For many people this article will intensify the conflict regarding women serving in combat roles in the military. However when one reviews the history of wars involving the United States, one will discover many women have served not only in traditional combat roles, also in roles of espionage and infiltration traditionally held by men.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Linda L. Bray says her male superiors were incredulous upon hearing she had ably led a platoon of military police officers through a firefight during the 1989 invasion of Panama. (Operation Just Cause)
Instead of being lauded for her actions, the first woman in U.S. history to lead male troops in combat said higher-ranking officers accused her of embellishing accounts of what happened when her platoon bested an elite unit of the Panamanian Defense Force. After her story became public, Congress fiercely debated whether she and other women had any business being on the battlefield.
The Pentagon’s longstanding prohibition against women serving in ground combat ended in 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that most combat roles jobs will now be open to female soldiers and Marines. Panetta said women are integral to the military’s success and will be required to meet the same physical standards as their male colleagues.
“I’m so thrilled, excited. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that our nation’s military is taking steps to help women break the glass ceiling,” said Bray, 54, of Clemmons, N.C. “It’s nothing new now in the military for a woman to be right beside a man in operations.”
The end of the ban on women in combat comes more than 23 years after Bray made national news and stoked intense controversy after her actions in Panama were praised as heroic by Marlin Fitzwater, the spokesman for then-President George H.W. Bush.
Bray and 45 soldiers under her command in the 988th Military Police Company, nearly all of them men, encountered a unit of Panamanian special operations soldiers holed up inside a military barracks and dog kennel.
Her troops killed three of the enemy and took one prisoner before the rest were forced to flee, leaving behind a cache of grenades, assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to Associated Press news reports published at the time. The Americans suffered no casualties. Citing Bray’s performance under fire as an example, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., introduced a bill to repeal the law that barred female U.S. military personnel from serving in combat roles. But the response from the Pentagon brass was less enthusiastic. Schroder’s bill died after top generals lobbied against the measure, saying female soldiers just weren’t up to the physical rigors of combat.
“The responses of my superior officers were very degrading, like, ‘What were you doing there?'” Bray said. “A lot of people couldn’t believe what I had done, or did not want to believe it. Some of them were making excuses, saying that maybe this really didn’t happen the way it came out.”
“The routine carrying of a 120-pound rucksack day in and day out on the nexus of battle between infantrymen is that which is to be avoided and that’s what the current Army policy does,” Gen. M.R. Thurman, then the head of the U.S. Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
For Bray, the blowback got personal.
The Army refused to grant her and other female soldiers who fought on the ground in Panama the Combat Infantryman Badge. She was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Valor, an award for meritorious achievement in a non-combat role.
Bray was also the subject of an Army investigation over allegations by Panamanian officials that she and her soldiers had destroyed government and personal property during the invasion that toppled Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Though eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the experience soured Bray on the Army. In 1991, she resigned her commission after eight years of active duty and took a medical discharge related to a training injury.
Today’s military is much different from the one Bray knew, with women already serving as fighter pilots, aboard submarines and as field supervisors in war zones. But some can’t help but feel that few know of their contributions, said Alma Felix, 27, a former Army specialist.
“We are the support. Those are the positions we fill and that’s a big deal — we often run the show — but people don’t see that,” Felix said. “Maybe it will put more females forward and give people a sense there are women out there fighting for our country. It’s not just your typical poster boy, GI Joes doing it.”
(Information for this article was gathered from newspapers, military documents and interviews)
Name: Jon R. Cavaiani
Rank/Branch: E5/US Army Special
ForcesUnit: Task Force 1, Advisory Element, USARV TAG SUP; Headquarters USARV
Date of Birth: 02 August 1943
Home City of Record: Merced CA
Date of Loss: 05 June 1971
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Staff Sergeant U.S. Army Jon R. Cavaiani was born in England and came to America with his parents in 1947 at the age of four. Although he was classified 4-F because of an allergy to bee stings and was married with two children, Cavaiani enlisted in the Army shortly after being naturalized in 1968.
He qualified for Special Forces and arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1970; later he joined the Studies and Observation Group (SOG), an unconventional warfare task force, and was soon leading clandestine operations against the North Vietnamese. In the spring of 1971, SSG Cavaiani was in charge of the security platoon for an isolated radio relay site deep in the northwestern most outpost of South Vietnam near Khe Sanh. The mission of his unit, which comprised 70 indigenous troops and 13 Americans, was to provide security for this intelligence-gathering operation. On the morning of June 4, the camp came under attack by an overwhelming enemy force. Cavaiani moved through the exploding mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic weapons fire to organize a defensive perimeter and direct the U.S. force’s fight for survival. When a grenade knocked him down and wounded him as he was firing a .50-caliber machine gun, he picked himself up and continued to organize the fight. By midday, it was clear that the small American contingent wouldn’t be able to fight off the North Vietnamese.
Cavaiani called in help and directed the evacuation, but the helicopters broke off the mission before the last 17 of his men could be taken out. While they remained in the camp overnight trying to fend off enemy attacks, Cavaiani again established a defensive position and concentrated his efforts on strengthening the morale of his men. The next morning, obscured by heavy ground fog, the North Vietnamese massed. Ordering his remaining men to try to escape, Cavaiani attempted to keep the enemy at bay with small arms and hand grenades. The survivors, who last saw him standing with a machine gun spraying the two columns of advancing soldiers, reported his heroic death when they got back to the American lines.
Although he had been shot in the back, Cavaiani was able to crawl into a bunker with another American, Sgt. James Jones. When two NVA soldiers entered, Cavaiani killed one with a dagger, and Jones shot the other. Then an enemy grenade exploded in the bunker. Badly wounded, Jones stepped out to surrender and was killed by rifle shots; Cavaiani played dead. When the North Vietnamese set the bunker on fire, he was severely burned but managed to escape into the jungle. He evaded capture for 11 days and had almost made it back to an American camp when he was caught by a 70-year-old peasant with an antique bolt-action rifle. Cavaiani was taken to North Vietnam by his captors and spent time in “Plantation Gardens,” a prisoner-of-war camp, and in the interrogation center known as the Zoo before winding up in the “Hanoi Hilton.”
When he was released in 1973, he heard that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. It was awarded to him on December 12, 1974, by President Gerald Ford, who spent an hour with the Cavaiani family after the ceremony. In 1990 Jon retired after 21 years of service as a Sergeant Major.
Years later Jon said this about time in Vietnam:
“An individual must at least attempt to keep his mind occupied, to retain his sanity otherwise, the enemy will enter. Therefore, I decided what were the things I believed in: God, America, and my family. Yes, they had always been in my mind and then when I needed them most they stood by me as a shield against the enemy. After extensive and rigorous training in the skills of the Special Forces, I went to Vietnam as a weapons man.
Upon arriving there I was immediately made Agricultural Advisor for Military Region 1 or I Corps, a job in which I had an extensive knowledge, having been District Sales Manager for a chemical company, which specialized in agricultural chemicals, prior to my military career. Also, before working for the chemical company, I had farmed for four and a half years.
I was Agricultural Advisor for four months until reassigned to run reconnaissance for four months. I was also a heavy weapons platoon leader for a month. My last assignment before being captured was as a commander of a relay site north west of Quang Tri.
On June 4, 1971 the site was attacked and overrun by the enemy. The following day, I was captured. From that day forward the enemy, in their own way, gave me the will to survive, to resist their ideas and their belief that what they were doing was right. This in turn strengthened my conviction that I was right in being in Vietnam.
As a prisoner I was to meet some of the most heroic men I have ever or will ever hope to encounter, men who never let their country or families down, when so many people in the United States were letting us, the POWs, MIAs and almost all our country, down. Well, by God, regardless of what some people said about the war, we did our jobs as men and kept the faith in our President and country. I thank God and my country for letting me come back to see my daughters again. And I say, with great pride, God Bless America.”
Edward Johnson was born on September 23, 1923, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 8, 1943, and then served with the 755th SN Company at Camp Pickett, Virginia, from June 1943 to August 1944. His next assignment was with the 31st Quartermaster Training Company at Camp Lee, Virginia, from August 1944 to October 1945, followed by service as an Admin NCO with the 453rd Quartermaster Laundry Company in Germany from October 1945 to June 1946. SFC Johnson served as an Admin NCO with Headquarters Company of the 61st Quartermaster Battalion in Germany from June to July 1946, and then with the 598th Quartermaster Laundry Company in Germany from July to December 1946.
His next assignment was with the 436th Quartermaster Company in Germany from December 1946 to June 1947, followed by service as a Platoon Sergeant with the 661st Transportation Company in Germany from June 1947 to November 1949. During this time he served as an instructor with Detachment A of the 7871st Training and Education Group in Germany from February to April 1949. He then served as an instructor with the 7744th Educational Training Group in now West Germany from November 1949 to September 1953, and with Headquarters Detachment of the 7812th Station Compliment Unit in West Germany from September 1953 to March 1954.
He was assigned as an instructor to the 44th Replacement Company of the 44th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, from March to October 1954, and then as an instructor with the 2nd Replacement Company at Fort Lewis from October 1954 to June 1955.
MSG Johnson was next assigned as an instructor to the 90th Replacement Battalion at Fort Lewis from June 1955 to March 1956, followed by service as an instructor and then as an Operations and Intelligence Sergeant with Headquarters Company of the U.S. Army in Europe Quartermaster School in West Germany from March 1956 to March 1960.
He served as an infantry instructor with Headquarters Company of the U.S. Army Infantry Training Center at Fort Ord, California, from March to April 1960, and then with Headquarters Company of the 4th Infantry Brigade at Fort Ord from April 1960 to October 1963.
