Who was Colonel Nick Rowe? He was first and foremost a Special Forces Officer. He was a West Point graduate. He was a former POW, having suffered for five years at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors before escaping and making his way back to US forces on his own. He was a teacher in that he founded and taught the U.S. Army Special Forces Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Program which trains military of all branches how to survive if they are separated from their forces, how to evade the enemy and make their way back to friendly forces, how to resist the enemy if captured, and how to plan an escape. He was a devout Christian. He was a real live hero of our times who became a living legend in the Special Forces community until his untimely assassination by guerilla insurgents in the Philippines.
The VIETNAM YEARS
1st Lieutenant “Nick” Rowe
On October 29, 1963, Capt. “Rocky” Versace, 1Lt. “Nick” Rowe, and Sgt. Daniel Pitzer were accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (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.
For 62 months, Rowe battled dysentery, beriberi, fungal diseases, and grueling psychological and physical torment. Each day he faced the undermining realization that he might be executed, or worse, kept alive, but never released. His home was a wooden cage, three feet by four feet by six feet in dimension. His bed was a sleeping mat. In spite of all this, Rowe was a survivor. From the start of his capture, he began looking for ways to resist his captors while he could make plans for his escape. Since he was the S2 or Intelligence Officer for his unit, he had access to all sorts of classified and sensitive information including camp defenses, mine field locations, names of friendlies and unit strengths and locations. All information the Viet Cong would love to know.
Rowe concocted a cover story that he was a “draftee” engineer who had the mundane job of building schools and other civil affairs projects. A 1960 graduate of West Point, Rowe had left his ring at home with his parents when he came to Vietnam. Nick instead made up the story that he went to a small liberal college and really didn’t know much about the military. The Viet Cong unsure whether to believe Rowe used torture to see if he would break and change his story. As a last resort his interrogators gave him some basic engineering problems which they felt would either validate Rowe’s story or prove that he was lying. Fortunately, as engineering courses were mandatory at West Point, Rowe was able to fool his captors.
Rowe’s cover story was eventually broken but not through any fault of his own. All his efforts were destroyed when a peace seeking group of war protesters came to North Vietnam. As part of their visit to North Vietnam, the protesters had asked to see some of the American POW’s so they could tell the American people that they were being treated fairly by the North Vietnamese government. Rowe’s name was on their list that they gave their hosts along with the information that he was the intelligence officer for the Special Forces Advisor Unit.
Rowe’s captors were furious that Rowe had fooled them all this time. Even worse was they knew that the valuable information he had at the time of his capture was dated and virtually worthless to them now. Rowe’s captors beat him for hours then stripped him and staked him out naked in a swamp. Now if you have ever had a mosquito bite you, you know how much it hurts and itches. That night Rowe’s body was covered with a blanket of mosquitoes that feasted on him for two days. Despite his captors best efforts to torture him, Rowe still would not break to their will or give them the old dated information.
Rowe made several escape attempts, once with another injured POW. They were being pursued by the Viet Cong when the other POW faced the realization that he could not go on and that he was slowing Rowe down and increasing the chance of both men being captured again. He urged Rowe to go on without him. Rowe began doing so until he heard the Viet Cong capture his friend. They began yelling that unless he surrendered to them, they would kill his friend. Although Rowe could have escaped he surrendered to save his friend.
Rowe was scheduled to be executed in late December 1968. His captors had had enough of him – his refusal to accept the communist ideology and his continued escape attempts. On Dec. 31, 1968, while away from the camp in the U Minh forest, Rowe took advantage of a sudden flight of American helicopters. He struck down his guards, and ran into a clearing where the helicopters noticed him and rescued him, still clad in black prisoner pajamas. Among his surprises when he returned to civilization was that he had been promoted to Major during his five years of captivity.
In 1971 Nick published Five Years to Freedom, in which he recounted his ordeal as a Viet Cong prisoner, his eventual escape, and his return home. The book was the result of the diary he wrote while prisoner, writing it in German, Spanish, Chinese, and his own special code in order to deceive his captors. He also wrote Southeast Asia Survival Journal for the United States Department of the Air Force, published n 1971. Upon his return home to McAllen, Texas, he was presented with lifetime memberships in the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In 1974 he made the decision to leave the service. He continue to write co-authoring The Washington Connection with Robin Moore, which was published by Conder Press in 1977, and in the same year Little, Brown and Company published his first novel, The Judas Squad.
Fort Bragg and The Philippines
The United States Army Special Forces School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina recognized the need for creating the SERE Program. When they started to look for an Officer to design the course and implement it into operation, Nick was everyone’s first choice. He returned to the Army and Special Forces as a lieutenant colonel in 1981 and given the mission to develop and run such a program. His efforts resulted in a program that would leave behind a tremendous legacy at Fort Bragg: a course based on his prisoner-of-war experience. Called SERE – Survival Evasion Resistance Escape – the course today is considered by many as the most important advanced training in the special operations field. Taught at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, SERE trains soldiers to avoid capture, but if caught, to survive and return home with honor. Much of the SERE course is conducted at the Rowe compound.
In 1985, Rowe left instructor duty to take command of a Battalion with the 5th Special Forces Group.
