HAVE WE FORGOTTEN OUR HEROES? Chapter 3 – “Rocky” Versace

Humberto Rocky VersaceCPT Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace, Army Special Forces
Detachment A-23, 5th Special Forces Group, (Intelligence Advisor, MAAG at Camau)
Date of Birth: 02 July 1937 (Honolulu HI)
Date of Death: 26 September 1965 (South Vietnam)

Vietnam was a different kind of war from World War II and Korea, and so was the POW experience in several aspects. There were fewer prisoners (estimated at about 1,200 military, civilians, and foreign nationals known to have been captured) for two reasons. There were no mass surrenders of American forces such as those ordered for the defenders at Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines at the beginning of WWII. Nor were entire American combat units enveloped and overwhelmed, as happened during the forced withdrawal to the Pusan perimeter at the beginning of the Korean War. American prisoners were captured in Southeast Asia individually when soldiers were wounded or became trapped and couldn’t be rescued, or, as crew members of aircraft and helicopters that were shot down deep in enemy territory.

Vietnam was America’s longest undeclared war, and as a consequence, American prisoners endured captivity longer under inhumane conditions longer than in any previous conflict. (The longest held Army POW, Special Forces COL Floyd J. Thompson was held captive for two weeks short of nine years.) North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam treated all of their prisoners as “war criminals,” and denied them any protections afforded to POWs by the Geneva Convention. Unless the communists allowed a prisoner’s name to be known to the media, those captured vanished without a trace, only to be known about if seen by another prison who did return.

Vietnam was the first conflict where the Code of Conduct guided soldiers in how to resist communist indoctrination. As in Korea, Vietnam POWs were subjected to intensive indoctrination sessions, designed by their communist captors to “re-educate” them over time to collaborate with the enemy, mainly for propaganda purposes, but also to stir up disunity within prisoner ranks.

On October 29, 1963, Capt. “Rocky” Versace, 1Lt. “Nick” Rowe, and Sgt. Daniel Pitzer were accompanying a CIDG company on an operation along a canal. The team left the camp at Tan Phu for the village of Le Coeur to roust a small enemy unit that was establishing a command post there. When they reached the village, they found the enemy gone, and pursued them, falling into an ambush at about 1000 hours. The fighting continued until 1800 hours, when reinforcements were sent in to relieve the company. During the fight, Versace, Pitzer and Rowe were all captured. The three captives were photographed together in a staged setting in the U Minh forest in their early days of captivity. CPT Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on or about 26 September 1965, the following is his story . . .

Though suffering from a badly wounded and infected leg wound, CPT Versace assumed the position of Senior American Prisoner and demanded that the Viet Cong treat the American prisoners according to the protections of the Geneva Convention. He protested vehemently when the VC cadre refused to recognize them as “prisoners of war,” but treated them instead as “war criminals,” subject to the whims of individual cadre to decide matters of life or death. For his vociferous protestations against starvation rations, lack of adequate medical treatment for their wounds suffered when captured, deliberate withholding of medicines to treat life threatening diseases, and the overall sub-human living conditions in a brutal jungle environment, CPT Versace was soon ordered to be kept in an isolation hut with thatch on the roof and sides, which made mid-day temperatures inside as hot as an oven. This punishment hut, kept out of sight from the other prisoners, was six feet long, two feet wide, and only three feet high. It was meant to break CPT Versace physically, especially with the addition of leg and arm irons, and mentally, from the intense heat, lack of sufficient food and water, and the claustrophobia that could be expected to result from being entombed in such a confining space. The leg irons prevented him from turning, so the guards would position Versace either face up or face down for hours at a time unless they released him for meals and latrine runs.

Versace, his head swollen, his hair white and skin yellowed by jaundice, was pulled around villages with a rope tied around his neck by his angry captors.

CPT Versace’s exceptional faith in God, Country, and his fellow prisoners, and his resolve to uphold every tenet of the Code of Conduct despite the temptations from his captors offering more food, better treatment and early release if only he would co-operate by making disloyal statements, distinguish him as the toughest hard-line resister among all of the Army jungle captives who did not return at Operation Homecoming.

His remains have never been returned to the United States and though the Vietnamese Government confirmed he had been in their possession and executed they have never produced them.

After extensive support from the West Point Class of ’59, “Friends of Rocky Versace”, Duane Frederick, and others, CPT Versace was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush on Monday, 08 July 2002. It was presented to Versace’s family and received by one of his brothers, Steven Versace.versace-moh003

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