MSG Johnson attended Military Assistance Advisor training at the U.S. Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from October 1963 to January 1964, and then served as an advisor with the U.S. Army Element of the Military Assistance Advisor Group in South Vietnam from January 1964 until he was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War on July 21, 1964.
After spending 1,209 days in captivity, MSG Johnson was released by his captors in Cambodia on November 11, 1967. He was briefly hospitalized to recover from his injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and at the U.S. Army Hospital at Fort Ord before serving as Chief Enlisted Advisor to the U.S. Army Advisory Group with the California Army National Guard in San Jose, California, from September 1968 to November 1970.
His next assignment was as 1st Sergeant of 1st Battalion of the 13th Infantry Regiment in West Germany from November 1970 to March 1971, followed by service as 1st Sergeant of 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment in West Germany from March to August 1971. 1SG Johnson served as 1st Sergeant of the 1st Adjutant General Admin Company in West Germany from August 1971 to May 1972, and then as 1st Sergeant of Company E of the 701st Maintenance Battalion in West Germany from May to December 1972. His next assignment was as 1st Sergeant of Company A, 4th Battalion of the 4th Infantry Brigade at Fort Ord from January 1973 until his retirement from the Army on March 1, 1974.
Edward Johnson died on July 11, 2000.
His Bronze Star Medal Citation reads:
For distinguishing himself by outstanding meritorious service in connection with ground operations against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam during the period January 1964 to November 1967. Through his untiring efforts and professional ability, he consistently obtained outstanding results. He was quick to grasp the implications of new problems with which he was faced as a result of the ever changing situations inherent in a counterinsurgency operation and to find ways and means to solve those problems. The energetic application of his extensive knowledge has materially contributed to the efforts of the United States mission to the Republic of Vietnam to assist that country in ridding itself of the communist threat to its freedom. His initiative, zeal, sound judgment and devotion to duty have been in the highest tradition of the United States Army and reflect great credit on him and on the military service.
Born: 22 February 1948 Kufstein, Austria
Died: 10 May 1970 (aged 22) Se San, Cambodia
Place of burial: North Sewickley Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania
Allegiance: United States of America
Service/branch: United States Army
Years of service: 1969–1970
Rank: Sergeant (posthumous)
Unit: 506th Infantry Regiment
Battles/wars: Vietnam War: Cambodian Campaign
Awards: Medal of Honor; Bronze Star; Purple Heart; Air Medal
Leslie Halasz Sabo, Jr. (Hungarian: ifj. Halász Szabó László) (22 February 1948 – 10 May 1970) was a soldier in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He received the highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions during the Cambodian Campaign in 1970.
Born in Kufstein, Austria, Sabo’s family immigrated to the United States when he was young and moved to Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. Sabo dropped out of college and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969, becoming a member of the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. On 10 May 1970 Sabo’s unit was on an interdiction mission near Se San, Cambodia when they were ambushed from all sides by the Vietnam People’s Army. Sabo repeatedly exposed himself to North Vietnamese fire, protecting other soldiers from a grenade blast and providing covering fire for American helicopters until he was killed.
Sabo was nominated for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but the records were lost. In 1999 a fellow Vietnam War veteran came across the records and began the process of reopening Sabo’s nomination. Following several delays, Sabo’s widow received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on 16 May 2012, 42 years after his death.
Leslie Sabo, Jr. was born in Kufstein, Austria on 22 February 1948 to Elizabeth and Leslie Sabo, Sr., who had been members of an upper-class Hungarian family. Leslie Jr. had one brother, George, who was born in 1944, as well as a second brother who had been killed in World War II bombings at the age of one. With the post-World War II occupation of Hungary by the Soviet Union, Sabo’s family lost their fortune in the war and, upon realizing Communism would be installed in Hungary long-term, they left the country permanently.
The Sabo family moved to the United States in 1950 just after Sabo turned two years old. Leslie Sr., who had previously worked as a lawyer, attended evening classes to become an engineer in the United States. The family moved to Youngstown, Ohio and lived there for a short time before moving to Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, as Leslie Sr. followed a job at Blaw-Knox Corp. Growing up, Sabo’s father stressed discipline and patriotism. Sabo graduated from Lincoln High School in 1966 and briefly attended Youngstown State University before dropping out and working at a steel mill for a short time. He was described by friends and family as an affectionate and “kind-hearted hometown boy” who was easygoing and always in good humor. He enjoyed billiards and bowling.
Sabo in 1969 holding an M-60 Machine Gun.
Sabo was drafted into the United States Army April 1969 and sent to Fort Benning, GA for basic combat training. While on leave he married Rose Sabo-Brown (née Buccelli) the daughter of a World War II veteran and Silver Star recipient, whom he had met in 1967. He attended advanced individual training in September and October of that year, followed by a honeymoon trip to New York City, New York. Sabo was assigned to Bravo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, U.S.A. 101st Airborne Division and was known to enjoy his time in the military, preferring the environment of discipline and camaraderie.
In January 1970 Sabo and his unit departed for Vietnam to fight in the Vietnam War and he began corresponding with his wife regularly via letter. The unit came into contact with North Vietnamese troops frequently for the first several months of its deployment, but most of these were small hit-and-run attacks. On 5 May 1970 Sabo’s platoon was attached to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division for a secret mission into Cambodia and dropped into the country on a UH-1 Huey helicopter. They were to conduct a series of interdiction missions against the Ho Chi Minh Trail with the assistance of heavy air support. For five days they came into constant, heavy contact with North Vietnamese forces that were often of superior size.
On 10 May 1970 Sabo’s platoon was part of a force of two platoons from Bravo Company on a mission to Se San, Cambodia. They were to engage a force of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops that had used the area as a staging ground for the Tet Offensive and other attacks. There they were ambushed by a force of 150 NVA troops hidden in the jungle and the trees, which had caught the American force in the open and unprepared. This battle became known as the “Mother’s Day ambush.” Sabo, who was at the column’s end, repeatedly repulsed efforts by the North Vietnamese to surround and overrun the Americans. As the battle continued, a North Vietnamese soldier threw a grenade near a wounded American soldier lying in the open. Sabo ran out from a small tree that had been providing him cover and draped himself over his wounded comrade as the grenade exploded. Then, after absorbing multiple wounds from the grenade blast, Sabo attacked the enemy trench, killing two soldiers with a grenade of his own, and helped his injured ally to the shelter of a nearby tree line. Later, with the Americans running out of ammunition, Sabo again exposed himself to retrieve rounds from Americans killed earlier in the day.
Sabo then began redistributing ammunition to other members of the platoon, including stripping ammunition from wounded and dead comrades. As night fell the North Vietnamese refocused their efforts from wiping out the American force to harassing the helicopters that were carrying more than two dozen wounded soldiers. As that was occurring, the remaining platoon from Bravo Company broke through the North Vietnamese lines and relieved the other two platoons while the first medical helicopter arrived and loaded two wounded soldiers under heavy fire. Sabo again stepped out into the open and provided covering fire for the helicopter until his ammunition was exhausted. He received several serious wounds under heavy fire by the North Vietnamese while trying to reload. Although mortally wounded, Sabo crawled forward toward the enemy emplacement, pulled the pin of a grenade, and threw it at the last possible second toward an enemy bunker. The resulting explosion silenced the enemy bunker at the cost of Sabo’s life. In all, seven other members of the platoon were killed in this ambush and another 28 were wounded. The North Vietnamese forces lost 49.
Although he was posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant, the circumstances of Sabo’s death remained unclear to his family for several decades thereafter. Officially the military reported Sabo had been killed by a sniper while guarding an ammunition cache somewhere in Vietnam. Shortly after the action Sabo’s company commander, Captain Jim Waybright, recommended him for the Medal of Honor, but the accounts of Sabo’s actions and citation were lost for several decades. This changed in 1999 when Alton Mabb, another Vietnam War veteran of the 101st Airborne Division and a columnist for the division association magazine, uncovered the documents while at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Mabb publicized Sabo’s exploits in the magazine and also wrote U.S. Congresswoman Corrine Brown, whom he asked to forward the recommendation. Brown lobbied the U.S. Department of Defense for Sabo to be recognized and, in 2006; Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey recommended that Sabo receive the Medal of Honor. Due to the delay in processing the citation, however, the award had to be approved by an act of Congress, so Brown attached it as a rider to a 2008 defense authorization bill. After continued delays in the process, however, Sabo’s family contacted U.S. Congressman Jason Altmire to push the award through the Defense Department. Secretary of the Army John McHugh recommended the Medal of Honor for Sabo in March 2010 and, on 16 April 2012, it was announced that Sabo’s family would receive the medal from U.S. President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony, 42 years after the action. Sabo posthumously received the Medal of Honor at the White House 16 May 2012, which was accepted by his widow. Sabo is interred at Holy Redeemer Cemetery in North Sewickley Township, Pennsylvania and is honored at a memorial to B Company in Marietta, Ohio, the home of his former commanding officer.
In addition to the Medal of Honor Sabo also received several other honors as well as being posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant. His other military decorations include the Purple Heart Medal, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Bronze Palm, and the Vietnam Campaign Medal. His unit awards include the Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation and the Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation.
