Five Years to Freedom
The Obama administration recently secured the release of an American soldier who spent five years in captivity after leaving his post in Eastern Afghanistan in 2009. Debate -- if not righteous indignation -- has raged concerning the wisdom of trading five high-level Guantanamo detainees for a suspected deserter. As Team Obama works to shore up the disastrous political narrative of the prisoner swap, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl faces a protracted “reintegration” into the body politic and a murky legal future. When the final story is written, how will the legacy and fidelity of Bergdahl and Obama compare to that of an American hero named Col. James N. Rowe who was assassinated 25 years ago by Communist insurgents in the Philippines?
From The New York Times April 22, 1989:
Col. James N. Rowe, a United States Army officer who spent five years as a prisoner in Vietnam before escaping in 1968, was shot to death yesterday by gunmen near Manila, where he was a military adviser to the Philippine armed forces. He was 51 years old. Colonel Rowe was being driven to work at the Joint United States Military Advisory Group headquarters in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, shortly after 7 A.M. when at least two hooded gunmen in a stolen car fired more than 20 bullets into his vehicle. .. Communist Rebels Suspected.
A West Point graduate and Green Beret, First Lieutenant James N. Rowe was sent to South Vietnam in 1963 as an advisor. After only three months in-country, Rowe and two comrades, Captain “Rocky” Versace and Sergeant Daniel Pitzer, were captured by the Viet Cong.
The three POWs were held by the Viet Cong in the U Minh Forest of extreme southern Vietnam – also known as the “Forest of Darkness.” The three men were to endure torture and made numerous escape attempts from their captors, but were recaptured each time.
Tragically, Rocky Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965 – although no remains were returned. In 2002, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Captain Humbert “Rocky” Versace in the East Room with these remarks:
After some initial successes, a vastly larger Viet Cong force ambushed and overran Rocky's unit. Under siege and suffering from multiple bullet wounds, Rocky kept providing covering fire so that friendly forces could withdraw from the killing zone.
Eventually, he and two other Americans, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer, were captured, bound and forced to walk barefoot to a prison camp deep within the jungle. For much of the next two years, their home would be bamboo cages, six feet long, two feet wide, and three feet high. They were given little to eat, and little protection against the elements. On nights when their netting was taken away, so many mosquitos would swarm their shackled feet it looked like they were wearing black socks.
The point was not merely to physically torture the prisoners, but also to persuade them to confess to phony crimes and use their confessions for propaganda. But Rocky's captors clearly had no idea who they were dealing with. Four times he tried to escape, the first time crawling on his stomach because his leg injuries prevented him from walking. He insisted on giving no more information than required by the Geneva Convention; and cited the treaty, chapter and verse, over and over again.
He was fluent in English, French and Vietnamese, and would tell his guards to go to hell in all three. Eventually the Viet Cong stopped using French and Vietnamese in their indoctrination sessions, because they didn't want the sentries or the villagers to listen to Rocky's effective rebuttals to their propaganda. Rocky knew precisely what he was doing. By focusing his captors' anger on him, he made life a measure more tolerable for his fellow prisoners, who looked to him as a role model of principled resistance.
Rowe continued to resist the Viet Cong, despite his cover story of being an engineer having been compromised by American anti-war activists visiting North Vietnam. Sensing his pending execution by the Viet Cong, Rowe made his ultimate break for freedom on December 31, 1968. Catching sight of a number of American helicopters, Rowe subdued his guards and fled to a nearby clearing where the copter crews spotted him and swooped to his rescue.
James N. Rowe was one of 34 Americans to escape from captivity in Vietnam. However, the story does not end there. In many ways, it only begins.
In 1971, Rowe wrote Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of an American POW. After retiring from the Army in 1974, he later returned to active service as a Lt. Colonel in 1981 and worked to develop the military’s SERE training -- Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape:
Major Rowe realized that American and its armed services would continue to face threats and that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” His life and assassination 25 years ago is evidence of this truism. His legacy lives on in the training and spirit of every special operations soldier, airmen, marine, or sailor deployed into harm’s way.
The U.S. Special Operations forces who landed and secured the transfer of Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban are beneficiaries of the spirit, training, and legacy of Major James N. Rowe. Speaking of the SERE curriculum, Rowe said:
“We took all the lessons we learned the hard way and incorporated them into the curriculum. We don't want anyone going through on-the-job training. The SERE school teaches soldiers to evade capture but, if caught, to survive and return home with honor.”
My father served in the U.S. Army as an artilleryman in the U Minh Forest of South Vietnam at the time of Rowe’s escape and rescue in early 1969. He spoke of Rowe in mythical terms. When news of Rowe’s death made the newspapers in April 1989, my father clipped out the article and, with a tear, told this then-17 year old that a “great man has died.”
Others remarked that, with Rowe’s death, “Green Berets cried openly on the streets of Fayettville, NC.”
In coming days, we may learn more about the true motives and intrigue of Bowe and Robert Bergdahl’s “five years to freedom.” We have already learned much from the courageous soldiers who served with Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. In that vein, perhaps it is more important that we never forget the enduring legacy of heroes like James Rowe, Humbert Versace, and Daniel Pitzer who have walked and continue to walk among us.
Like James N. Rowe on December 31, 1968, the truth will out.