Humbert “Rocky” Versace epitomized the “Duty, Honor Country” credo of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. On October 29, 1963, during the early days of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Versace, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group, was captured by the Viet Cong. He refused to be indoctrinated by the Communists and resisted fiercely. He so enraged his captors by his insistence on adhering to the code of conduct and protesting their treatment of American POWs, that the Viet Cong executed him on September 26, 1965. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Versace was the eldest of five children. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1937. His mother was an author and one of her novels was later turned into the television series, “The Flying Nun.” His father was a colonel in the U.S. Army. Like most military families, the Versace clan moved quite frequently and Rocky grew up in Alexandria, VA, right outside of Washington, D.C.
After graduation from high school in Norfolk, VA, Versace got an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point along with his father did. He graduated in 1959 as a second lieutenant in the Armor Branch. He went to Ranger School, Class 4-60, graduating on December 18, 1959. After attending airborne school, Versace was shipped to Korea where he was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 40th Armor, 1st Cavalry Division as an M-48 tank platoon leader from March 1960 to April 1961.
After being promoted to captain, Versace was then assigned to the 3d U.S. Infantry (Old Guard), the Army’s ceremonial unit known as the “Escort to the President” that is based near Washington at Ft. Myer, VA. While in Virginia Versace volunteered for duty in Vietnam and was transferred to Ft. Holabird, MD for the intelligence course and then the Vietnamese Language Course at the Presidio of Monterey in California.
Versace began his career as an intelligence advisor serving with the 5th Special Forces Group in May 1962. At the end of his year-long tour in May 1963, he volunteered for a six-month extension. At the conclusion of that, Versace decided that he was going to join the seminary, become a Catholic priest, and return to Vietnam as a missionary.
With only two weeks remaining on his tour and the Army, Versace went to visit an old USMA classmate at the 5th Special Forces camp A-23 located at Tan Phu in the Mekong Delta. There, the Special Forces men were advising a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) unit. The unit according to Colonel (then LT) Nick Rowe was trying to dislodge a 40-man Viet Cong platoon that was setting up a headquarters located in the thick U Minh Forest at the village of Le Coeur. Versace joined the men on the operation. The Viet Cong, however, were not 40 men but a 900-man regiment and ambushed the Montagnard/Special Forces patrol.
Dan Pitzer, an American Special Forces medic, was racing to the point of the ambush to help when he stepped into a hole and broke his ankle; the A-Team XO, LT Nick Rowe moved to assist him. Versace, although badly wounded, remained in place and put down enough covering fire to allow most of the CIDG troops to withdraw safely. However, as they ran out of ammunition, Rowe was clubbed from behind by a Viet Cong and he, Pitzer, and Versace were taken prisoner.
The Viet Cong really had no idea what to do with American prisoners so they subjected them to brutal interrogations and horrible conditions at a small jungle prison camp located deep in the U Minh Forrest. In addition to physical torture and interrogations, they attempted to starve their American captives. Although he was very weak and wounded from the action at the ambush, Versace continued to display his absolute adherence to the Code of Conduct.
He tried to escape on four different occasions. In one attempt, he was in such a weakened condition that he was on his hands and knees crawling outside the compound where he was easily recaptured by his guards. This infuriated the Viet Cong but not as much as his other actions did. Using his Vietnamese language skills, he lambasted the Communists for their treatment of POWs, and their complete disregard for the Geneva Conventions. Using a mixture of Vietnamese and French, he kept the counterattacks going on his interrogators. His body was broken, yet his spirit was not.
The Viet Cong tried to separate him from the other captors. For a while left him gagged in his cell so that he couldn’t communicate with other Americans. The last time he was seen by his American countrymen, he was loudly singing “God Bless America.” His resilience after 23 months of brutal captivity, inspired his fellow Americans and enraged the Viet Cong. On September 23, 1965, Viet Cong National Liberation Radio announced that Versace had been executed. His body was never recovered.
Versace’s brave actions remained unknown and would have remained so forever if Rowe hadn’t escaped from captivity on December 31, 1968. Rowe had steadfastly stuck to his cover story that he was an engineer assigned to build schools and other civil affairs projects in the camp. He knew that if the Viet Cong found out he was a Green Beret, he’d be immediately executed. He kept this up for years although the Vietnamese tried to expose him by forcing him to solve different engineering problems.
It wasn’t until the anti-war protesters, including noted activist and later California governor Tom Hayden, visited Vietnam and furnished the Communists with the background of several captives, including Rowe, that he was exposed. When the Viet Cong found Rowe was intelligence and Special Forces, they were furious. They decided to execute him.
While they were marching Rowe through the jungle on his way to be executed, his guards were startled by a nearby assault of U.S. helicopters. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Rowe overpowered his guard, rushed out into a rice paddy, and got the attention of the helicopter crew by waving his mosquito net. He was nearly killed by the helicopter door gunner, but his beard (which the Vietnamese rarely grew) convinced the crew he was an American.
Upon returning to the U.S., Rowe implored President Richard Nixon to award Versace the Medal of Honor. Nixon assured him he would try but that award was initially downgraded to a Silver Star.
Rowe was brought back into the Army in 1981 as a Major and shortly afterward an LTC and was tasked with developing and running the Army SERE School at Camp Mackall, NC. His developed course left behind a lasting legacy in the Special Forces community. SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape), is taught to all Special Forces soldiers and to other selected Army Special Operations troops. In that task, Rowe was assisted by Pitzer who would speak to nearly every SERE class. As they were trying to instill to all students, the mission is to avoid capture at all costs but if caught, to return home alive and with honor. Rowe wrote a book about his experiences as a POW titled “Five Years to Freedom.”
In 1989, then Colonel Rowe was assigned at the JUSMAG Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in the Philippines. He was assassinated while on his way to work one morning by Filippino Communists. It was later learned that the Communists in Vietnam were still holding a grudge against their former POW and had a hand in his assassination.
Versace’s Silver Star was finally upgraded to the Medal of Honor, although this time Rowe didn’t live to see it. Many of Versace’s friends and family gave the needed push for the upgrade. President Bush awarded the Medal to Versace’s siblings in the White House on July 8, 2002.
Rocky Versace was also named a Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment in 2011.
Medal of Honor Citation:
Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion.
As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition.
Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine.
Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability.
When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versaces extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.”