Medal of Honor citation
Sabo was the 249th person to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in the Vietnam War and the 3,458th recipient in the history of the medal.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Specialist Four Leslie H. Sabo Jr. distinguished himself by conspicuous acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life while serving as a rifleman in Company B, 3d Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division in Se San, Cambodia, on May 10, 1970. On that day, Specialist Four Sabo and his platoon were conducting a reconnaissance patrol when they were ambushed from all sides by a large enemy force. Without hesitation, Specialist Four Sabo charged an enemy position, killing several enemy soldiers. Immediately thereafter, he assaulted an enemy flanking force, successfully drawing their fire away from friendly soldiers and ultimately forcing the enemy to retreat. In order to re-supply ammunition, he sprinted across an open field to a wounded comrade. As he began to reload, an enemy grenade landed nearby. Specialist Four Sabo picked it up, threw it, and shielded his comrade with his own body, thus absorbing the brunt of the blast and saving his comrade’s life. Seriously wounded by the blast, Specialist Four Sabo nonetheless retained the initiative and then single-handedly charged an enemy bunker that had inflicted severe damage on the platoon, receiving several serious wounds from automatic weapons fire in the process. Now mortally injured, he crawled towards the enemy emplacement and, when in position, threw a grenade into the bunker. The resulting explosion silenced the enemy fire, but also ended Specialist Four Sabo’s life. His indomitable courage and complete disregard for his own safety saved the lives of many of his platoon members. Specialist Four Sabo’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness, above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Company B, 3d Battalion, 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, and the United States Army.
U.S. Marine Corps 1942-1945
U.S. Army Reserve 1946-1949
Iowa Air National Guard 1949-1951
U.S. Air Force 1951-1977
World War II 1942-1945
Cold War 1945-1977
Korean War 1953
Vietnam War 1967-1973 (POW)
Bud Day was born on February 24, 1925, in Sioux City, Iowa. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on December 10, 1942, and spent 30 months in the South Pacific during World War II before receiving an honorable discharge on November 24, 1945.
After the war, Day joined the U.S. Army Reserve on December 11, 1946, and served until December 10, 1949. He was appointed a 2d Lt in the Iowa Air National Guard on May 17, 1950, and went on active duty in the U.S. Air Force on March 15, 1951.
Lt Day completed pilot training and was awarded his pilot wings at Webb AFB, Texas, in September 1952, and completed All-Weather Interceptor School and Gunnery School in December 1952. He served as an F-84 Thunder jet pilot with the 559th Strategic Fighter Squadron of the 12th Strategic Fighter Wing at Bergstrom AFB, Texas, from February 1953 to August 1955, with deployments to Omisawa, Japan, during this time in support of the Korean War.
His next assignment was as an F-84 and F-100 Super Sabre pilot with the 55th Fighter Bomber Squadron of the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing and later on the wing staff at RAF Wethersfield, England, from August 1955 to June 1959, followed by service as an Assistant Professor of Aerospace Science at the Air Force ROTC detachment at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, from June 1959 to August 1963. During his service in England, he became the first person ever to live through a no-chute bailout from a jet fighter.
CPT Day attended Armed Forces Staff College for Counterinsurgency Indoctrination training at Norfolk, Virginia, from August 1963 to January 1964, and then served as an Air Force Advisor to the New York Air National Guard at Niagara Falls Municipal Airport, New York, from January 1964 to April 1967.
MAJ Day then deployed to Southeast Asia, serving first as an F-100 Assistant Operations Officer at Tuy Hoa AB, South Vietnam, before organizing and serving as the first commander of the Misty Super FACs at Phu Cat AB, South Vietnam, from June 1967 until he was forced to eject over North Vietnam and was taken as a Prisoner of War on August 26, 1967. He managed to escape from his captors and make it into South Vietnam before being recaptured and taken to Hanoi. After spending 2,028 days in captivity, COL Day was released during Operation Homecoming on March 14, 1973. He was briefly hospitalized to recover from his injuries at March AFB, California, and then received an Air Force Institute of Technology assignment to complete his PhD in Political Science at Arizona State University from August 1973 to July 1974.
His final assignment was as an F-4 Phantom II pilot and Vice Commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, from September 1974 until his retirement from the Air Force on December 9, 1977. MISTY 1, Col Bud Day, died on July 27, 2013, and was buried at Barrancas National Cemetery at NAS Pensacola, Florida.
His Medal of Honor Citation reads:
On 26 August 1967, Col. Day was forced to eject from his aircraft over North Vietnam when it was hit by ground fire. His right arm was broken in 3 places, and his left knee was badly sprained. He was immediately captured by hostile forces and taken to a prison camp where he was interrogated and severely tortured. After causing the guards to relax their vigilance, Col. Day escaped into the jungle and began the trek toward South Vietnam. Despite injuries inflicted by fragments of a bomb or rocket, he continued southward surviving only on a few berries and uncooked frogs. He successfully evaded enemy patrols and reached the Ben Hai River, where he encountered U.S. artillery barrages. With the aid of a bamboo log float, Col. Day swam across the river and entered the demilitarized zone. Due to delirium, he lost his sense of direction and wandered aimlessly for several days. After several unsuccessful attempts to signal U.S. aircraft, he was ambushed and recaptured by the Viet Cong, sustaining gunshot wounds to his left hand and thigh. He was returned to the prison from which he had escaped and later was moved to Hanoi after giving his captors false information to questions put before him. Physically, Col. Day was totally debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest task for himself. Despite his many injuries, he continued to offer maximum resistance. His personal bravery in the face of deadly enemy pressure was significant in saving the lives of fellow aviators who were still flying against the enemy. Col. Day’s conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.
Name: Orien Judson Walker, Jr.
Rank/Branch: O3/US Army
Unit: Headquarters, MACV
Date of Birth: 27 September 1933
Home City of Record: Boston MA
Date of Loss: 23 May 1965
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 092100N 1050500E (WR098325)
Status (in 1973): Killed in Captivity
Other Personnel in Incident: (none missing)
Orien Judson Walker, Jr. was born on September 27, 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on February 12, 1951, and received an honorable discharge on September 26, 1954. He then attended the University of New Hampshire, where he received his commission as a 2dLt in the U.S. Army through the Army ROTC program there on January 29, 1957, going on active duty beginning May 30, 1957.
Lt Walker next attended basic infantry officer training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and at Fort Riley, Kansas, from May 1957 to January 1958, followed by service as a Platoon Leader, Assistant S-2, and Executive Officer with Company B, Company C, and Combat Support Company, 2nd Battle Group of the 2nd Infantry Regiment at Fort Riley and in West Germany from January 1958 to August 1962.
After attending additional training with the Infantry School at Fort Benning and at Fort Hood, Texas, Capt Walker served as S-3 for Air with Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion of the 46th Infantry Regiment at Fort Hood from July to October 1963, and then as Commanding Officer of Company B, 1st Battalion of the 46th Infantry Regiment at Fort Hood from October 1963 to May 1964.
His next assignment was as Battalion Adjutant and then Battalion Executive Officer with 1st Battalion of the 46th Infantry Regiment from June to July 1964. He then attended the Military Assistance Training Advisors Course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from July to October 1964, before serving as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Army with the U.S. Military Assistance Command in South Vietnam was an advisor to the South Vietnamese and attached to Headquarters, MACV.
He was working with an ARVN unit on May 23, 1965 in An Xuyen Province, about 10 miles northwest of the city of Quan Long when the unit was ambushed and he was captured by the Viet Cong. For the next year, Walker was held in several POW camps throughout South Vietnam.
Orien J. Walker, Jr. died in the arms of COL (then 1LT) Nick Rowe, twenty-eight days after being transferred into the POW Camp in the U-Minh Forest. COL Rowe called him “Tim Barker” in Five Years to Freedom to protect his identity. CPT Walker died of starvation and disease, and inability to respond to hand feeding by Nick Rowe. Any reference to Walker’s presence in a POW camp in Hue is false, because he was never in that area. He had been captured in the Delta region; and kept as a POW in a group of ARVNs for a year before being transferred to Rowe’s camp.
The Vietnamese informed the U.S. that Walker died February 4, 1966. They have made no effort to return his remains.
Isaac ‘Ike Camacho was born in the farming community of Fabens, Texas, where crops and cotton-picking are a way of life. Along with his widowed mother and two sisters, he later moved to El Paso, where he attended Thomas Jefferson High School and enjoyed being a part of El Paso’s large Mexican-American community.
In 1957, while Camacho was enrolled in the ROTC program, an airborne trooper addressed the group. He made quite an impression on Camacho and three of his buddies, who later joined the Army together and requested airborne training. For Camacho, it was the beginning of a successful military career.
By 1960, Camacho had been promoted to E-5 and was serving as an airborne jump instructor for the old 503rd Airborne (later the 173rd). A friend told him about an elite new unit then being formed that needed personnel. Intrigued, Camacho investigated and shortly became a member of the newly formed 77th Special Forces Group. At the end of the training period, he was ordered to Vietnam.
Initially, Camacho was assigned to the Kontum-Dak To area, in the A Shau Valley. During his second tour in-country in 1963, he was part of the 5th Special Forces Group, serving in the province of Hau Nghia. That unit had established an A-Team camp at Hiep Hoa, in the Plain of Reeds, about 45 miles northeast of Saigon, to train Civilian Irregular Defense Guard (CIDG) personnel to conduct reconnaissance and raids in enemy-controlled areas. Built on the bank of a canal and encircled with barbed wire, the 125-by-100-meter garrison was protected by .30-caliber machine-gun emplacements on all four corners. In addition, two 81mm mortars were located near the gates. There was ample reason for the high level of security, since the camp was located near Cambodia’s infamous Parrot’s Beak region, a major VC staging ground.
In October 1963 a friend of Camacho’s who was also serving in the Special Forces, 1st Lt. Nick Rowe, was captured at Tan Phu, on the Ca Mau Peninsula. The following month it was Camacho’s turn.
