal of Honor with President Bush at the White House in 2002.
Rocky Versace was also named a Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment in 2011.
Medal of Honor quote:
Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and Organization: Captain, US Army, Intelligence Adviser, Special Operations
“For conspicuous bravery and fearlessness at risk of death, which go beyond the duty as a prisoner of war in the period from October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While escorting a patrol of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group engaged in combat operations on October 29, 1963 in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam, Captain Versace and the CIDG attack force were ambushed by an intense automatic mortar Arms and arms involved small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy battalion of the main forces.
As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly, encouraging his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided cover fire from an exposed position so friendly forces could withdraw from the kill zone if it was obvious their position was about to be overrun, and was seriously injured in the knee and back from automatic gun fire and fragments. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition.
Captured by the Viet Cong, he has shown exceptional leadership and determined adherence to the principles of the Code of Conduct since entering prisoner-of-war status. Captain Versace took command of his fellow American prisoners, and although he was locked in an iron isolation box, he raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day and leaving inspirational messages on the latrine.
Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four attempts to escape by pulling himself out of the camp on hands and knees through thick swamp and forbidding the vegetation to escape. The guards crawled very slowly due to his weakened condition, quickly spotted him outside the camp, and captured him again. Captain Versace despised the extensive interrogation and indoctrination efforts of the enemy and inspired his fellow prisoners to do their best to resist.
When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest the guards’ abusive treatment of American prisoners, he was put in leg irons and gagged to keep his protests out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time one of his fellow inmates heard from him, Captain Versace God Bless America sang out loud from his isolation box. Captain Versace could not break his indomitable will, his belief in God and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners and was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versace’s exceptional heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal valor, which included a conspicuous risk to life beyond duty, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the US Army and reflected great recognition for himself and the US armed forces. “