In 1987, Rowe was assigned to the Philippines, where he was given the mission of chief of the army division of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) providing counter-insurgency training for the Philippine military. In this capacity, he worked closely with the CIA, and was involved in its nearly decade-old program to penetrate the communist New Peoples’ Army (NPA) and its parent communist party in conjunction with Philippine’s own intelligence organizations. Nick proved to be the right man for the job quickly earning the respect of the Philippine government and the hatred of the communist guerrillas who hoped to disrupt President Aquino’s democratic Philippine government.
By February, 1989, Colonel Rowe had developed his own intelligence information which indicated that the communist were planning a major terrorist act. As a result of the intelligence and his analysis of the situation in the Philippines, Rowe wrote Washington warning that a high-profile figure was about to be hit and that he, himself, was No.2 or No.3 on the terrorist list.
Nick knew that his death would be a real propaganda victory for the communists. The communist guerillas had put a price on his head hoping to kill him and embarrass the Philippine government. In mid-April, 1989, Nick sent his green beret and bible home to his wife for safekeeping along with a letter informing her that he expected the NPA communists would be intensifying their actions with a planned major terrorist acts against U.S. military advisors their most likely action. Nick assured his wife that he was taking every precaution.
On April 21, 1989, Nick was returning to the US Embassy in an armored limousine when hooded members of the communist New Peoples’ Army (NPA) attacked his vehicle with automatic weapons. Under normal circumstances these weapons alone would not have been a threat to the occupants of the vehicle. However, “Murphy’s Law” of “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong” was in full force. The vehicle’s air conditioning had broken down earlier making the inside of the vehicle almost unbearable in the Philippine heat. To compensate but still provide safety, the driver had opened the small window vent to allow fresh air to circulate into the car. Several rounds found their way through the open vent killing Nick instantly.
The US State Department called it a “Random Terrorist Act”, however evidence suggests that Nick’s Vietnam experience was not coincidental to his selection as a target. In June of 1989, from an NPA stronghold in the hills of Sorsogon, a province in Southern Luzon’s Bicol region, senior cadre Celso Minguez told the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine that the communist underground wished to send “a message to the American people” by killing a Vietnam veteran.
Minguez, a founder of the communist insurgency in Bicol and participant in the abortive 1986 peace talks with President Corazon Aquino’s government told the REVIEW.
We want to let them know that their government is making the Philippines another Vietnam.
In May 1989, U.S. Veteran News and Report reported that according to a source who had served under Col. Rowe, the Vietnamese communist also wanted him dead and very likely collaborated with the Philippine insurgents to achieve that goal.
The source who wished to remain anonymous said that prior to Col. Rowe being assigned to the Philippines in 1987, at one point in Greece while he was on assignment, Delta Force, the U.S. anti-terrorist organization, moved in, secured the area and relocated him. They had received reports that Vietnamese communist agents were planning an action against him:
He was a target when he went over there because of his dealings with the North Vietnamese and his time as a prisoner.
Robert Mountel, a retired Special Forces colonel and former commander of the 5th Special Forces Group, subsequently explained, confirming what the other source had said:
They had him on their list.
There are several unanswered questions. Among them: How did the Guerilla’s know where Colonel Rowe would be? Only the Embassy allegedly knew the route that Colonel Rowe was to take that day. Colonel Rowe consistently varied his schedule and routes of travel. Why is it that he was ordered NOT to be armed, though his name was known to be on the communist guerillas’ “hit” List? And why did President Aquino, who Colonel Rowe was in the Philippines to help, later grant freedom to all of his killers?
Rowe spent more than half of his life as a Special Forces officer. In his own words from an oral history interview conducted before he left the Special Warfare Center and School for his assignment in the Philippines, Rowe recounts:
I took a different route from most and came into Special Forces… I had made a decision then that, as far as I was concerned, I had found what I wanted in the military, and I simply had to find a way to stay with it.
During his lifetime Rowe received the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation. His nonmilitary awards included the American Patriot Award of Freedom’s Foundation of Valley Forge (1969), the Outstanding Young Man of America award, the George Washington Honor Medal of Freedom’s Foundation of Valley Forge (1974), and the Legion of Honor, International Supreme Council of the Order of DeMolay.
Hundreds of mourners crowded in and outside Fort Bragg’s JFK Chapel for a memorial service a week after Rowe was killed. Brig. Gen. David J. Baratto, then the Special Warfare Center and School commander, said in a eulogy that Rowe:
…died in service to his country and gave all that mortality could give – his strength, his loyalty, his wisdom and his love. He died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in his heart, and hope in the last words he wrote: the hope that Right would prevail and that the oppressed would be liberated.
Colonel Rowe is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His grave is on the hill next to the monument of the Unknown Soldier. Inscribed on his gravestone are the words from a poem he wrote in 1964 while a POW:
So look up ahead at times to come,
despair is not for us.
We have a world and more to see,
while this remains behind.
Colonel Rowe experienced more in his lifetime than most people will in many lifetimes. He was a Special Forces soldier, a POW, a hero, a teacher, and a friend to many. He knew the true meaning of freedom. His accomplishments will live on to honor him. He is greatly missed.