On the night of November 22, 1963, moving stealthily under cover of night, several hundred VC infiltrators attacked the Hiep Hoa outpost. Aided by information from their spies, the guerrillas were familiar with the garrison’s layout and were also apparently aware that half the camp’s troops were out on a reconnaissance mission. Moving in quietly, they quickly killed some of the perimeter guards and then machine-gunned the camp’s inhabitants as they emerged from their billets. Several of the Special Forces troops manned a machine-gun position and began trying to stem the tide of invaders.
Camacho, who was the camp’s heavy weapons specialist, grabbed a carbine and made his way to the mortar bunker, where he waged a one-man mortar barrage against the enemy. He was still firing approximately 30 minutes later when he was joined by Lieutenant John R. Colby, the detachment’s executive officer, who was trying to rally the defending forces. In light of the attack’s intensity, and seeing that some of the CIDG troops were fleeing, Colby decided that further efforts to defend the camp would be futile. He handed Camacho a grenade to use for added protection and ordered him to leave while he could.
Camacho left reluctantly. He knew that a couple of Americans were still fighting inside the camp. Once outside the compound, he thought of his friends and could not bring himself to abandon them. He re-entered the enclosure and encountered heavier firepower and exploding mortar rounds. When he suddenly came face to face with some VC, he blasted at them with his carbine. The enemy fire was so overwhelming that he tossed his grenade at the VC and made a dash for cover in a machine-gun bunker. But the VC soon located him, as well as Sergeant George E. Smith, Specialist Claude McClure and Staff Sgt. Kenneth M. Roraback. This is Camacho’s story in his own words . . .
“Apparently, I was seen, Camacho later recalled, because in the next 30 seconds, I was surrounded and flashlights were being shined on me. I was ordered to get up, and as I did a VC grabbed my carbine. He felt the barrel, which was hot, then he said something to the others in Vietnamese. While they were tying me up, one VC gave me a butt stroke with his M-1 and I was out. When I came to, I had blood all over from a gash on the back of my head. Then another order was given, and we were practically dragged across the barbed wire.
A few minutes later, aircraft came and started dropping napalm and making strafing runs. Our hands were tied at the elbows as tight as could be and they had rope around our necks. We were being pulled like donkeys. Once we got out of bomb range, Smitty and I were told to walk down this little road, and they began to lock and load their weapons. They were going to kill us, but then someone came from the front of the column and gave a different order. We were spared.
They kept us blindfolded and moved us out–first on foot and then we were placed on an oxcart and covered with a tarp. I was able to move the canvas enough to see even though I was tied. We were going around Nui Ba Den Mountain, and I saw the north star in front of us. We might have been on Highway 22 or just a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When we entered Cambodia, the VC took off their headgear and began to sling arms. It seemed odd, because in Vietnam they controlled their noise, but over here they were unwinding, even talking. We traveled a long way blindfolded and were told to be quiet. Later that night we moved out on foot again.
We boarded a sampan to reach this place that looked like an island–it had water all around it. It must have been some kind of haven or R&R center. The VC stacked their weapons and were cooking and relaxing. There were classrooms for training and indoctrination. We were placed in a hooch watched by four guards. They had us locked up with chains. Really, there wasn’t much you could do about it with the chains around your ankle and fastened to a huge tree.”
Two nights after Camacho’s capture, a telegram was dispatched to his mother, Mary Elorreaga, informing her that her son was missing. It revealed only the briefest details of the Special Forces base camp’s being overrun and promised that a representative of the U.S. Army would contact her soon.
The four Americans had been taken to Trai Bai, a small camp site near the Cambodian border, no more than 60 miles from Saigon. The Vam Co Dong River lies just east of it. The VC found it ideal as a jungle sanctuary. Everyone in the camp focused their attention on the new arrivals. Camacho’s head was still aching, and it seemed to him that their chances of survival were slim.
The four Americans had another reason to be demoralized. The morning after their capture, the VC had received a radio dispatch announcing President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As the Americans were being taken through small hamlets inhabited by people who were sympathetic to the VC, the villagers had turned out to taunt them: Kennedy di-et (Kennedy is dead).
Soon after they arrived at Trai Bai, Wilfred Burchett, an Australian writer and Communist sympathizer, and Roger Pic, a French photographer, arrived to document their plight.
“I don’t remember being photographed, said Camacho, but the proof is there–all of us Americans in black pajamas. Wilfred Burchett walked up to me and introduced himself. He said that we Americans were in trouble because we were fighting an unpopular war, and that he would try to see what he could do to help us. He asked if I understood. He asked me a few questions, and I answered politely without giving out any real information. He asked me if there was anything he could do for me, and I told him, ‘Yes, sir, can you tell me who won the fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay?’ He must have been disappointed, because he gave me this look and just walked away.”
Shortly after that visit, Kenneth Roraback was summarily taken out and executed in retaliation for Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing of North Vietnam authorized by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Camacho had to fight depression at that point. “I think what scared me most was when some Cubans came to talk to me,” he recalled. They had on berets like Che Guevara. The incident happened after Burchett left. What they did was sit me down on a stump, and they stood over me and looked down. I guess they were trying to make me feel low while they were on top. This one asked me, ‘Eres Latino?’ (‘Are you Hispanic?’), and I answered, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then he asked me, ‘What is your nationality?’ and I told him I was Indian.
He asked me if I knew Fidel Castro, and I said no. He got real mad and said, ‘You don’t know Fidel Castro?’ I told him, ‘No, the only Castro I know is the Castro I went to school with in Fabens, Texas.’ Next he asked ‘Do you like guitar music?’ I answered, ‘Yes, I like guitar music. Then he asked, ‘Do you like Sabicas?’ ‘I don’t know who Sabicas is,’ I told him. ‘You like guitar music but you don’t know Sabicas?’ I said, ‘No.’ He asked, ‘How come you like guitar music?’ and I responded, ‘Because Elvis Presley played the guitar.’
They got mad, and I heard them say, ‘Este pendejo no sabe nada. Es un baboso bien hecho’ (‘This fool knows nothing. He’s a natural blithering idiot’). They didn’t realize that I could understand what they were saying. One of them said to the other, ‘Ya no voy’ a hablar con este’ (‘I’m not speaking to him anymore’). So he walked around and put his gun next to my temple. ‘Hacete para ya!’ (‘Move over there!’) he said. I told him, ‘If you’re going to shoot me, just shoot me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I just kept speaking English all the time until they finally said, ‘Dejalo, el no sabe nada. El es nada mas que un titere de los Estados Unidos’ (‘Leave him alone, he knows nothing. He’s nothing more than a puppet for the United States’). My questioner finally spoke in English and said, ‘Well, you know you’re here as a prisoner of war and these people have been suffering many years. We’ll talk to you later.’ I think they were trying to break us down mentally.
The camp was administered by this Vietnamese who called himself ‘the commissioner.’ He would tell us what a predicament we were in, that they were being bombed all the time and it was hard to provide us with food and medicine. He would say, ‘I understand that you’ve been sick, but you have no business in this country and must pay for your sins. What we expect from you is that you join with your fellow Americans, and now there are many people your age protesting the war, and you should join your comrades in the struggle to let the Vietnamese people live the way they want to.’ It cracked me up because they had every bit of information about the anti-war movement.
The interrogation included efforts to extract a confession, which mainly had to do with burning and looting and killing innocent children, murder and rape and all this other stuff. That’s what the context of the confession was. Finally, they wanted us to admit that we had invaded their sovereignty by coming in and doing all these things. I never did sign it. They would pressure me by asking me, ‘When are you going to see the light?’ I told them the confession did not mean anything to me, and I asked, ‘What do you want me to do, lie?’ ‘No, no,’ they said, ‘the confession must come from your heart.’
During the first six months of my captivity, I told them that I was a supply clerk. They asked what kind of work that was, and I told them, ‘If someone needed a canteen or a blanket, I would provide it.’ They said, ‘Oh, you were supplying war materiel?’ and I denied it. ‘No,’ I said, ‘It wasn’t war materiel, just canteens and stuff like that.’ Everything went good for a while until they called me in one day to interrogate me and showed me a copy of Newsweek magazine. They said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I said, ‘Yes, an American magazine.’ They said, ‘Turn to page 14, so I did, and there was an article about Hiep Hoa, explaining how we had been captured. It said that Isaac Camacho had been teaching anti-guerrilla warfare. ‘We really like this, and your people wrote this!’ they said. ‘You have been deceiving us!’ They almost starved us to death after that article appeared.
Then the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times had articles about Mike Mansfield and Ernest Gruening, two anti-war politicians. Every time they would get something like that, when we went into interrogations they would show it to us. They would boast, ‘Even these people’s hearts are for the VC–these are the true patriots.’ It was very demoralizing.
The camp was located under triple-canopied forest. You couldn’t see the sky unless you were out on a work detail. It was always dark. I was kept in a cage just big enough to sleep and get some exercise. The first six months were probably the hardest, because they kept us in isolation. The only time I would see somebody is when they were going down to the well to wash up or clean the little cup they gave us. Then they decided to put us to work with a guard watching us so we couldn’t talk.
The first chance we had, we would talk to each other–’Hey, how are you doing? You all right?’–things like that. At first the guards would whack us across the back for talking, but they soon decided we weren’t going to escape, and then we could talk a bit. Eventually we were able to carry on a conversation.
We were fed just enough so we would be strong enough to work. One detail involved building a bomb shelter, and we had to go out half a mile in the woods to cut logs. It was on work details like this when we would get to see the sky. You don’t know how nice it is to see a piece of blue out there in that type of situation. We’d look out and say, ‘God, the sky looks beautiful.’ The logs we cut had been knocked down by bombing or lightning, so we wouldn’t bother the natural foliage.
I was held in a cage approximately 8 feet by 6 feet in area. Originally, I had been placed in a one-man cell, but they put us in two-man cells to relieve the guard force. The cage was constructed of wood. They very seldom used bamboo except for maybe the rafters. The logs were hammered together with wooden pegs, not nails, and held really tight. The thatched roofs kept us dry during the monsoons. It would really pour, but by the time the water filtered through the branches and reached the cage, the roof would protect us.
There was a hole dug at one end of the cage that we used as an air raid shelter. A couple of times we had to use it. They always had a small lamp on in our cage so they could observe us, and they would yell ‘Pica’ when a plane approached. That meant we should turn off the lamp and take cover. During one Skyraider attack, we jumped into the hole, but the chains on our legs weren’t long enough–our feet were sticking out. We knew that snakes and scorpions might be in the hole, but we still had to take cover. One bomb landed so close that the nose cone reached our cage. The foliage was scattered and you could smell smoke the next day because of the powder residue.
We did more wood cutting and dug some wells. Another detail involved working on their rice mill. I couldn’t believe how much rice they had. It was a mountain. It made me angry to see these guys pass my cage carrying sacks of flour or rice, condensed milk, vegetable oil for cooking, and all with lettering, saying: ‘Donated by the people of the United States.’ As a matter of fact, they made a rucksack out of this material so I could carry my personal items on work detail.
My physical condition deteriorated horribly. I was underweight and had gone through malaria, hepatitis and beriberi. I was really afraid of beriberi because my skinny legs would inflate and I could take my finger and poke it down almost all the way and it would leave a deep dimple there. Later, it would slowly come back out. It was caused by vitamin deficiency.
They served us nuoc mam sauce and plenty of rice. Sometimes it would be a mixture of half-rice and half-salt. They used to give us these old dried fish with worms crawling out of the mouth and eyes. When I relieved myself I could see the worms in my excrement.
When I saw the VC eating some peppers, I knew what to do. I asked them what it was they were eating and they told me that they were called ‘ot’ and did I want some. After I ate them, I put on a good show and acted like it was real hot. I threw myself on the floor and started asking for some water. My cage was now surrounded by VC, and they were all laughing. They gave me more, so I ate it. Besides being a vegetable, I knew it was the hottest remedy available, and it would clean out my system and kill all the worms.
Once I went on a hunger strike because of the food they regularly fed us. I told them, ‘I know you can give us better food than this.’ The commissioner came over and wanted to know what I was doing. He pointed to the rice and said, ‘What’s that?’ I answered him sarcastically, saying, ‘You mean you’ve lived in Vietnam all your life and don’t know what it is? It’s rice!’ He said, ‘We’ve worked so hard to bring the rice to you, and you’re throwing it away.’ I told him, ‘I can’t eat rice anymore. That’s why I’m throwing it away. I’m going to die.’ That evening we got a decent meal with meat in the rice. It could have been one of those giant rats that they killed or maybe a wild hog, we didn’t know. We knew that they ate a lot of different meat. They had elephant meat, snake, wild deer, chicken and a lot of vegetables besides. An army just can’t fight on a diet of only rice, they’d never make it. Sometimes when the breeze was blowing in from the mess hall toward the cage, you could smell something good cooking. When you’re hungry, that’s when your sense of smell gets real sensitive.
I learned some useful words in Vietnamese when I was a POW. I’m hurt, I’m sick, I want water, I need medical help. The guards didn’t lend themselves that much to helping us learn, and the interpreter was more interested in learning English. On work details I would see the VC picking up things from the ground, and I knew that they were getting edible things. Soon I was attempting the same thing. I would motion to them and ask, ‘To?’ and they would say, ‘No can to, dao.’ That meant I would get sick if I ate whatever it was. I learned what was good and what was harmful. Later on, that knowledge would be helpful.
I had a hunch that someday they would take the chains off of us while we were in the cage, and so I had been looking for a weak spot in the cage. One day I found it. Newer cages had been built, and I knew that more prisoners would be coming into camp. They drew our cages closer together and took off our chains to use on two new arrivals, a Marine captain named Cook and an Army private first class named Crafts.
I pried this one bar in the cage until I could loosen it and pull it upward and tie it with a little cord that I had. It gave me a little space that I could crawl over, and when I got out of the cage, I could push the crossbar down with my feet and just go around it.
We had only a rough concept of what the date was. The new prisoners helped us figure it out, and we fashioned a calendar. I had wanted to escape on July the Fourth, but it was actually on the July 8 that I left.
Smitty, my cellmate, knew that he would be seriously handicapped if he tried to escape, since he had no boots. He knew he wouldn’t get far with the plastic slippers that he wore. We both knew that the guards were going to be checking. He stayed awake all night to make sure the lamp would stay lit and the guards wouldn’t have to come in.
We had our mosquito nets pulled down, and I left an extra pair of black pajamas bundled up on my cot to give the illusion that I was still there. It was monsoon season and raining hard. The guard’s post was nearby, and it was hard to see if he was inside because of the way the building was shaped. I was so glad that I kept my old boots. I had rice, a piece of mirror and some tobacco paper to spell out ‘POW’ on a black plastic sheet. I asked Smitty again to stay awake and keep the lamp lit, and then I left.
Thunder and lightning lit the trail where we used to go on work details–that’s where I headed. After going out around 300 meters, I slipped into the jungle. There was a wall there where we used to take our breaks and look for patches of the sky. I knew my boots were leaving tracks, but they couldn’t be traced with all the water coming down.
I must have walked about 45 minutes through the downpour when I realized that I had made a 360-degree turn and was now back in the camp area. That really broke my heart. I was thinking, maybe I should get back in the cage and try some other time. I knew it would go real hard on me if I was detected. I decided to try again. I knelt to pray and think before going on. It went through my mind, ‘Think of escape and evasion tactics,’ and it seemed like the Lord was listening. I saw the little leaves as they were falling down from the storm, floating away. Then it hit me. That’s it–follow the water! I followed one little stream as it led into a bigger one, and then finally I came into a running brook that poured into a big fork of the Saigon River. I jumped in and swam with the current. I knew there would be nobody there to stop me in that kind of weather, and I tried to get as much distance as possible.
When I got out of the water I was loaded with leeches. I thought I had millions. I ran into the woods and began to pluck out the bloodsuckers. They were everywhere! I decided to stay in the woods and walk along the river. What I wanted to do was get my bearings when I came to a spot where I could see the sun. I had to go south or southeast–that’s the only way the river flowed. I knew I couldn’t stay too near the river because that’s where they would be looking for me.
I saw this little trap for small animals like muskrats and knew that people were nearby. By the second day I could hear search parties looking for me. I would hide whenever I heard them. I climbed trees at night to get away from tigers and other animals. I walked through this arroyo and I thought, ‘Nice sand, good ground like the arroyos in the U.S. southland. This is good–now I can make some time.’ But I had gone only a few yards when I saw some tiger tracks. I decided to change course.
During the first couple of days, fruit was abundant. I would fill my pockets. There was one that looked like a small orange or nectarine, also some like kiwi fruit and some mangos. I knew what mangos were, since I had eaten them all my life.
I had only a stick to defend myself with. On the third day out I was feeling dehydrated. I was lost and wanted to do some navigating. That evening, I heard a round go off in the distance and decided to travel in that direction. It had been cloudy when I started off that morning. By afternoon, when the sun came out, I realized that I had been traveling in the wrong direction.
On the fourth day, I just packed up what I had been carrying with me in a tree and began walking. I came across a puddle of water and was glad, since I had run out. I noticed that the water was loaded with mosquito larvae, but I drank it anyway.
I kept on going, and around 10:30 or 11 a.m. I saw an American plane–it may have been a Cessna L-19–flying real low at treetop level. I could read the U.S. Army markings on it. I began walking in that direction it was headed.
I came to a hardtop clay road, and I thought how it might be the same one that I had taken north toward Song Mau. I could see an abutment on the road, and when I got closer I saw some markings, something about a corps of engineers. That was the first sign of civilization I had seen since my capture. I sat back down in the jungle and I thought, ‘I can’t blow it now.’
First I saw a dump truck coming down the road. There were no soldiers riding on it, so I thought it must be a civilian truck. I stayed in the jungle to study things and kept going until I neared a rubber tree plantation. Keeping near the road, I moved ahead, hiding behind trees, until I saw a little Vietnamese flag and a gate with some gun emplacements and bunkers.
I figured that I had made it to safety, but I wanted to be careful. Then I saw a little moped coming. I was getting ready to knock this guy off his moped just in case he wasn’t friendly when I noticed a small car following it with a Red Cross symbol on its bumper. I jumped into the road and started waving a branch to signal him. He spoke to me in French, asking if he could help me. I knew a little French, and I told him I was an American and I needed help. I was real nervous that he would turn in the opposite direction, but he reassured me. He asked again, ‘Vous ette un Americain?’ and I answered, ‘Oui, je suis un Americain. He gave me a ride to the Vietnamese compound and hollered at the guard to let them know who I was. He took me right to the village chief’s house. The village chief spoke good English. I told him I had been captured at Hiep Hoa.
He told me that there was no American compound at Hiep Hoa, and I answered, ‘maybe not, but there was one when I got captured.’ He said that I didn’t look American, so I showed him my tattoos. I looked out the window and saw some berets. I told him, ‘If you don’t believe me, ask the Green Beret over there.’ He asked the Green Beret to come in. When he saw me, he cried, ‘Ike, is that you?’ I answered, ‘Yeah, it’s me.’
They took me to the Special Forces camp at Minh Tranh. Sergeant First Class Rocky Laine and some of the other fellows I knew were there. They were all happy to see me and got me a hot shower and a new uniform. They served me a big breakfast plate of eggs and ham. I couldn’t eat it. My brain was saying I want it, but my stomach was rejecting it. I got real sick, and they took me to the Third Field Hospital in Tan Son Nhut for a checkup.
The helicopter that took me to the hospital was actually on a mail run to Da Nang when the guys diverted it. The pilot took me to Da Nang, and I saw Sergeant Thompson, an old friend of mine. He hugged me before I was rushed out. Once I arrived at the hospital, Colonel Mike De La Peña came to see me within half an hour.
I can only describe the whole episode as something that occurred in a dream. That’s the only way I know how to put it. In my hospital room, Colonel De La Peña was standing over me like a father figure and there were tears in his eyes. I guess that’s when everything finally caught up to me, because I broke down, too.”
After being debriefed, Isaac Camacho was promoted to master sergeant, and he later received a field promotion to captain. Authorities told him not to speak about his encounter with the Cubans. He was shipped to Okinawa, where it was determined that his stomach had shrunk to the size of a 6-year-old’s during his 20 months of captivity. One doctor warned him that he would probably have stomach problems for the rest of his life.
As the first GI to escape from a VC POW camp, Camacho returned home to a hero’s welcome. He was congratulated by El Paso Mayor Judson Williams, Congressman Richard White and President Johnson. The El Paso Times reported that his mother said, Thank my good God! My prayers have been answered! He is my only boy, my only son, I have always been proud of him. I am the happiest mother in the world. I prayed day and night for 20 long months.
Camacho’s former commanding officer wrote a letter urging that he be awarded the Medal of Honor. But that never happened, perhaps because of a lack of witnesses. For his gallant defense at Hiep Hoa, however, Camacho did receive the Silver Star. In 1999 he was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Many people still feel that he should have received the Medal of Honor for the bravery he displayed in support of his comrades.
After all he has been through, Isaac Camacho is remarkably upbeat when he looks back on his experience. Speaking of a visit he had from George Smith, his friend who was in captivity with him, Camacho said: “I always say that I’m in debt for the way he sacrificed for me. That gave me all night to get away. We had a blast talking in El Paso. He told me about the reaction of the guards the morning after I escaped.
That was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life, Smith said. They checked out the cage inside and out. They just couldn’t see how the hell you got out! They had about five or six guys down in the hole to see. Even the commissioner went down in the hole to see if you were there. They didn’t even know which guard to blame because they had all been on duty and changed posts. They got the smallest guy in the camp and tried to force him through the bars to see if his head could squeeze through, and of course it couldn’t. They never once knew where the exit was. I wanted to laugh, but I could not.”
Isaac Zurita Camacho, 76, of Port Isabel, TX, entered into Eternal Rest on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, TX. Isaac was a life-long and loyal resident of the town he took so much pride in, Port Isabel, TX. He enjoyed being very active in the community he loved so much. He served as an American Legion Post 498 Commander, a loyal member at his church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, lifetime member of the VFW, and a successful business owner for over 30 years. He is preceded in death by his parents, Gilberto and Simona Zurita Camacho; his brothers, Jesus Z. Medrano, Cruz Z. Camacho, and Adan Z. Camacho.
He is survived by his wife, Corina Lopez Camacho; his son, Johnny Lopez Camacho; brothers: Lorenzo Z. Medrano, Quirino Z. Camacho, Frank Z. Camacho, Lucio Z. Camacho, and Domingo Z. Camacho; his sisters: Herlinda Locke, Maria Corilda Bella, Amalia Camacho, and Lydia Heald; seven grandchildren: John Albert Camacho, Vanessa Bryant, Ashley Murphy, Amber Murphy, Danaka Camacho, William Camacho, and Zachary Camacho; He is also survived by five great-grandchildren.
(Parts of this article were gleaned from the Vietnam Magazine article published in 2000.)
CPT 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.
The U.S. Army Special Forces, Vietnam (Provisional) was formed at Saigon in 1962 to advise and assist the South Vietnamese government in the organization, training, equipping and employment of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) forces. Total personnel strength in 1963 was 674, all but 98 of whom were TDY from 1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa and 5th and 7th Special Forces Groups at Ft. Bragg. USSF Provisional was given complete charge of the CIDG program, formerly handled by the CIA, on July 1, 1963.
The USSF Provisional/CIDG network consisted of fortified, strategically located camps, each one with an airstrip. The area development programs soon evolved into combat operations and by the end of October 1963, the network also had responsibility for border surveillance. One of the Provisional/CIDG camps was manned by Detachment A-21 at Hiep Hoa, Hau Nghia Province, South Vietnam. The isolated location, in the midst of known heavy enemy presence, made the camp vulnerable to attack.
On 24 November 1963, Lt. John Colbe, detachment executive officer; SFC Isaac “Ike” Camacho, heavy weapons specialist; then SFC Kenneth M. “Ken” Roraback, radio operator; SSgt. Claude D. McClure, medic; and SSgt. George E. “Smitty” Smith were assigned to Detachment A-21, Hiep Hoa Special Forces Camp. The detachment’s mission was to train CIDG troops and gather intelligence pertaining to enemy activity throughout the region.
Just after midnight the camp was attacked by an estimated 400-500 VC troops whose communist sympathizers within the camp had provided them with detailed knowledge of the garrison’s layout. The informants’ also provided tactical information regarding the fact that half of the camp’s personnel would be away from the camp at this time on a reconnaissance mission. VC within the camp killed the guards and manned a machine gun position in the first moments of the attack firing on the inhabitants as they emerged from their bunkers. They also climbed the camp walls and shouted to the CDIG force, “Don’t shoot, all we want are the Americans and the weapons!”
Lt. Colbe immediately rallied the camp personnel and began moving between their defensive positions. From the command bunker located in the center of the camp, SFC Roraback immediately notified higher headquarters of the situation and requested assistance including close air support before a heavy volume of enemy gunfire damaged his radio. Ken Roraback attempted to salvage the radio, but when it was apparent the radio was beyond repair, he set the remnants on fire. He departed the bunker and proceeded to man one of the machine guns.
Once the VC broke contact and faded into the countryside with their captives, a full-scale search and rescue (SAR) operation was initiated. When no trace of Ken Roraback, Claude McClure, Smitty Smith and Ike Camacho could be found in or around the demolished camp, all four men were declared Missing in Action.
The VC tied each man’s arms tightly together at the elbow in back, blindfolded them and tied a rope from one man’s neck to the next. A few minutes later, American aircraft started dropping napalm and making strafing runs on the beleaguered camp. Once the Americans were out of bomb range of the air strikes, the ropes were removed and the two wounded men were ordered to walk down a little dirt road. The guards prepared to kill Ike Camacho and Smitty Smith, but were stopped by a ranking VC who appeared from the front of the column. The Americans had another reason to be demoralized. The morning after their capture, the VC received a radio message announcing President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As the prisoners were taken through hamlets and put on display, the villages taunted them with “Kennedy di-et” Kennedy is dead.
Roraback proved very uncooperative, a situation that infuriated the communists. Their actions also drew much close scrutiny to themselves and away from the others. In part because of this, Ike Camacho who continually looked for a way to escape succeeded in doing so during a monsoon rain the night of 8 July 1965. The following is a copy of an advisory received regarding the execution of 2 Special Forces Advisors . . .
Five Star Edition
Vol 21, No. 270
Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1965
Report 2 Advisers Executed
Saigon (UPI) — The Viet Cong executed two captive servicemen Sunday morning, the clandestine Liberation Radio said late Sunday night.
The communist radio identified the two Americans as Capt. Albert Rusk Joseph and Sgt. Kenneth Morabeth (as received phonetically)
However, later a Communist news article stated that the executions were faked. The US Army, who had already changed both men’s status from Prisoner of War to Dead/Died in Captivity, chose not reopen either man’s case to determine whether or not they had in fact been executed. In the late 1970’s all information regarding their “execution” was reclassified, and is no longer part of the public record.
MSG Roraback was married with four small children.
On 22 December 1970, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), better known as the Viet Cong, released a list containing the names of American POWs who they reported died while under their control. The PRG list included Ken Roraback as having Died in Captivity. Ironically, at the end of the war the VC refused to return the remains of SFC Roraback in spite of the fact they acknowledged holding him prisoner and executing him in reprisal.
If Ken Roraback died under the direct control of the VC, the Vietnamese could return his remains to his family, friends and country. However, if the report of his execution was merely a propaganda ruse, his fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different. Either way there is no question the communists know the truth and could provide answers, as well as Ken Roraback or his remains, any time they had the desire to do so.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fly and fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.
Hiep Hoa was the first Special Forces camp to be overrun in the Vietnam War.
Death: Mar. 9, 1995
Fayetteville, Cumberland County, North Carolina, USA
Daniel Pitzer was born in Fairview, WV, and joined the West Virginia National Guard in December of 1947. He graduated from West Virginia Public Schools in 1950. During his first year of college, his National Guard unit was called to active duty and moved to Ft. Benning, GA. He joined active Army, volunteering for airborne training, receiving his Airborne Wings on his 21st birthday. His first assignment was to XVIII Airborne Corps Artillery as a communications team leader and later transferred to the 5th RCT, Korea.
At the end of the Korean Conflict, he was transferred to Otsu, Japan, where he was assigned to Headquarters, South West Command, Infantry School at Ft. Benning, 3rd Armored Division Combat Command “A’ in Kirchgoens, Germany, and finally to 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He volunteered for Special Forces in 1960 and served as a medic, heavy and light weapons sergeant and team leader on various A-teams during his 15-year military career.
He arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in July of 1963. On October 29, 1963, while out on patrol with the Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB), he was wounded and captured by the Viet Cong. He was a prisoner of war for four years, gaining release in 1967. One of his fellow POWs was Nick Rowe. On Nov. 11, 1967, after four years of torture and suffering from Beri Beri, malnutrition, malaria, hepatitis and having lost more than 85 lbs, he was returned to U.S. control.
Upon his return to the United States, he was hospitalized for eight months at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Hospital, and following his release he served in both the 6th Special Forces Group (A) and the 5th Special Forces Group (A). His follow-on assignment was as an instructor with the U.S. Army JFK Center for Military Assistance.
In 1969, he wrote an article for Look Magazine regarding his four years in captivity. It follows next . . .
February 18, 1969
THE ANIMAL CALLED POW
“My Four Years in a Vietcong Prison
By MSgt Daniel Lee Pitzer, as told to Warren Rogers
In Vietnam in 1963, LOOKS James Karales caught Dan Pitzer… slogging back from patrol. The next day, Pitzer was captured. For four years, like Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, he marveled each day to be still alive. His story:
GOING THERE was routine. We moved out at three in the morning of October 29, 1963 – Capt. Humbert R. Versace, a U.S. Army adviser, and Lt. James N. Rowe and I, both members of the Special Forces, the Army’s “Green Berets.” We were with a company of the South Vietnamese Army’s Special Forces, probing for Vietcong. Another company had taken off three hours earlier, to get around in back of the target village, 14 kilometers from our base. Our plan was to trap any VC in the village between us and the blocking company.
Routinely, we sloshed through rice paddies and swamps, from our camp at Tan Phu in An Xuyen Province, just about as far south as you could go in the Mekong Delta. When we reached the village, there were no VC. The company that had left earlier decided to return to camp. So did we, but by a different route.
On our way home, trudging along one of the uncounted canals that crisscross the delta, we drew fire. We fired back and moved, but the closer we got to our base, the more VC we ran into. Soon we were surrounded. We radioed for artillery and air support, but the VC kept jamming our signal. We managed, however, to squeeze one message through. I did my best as a medic for the wounded.
Captain Versace had lost his glasses and was having trouble seeing. Lieutenant Rowe had a small wound in his left thigh. It was impossible to tell how many VC there were, but we could see them coming on. We regrouped with a handful of Vietnamese, all that was left of the company, and withdrew about 70 yards to a canal. Just as I jumped in, the whole canal bank exploded. I looked up, and there was a VC with a K-50 submachine gun, firing almost point-blank. I could see flames spitting from the muzzle, and I could hear bees swarming past my ears. A K-50 fires a 35 round clip at the rate of 90-100 rounds a minute, and how the man mimed me I will never know. I shot him.
We left the canal and ran for a cane field. The VC spotted us and came running and firing. We were split up and confused, and I knew there was no hope of fighting our way out. I decided to swim for it. I dropped in the mud and buried my M-79 grenade launcher, maps and other gear. I heard Captain Versace yelling that he was hit. I hesitated. I did not want to be captured, but I could not run off on the Captain. Just as I reached him, something exploded-a mortar round or a concussion grenade-and I was knocked down, shrapnel in my right shoulder.
I looked up, and there was a VC with an automatic weapon pointed at me. He took away my .45 caliber automatic pistol and my wristwatch. He tied my hands behind me with the small towel that most Vietnamese peasants wear around their necks.
Other VC came up. We started walking the canal path, and then we were running because mortar rounds were coming in, apparently from our relief force. We caught up with other VC who had captured Lieutenant Rowe. They sat me down, took off my green canvas-and-leather jungle boots and socks and blindfolded me.
Some of the villagers gathered around, shouting and pelting me with rocks and dirt. The VC held them off and shoved me to a canal and into what I found out later was a sampan. As I fell, I cracked my left ankle against something and broke it. Under way, I could hear aircraft strafing and bombing, and soon we were receiving artillery fire too. We pulled up, and I was dragged ashore. When the planes went away, we got back in the sampan, moved a short distance on the canal and again went ashore. Artillery was still coming in, and we were all made to lie down. The VC offered us rice, but I was too wrought up to eat.
After dark, we moved along the canal to a little grass hut. From inside came the voice of Captain Versace: “Bac si! Bac si!” In Vietnamese, this means “doctor” or “medic.” The VC refused to let me help him. They tied Rowe and me together outside the building. The mosquitoes were fierce, and my ankle, swelling badly, was painful. All the while, I could hear the Captain calling, “Bac si! Bac si!”
After about three hours, they blindfolded Rowe and me, lashed us back to back, and put us into a sampan. We were delivered to a small camp built among tall, dense trees and surrounded by knee-deep mud. Along with Captain Versace, we were put into a small cage just big enough for the three of us. It was made of mangrove logs nailed and tied and wrapped in barbed wire. The VC kept a kerosene light on us at all times. They put mosquito nets around us. The Captain’s left leg had three rounds through it, one apparently penetrating the bone around the knee, and he groaned with pain. He also had two flesh wounds in his back.
The VC brought us rice and a canned fish like sardines for breakfast the next morning, but none of us could eat much. I kept asking them to let me attend the Captain, to no avail. Finally, they sent in a medic, and he cleansed the wounds and administered a shot of penicillin. On the fourth day, they took Versace away to a VC hospital.
After about a week in the cage, we were taken out, blindfolded and, hands tied behind our backs and under a covering of straw mats, floated by sampan to what appeared to be a training camp. There were plenty of VC soldiers around. First, my hands were untied and my blindfold removed, and I was forced to lie on the ground with a VC standing over me with a bayonet, as if he had just captured me. A photographer took pictures. Next, with our hands tied behind us again, Rowe and I were marched around by the youngest and smallest of the VC while the photographer snapped away. They brought Captain Versace out of a makeshift hospital, and the three of us were posed in front of it for more propaganda pictures.
A week later, three elderly Vietnamese called on us. Speaking English with a French accent, they asked us who we were. We stuck to the military Code of Conduct and gave them name, rank, serial number, date of birth and no more. They told us we would be moved to a more permanent prison camp and a day or so later, the three of us were blindfolded, bound and hidden under a straw mat in a sampan. My ankle was still hurting a lot, but I found out much later that I had done a passable job of setting the break. I had cutoff the lower legs of my fatigue pants and with strips of the fabric bound the ankle tightly after moving the bone around until it seemed to be back in place. X rays later showed it was only two degrees off and did not have to be reset.
We traveled for five and a half days, moving at night, sleeping by day. By slipping the blindfold and watching the stars, I could tell we were traveling south, deeper through the U Minh Forest and closer to the southernmost tip of Vietnam. We slept aboard the sampans, except for one day I remember most uncomfortably. We holed up in a cowshed and awoke covered with leeches. Shivering with disgust, we pulled them off, and one of the VC burned off the still-clinging heads with a cigarette.
Our new camp, built of mangrove trees was high and dry, but surrounded by hostile terrain. We had plenty of water, caught during rains and stored in tanks, and plenty of crabs, fish and shrimp. But none of us could keep food down. Most of the two meals a day were wasted on me. Captain Versace was put into a hut the VC called a dispensary. Rowe came down with amebic dysentery, and they gave him shots, but he wasted away. He and I were together then, in one of two wooden cages whose bars were interwoven with barbed wire. Each night, we were put into leg irons.
In December, 1963, an interpreter suggested we write our families. But, suspicious that any such letters might be used for propaganda we asked if we could write instead to the International Red Cross. This we did. About three weeks later, we were told the letters did not go through, but that we could still write our families. Again we refused.
I kept losing weight because I could not eat the rice. By the end of 1963, I was down to about 140 pounds from 185. I became so weak that if I stood up quickly, I would pass out. I knew that, to live, I would have to learn to eat the rice. I would force the stuff down, vomit, rest a while, then try again. Eventually, I began to manage, and I actually gained a few pounds. Toward the end of January, 1964, we were moved again. In the new camp, hidden in an even denser forest than the last, we were isolated in wooden cages barely big enough for one man. ‘We were told arrangements were being made to free us in an exchange of prisoners. The VC questioned us, trying to get more than name, rank, serial number, date of birth. We just sat, mute.
In April, Captain Versace was taken away. He was still pretty sick. Rowe and I, from our separate cages, saw each other occasionally. We would wave and that was about it. Around June, a VC officer told us that negotiations for a prisoner exchange had collapsed.
For some reason, our guards gave us a Fourth of July party. They cooked a chicken for us and produced some bread, the first I had seen for months. But first we had a propaganda speech about how the VC appreciated Independence Day’ because they, too, were fighting for their independence. After that, they allowed us to meet once a week to talk, under the supervision of an interpreter. We managed to throw a few curves past him, however, by using a few words of German.
One old guard who had fought against the French in the Indochina war and loved to tell about it was helpful. He scrounged up some pumpkins, and we ate them until they were practically coming out of our ears. They provided plenty of Vitamin C, and soon I could literally feel the strength coming back in me. But then I suffered hepatitis, and they treated me with liver extract. I had several bouts of diarrhea, for which they gave me sulfa-guanidine. Often, they made propaganda pictures of us receiving injections.
In October, they expanded my cage and moved Rowe in. Another American, M. Sgt. Edward R. Johnson, was put in Rowe’s old cage. It was tremendous to have somebody around. For eight months, I had had only animals for companions. There was a squirrel – I called him Cyrano de Bergerac because he had an unusually long nose – who was hilarious. I fed him whatever I had, usually shrimp shells. On hot sunny days, he would perch on one of the logs of my cage and doze, batting his eyes and slumping, and finally toppling over in a dead sleep. There was a cat, the only rice eating cat I ever saw, which was why I dubbed him Victor Charles, for VC. A dog I christened Mao Tse-tupg did not last long. He disappeared probably into somebody’s soup bowl because the Vietnamese fancy dog almost as much as monkey. We had a monkey curry once, and it was very good.
Early in December, the VC began building a third cage. The new arrival proved to be Army Sgt. Leonard M. Tadios. He was wounded, and I asked if I could treat him. The VC would not let me go to Tadios, but Rowe convinced them he should be allowed to. Like me, Rowe was barefoot and dressed in VC black pajamas. Tadios refused to talk freely. He suspected, he told us later, that Rowe was a Russian adviser to the VC. Rowe eventually argued the guards into letting me look at Tadios, and I found a shrapnel wound in his left side and a piece of shrapnel in his left thigh, too deep to be removed then. Much later, when it had worked close to the surface, I cut it out with a razor blade, sterilized over a kerosene-lamp flame.
On December 23, 1964, an American L-19 observation plane zoomed over our camp and dropped red flare markers. Helicopters came in, firing rockets and machine guns. Our cage was open for feeding time, and Rowe and I ran for cover. Two armed guards fell in behind us, and the four of us struck out across the mud and swamps for about five kilometers. We were often in the muck up to our waists; sometimes, our necks. The helicopters stayed all day, bombing and strafing. That night, when we were locked up again, we saw the camp had been pretty well shot up.
At four the next morning, the VC took us back to the swamp. We spent all day in the boats, returning to our cage at night. The next day was the same, except that, to celebrate Christmas we each got five or six ounces of brown-sugar candy. Johnson and Tadios, who had been locked in their cages during the raid, were also brought out, and it was the first chance we all had to get acquainted. Johnson had a shrapnel wound in his right wrist from a helicopter rocket.
Knocking around in the swamp was depressing. It dramatized how hopelessly we were prisoners, not as much of the VC as of the terrain, our physical weakness, our isolation and our unfamiliarity with the area. Even if the VC had said, “You can go, take off and go,” we could never have made it unaided. That was the hell of it.
The VC moved us on December 26, north about 5,000 meters to a dilapidated, apparently abandoned camp. My legs were numb and aching from beriberi, and I could not keep my food down. In February, 1965, we moved again, traveling at night in the usual way. It was a five-day journey this time, to another temporary camp. I kept track of the time by a calendar I drew on cardboard taken from ammunition cans. It was accurate except that I forgot 1964 was leap year. I was one day off for months until I remembered February 29.
Things improved at the new camp, and at a more permanent facility the VC built about 1,000 meters away. They put all four of us together-, fed us pork, gave us vitamin and liver injections and let us listen to the nightly English-language broadcasts by Radio Hanoi. I picked up weight, and Johnson was eating well, but Tadios had little appetite and was losing weight. We passed the time playing cards with a deck I made from the ammunition cardboard; and we talked a lot, about our childhood, our families and our hopes. After a couple of months, they took Rowe away. Then I fell ill again, hardly able to walk. They stopped locking me up in leg irons at night because of a rash from the iron around my ankles.
In June, 1965, Tadios made a break. He was gone for three days. Recaptured, he was put in the camp where Rowe was held, about 500 meters away. In October, Tadios and Rowe both made a break, but they were caught within 24 hours. They were physically wrung-out when put back in with Johnson and me.
The VC encouraged us to listen to Radio Hanoi’s English broadcasts, and we did. That was how we learned that Captain Versace, along with Army Sgt. Kenneth M. Roraback, had been executed in retaliation for Saigon’s execution of three VC terrorists in DaNang. I had known Roraback, a fellow wearer of the Green Beret. We had made the trip to Vietnam together in July, 1963. We argued with our captors about the cold blooded killings: “You executed them. Why not execute us?” The reply was: “Don’t worry you are not in danger of that because Saigon is not going to execute any more of our people now.”
In December, 1965, we moved to a completely rebuilt camp run by a Vietcong major. The guards told us we were now prisoners of something new, the “Liberation Army,” and they went out of their way to be friendly. By New Year’s, we were told the camp was too vulnerable to air attack, and we undertook a roving existence in the U Minh Forest. We slept under ponchos, never more than a week in one place. Tadios was getting sicker all the time. And we were joined then by another very sick man, Army Capt. Orien J. Walker, Jr. I gave him vitamin and anti-malarial shots, but as we moved about, he weakened daily and soon became incoherent. He was taken away, supposedly to a VC hospital. We were told later be had died.
Another American, Army S. Sgt. Joe Parks, came to us in February, 1966. He had been held for about a year in a camp where meat and fresh vegetables were ample. He was healthy looking, even fat, but he began to decline almost immediately. Tadios, too, was slipping. “I can’t eat fish,” he would groan, but he would try, vomit, try again.
In July, we moved again. It was then that S. Sgt. James E. Jackson, Jr., another Green Beret, joined us. We all worked on Tadios, but he came down with amebic dysentery in September and was moved to a VC hospital. Again, we were told later he had died.
We were put to work in December building a camp – Rowe, Johnson, Parks, Jackson and I. As soon as we were finished, the VC moved us to an old, rundown camp. Security was tight. We were put together in a big building enclosed by barbed wire. At Christmas, the VC gave us a chicken and four bottles of beer, together with the inevitable propaganda speech. Parks was in bad shape. He had lost considerable weight, and he had amebic dysentery. On New Year’s Eve night, I remember, he said, “I can’t take it anymore; I’m going to die.” And on the morning of January 1, 1967, Joe Parks died. The VC gave us a new set of pajamas for him. We put these on and wrapped him in cloth and straw matting, and they took him out in a boat. They said they would bury Parks and notify the American authorities.
In March, we moved to a new camp, the best yet. It had a vegetable garden, chickens and even a pig. Security relaxed, and we were allowed to catch our own fish. Johnson was very sick then. He would have died if the VC had not supplied penicillin and streptomycin to fight his amebic dysentery. It was the first time that I had seen enough medication. Jackson, also a medic, took turns with me in tending to Johnson. We force-fed him and finally got him strong enough to move.
In October, we were told we had been selected for release as part of an arrangement worked out with a “peace committee” in the United States. All we had to do, the VC said, was to write letter asking to be allowed to go home to our families. Disbelieving, we took a chance and wrote the letters. At the end of October, Jackson, Johnson and I set out. We took messages from Rowe, who was kept behind, perhaps because he was an officer and more valuable trading material. If that was the VC’s motive, Rowe thwarted them. For a little over a year later, he succeeded in another escape and hid out until his rescue, climaxing an incredible five years as a prisoner of the VC.
The three of us, most of the time blindfolded, moving at night and hiding by day, traveled north and west toward Cambodia. It took two weeks to reach the border, at first by sampan and then by powerboat. We stayed there for a week. They gave us beef, my first in four years. We had canned milk and other marvelous things.
Our guards, some of whom had been with me throughout my captivity, gave us a good-bye party of beer and cookies. On November 10, we went up a river by powerboat into Cambodia. We were then driven by car to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. There, escorted by Royal Palace police, we were taken to what to us were palatial quarters: we each had a shower, a bathroom, a couch and a bed with two sheets and a mosquito net.
A Cambodian military doctor examined us, and somebody handed each of us the Cambodian equivalent of five dollars and said we could buy anything we wanted. I bought shoes, the only thing I wanted; my first shoes in four years.
The next day, we were told to put on the khaki pants and white shirts we had been given. We were taken to the home of the VC representative in Cambodia, and there we met Tom Hayden, the American who had negotiated our release with the VC. The three of us flew with Hayden west, out of Phnom Penh toward Beirut, Lebanon.
There, an American official took us to the Hotel Phoenicia, where I began to comprehend for the first time the reality of my freedom. I had my first hot shower, a little Scotch and some wine with the meal in our room. I ordered Chateaubriand for two, and I ate the whole thing myself.
The ride home from Beirut to Rome to Paris to New York to Washington to Fort Bragg, N.C. is a blur now. I was so nervous and pepped up that I all but passed out as I arrived at Fort Bragg. There, waiting for me in my hospital room was my wonderful wife. I could hardly stand it.
Yet the four years of suppressing emotions were not lightly sloughed off. There were tears, but I was still masking my feelings. To my wife and the people around me, I must have seemed a zombie. Even when my wife told me that both my parents were dead – my mother a year after my capture, and my father the following year – I did not react. It was not until I went home to West Virginia, and they were not there, that the full impact of my loss hit me. And then it hit me hard.
That is how it has been since my release. Things keep coming home to me, belatedly. Slowly, I am rejoining the world. As Lieutenant Rowe, now a major, said, we do not prize our freedom until we lose it. And I know, having spent four years in the hands of the VC, I will never again be the same after being the animal called POW.”
He was promoted to sergeant major on April 20, 1972. During this period from 1969 to 1973, he traveled extensively for the Department of Defense speaking to various community groups about the plight of American POWs. He also assisted in Operation Homecoming for released POWs in 1973.
Medically retired in 1975, he continued working in the arena of POW affairs, focusing on getting an accounting of those still listed as missing in action. During this period, he assisted the U.S. Navy in establishing and operating their Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Training Program in San Diego. From 1987 until his death, he served as an instructor with the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School’s SERE course.
His decorations include:
The Silver Star
Legion of Merit
Prisoner of War
National Defense Service
Vietnam Campaign w/60 devices
United Nations Service
Meritorious Unit Commendation
Master Parachutist Badge and
Combat Infantry Badge