James Nicholas Rowe, or Nick, was a brilliant US Army officer. He played a significant role in developing the US Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program for Special Forces soldiers to teach them how to survive captivity. He would share lessons and information from his firsthand experience. Nick was once a prisoner of war in Vietnam who managed to survive at the very last minute. His saving grace? His beard.
Entrance to the Vietnam War
Nick Rowe was from McAllen, Texas, born on February 8, 1938. He grew up joining his local fraternal organization, DeMolay International. Nick finished high school at McAllen High School in 1956. He then left for the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where his older brother, Richard, studied too but died just a few years before his graduation.
After graduating in 1960, Rowe was immediately sent to South Vietnam as a military advisor under the US Army 5th Special Forces Group, a 12-man A-team. They were assigned at the Tan Phu in An Xuyen Province. Things were going pretty well until October 29, 1963.
Prisoner of War
Rowe had only been staying in the country for three months when the Viet Cong captured him with Captain Humberto Versace and Sergeant Daniel Pitzer. They were trying to drive away a Viet Cong unit from the village of Le Coeur.
For 62 months, Nick Rowe spent most of his time in a small area in prison and was not even allowed to be more than 40 yards away from it. Food was also scarce; they were only given two cans of rice daily. To fill their stomach, the Special Forces prisoners would catch snakes and rats that they could eat.
For three times, Rowe tried and failed to escape, but his real problem arrived when anti-war activists back in the United States released his bio to the public. It was a problem because he told his Vietnamese captors that he was an engineer drafted into the Army, so they wouldn’t see him as a threat. After learning Rowe was skilled military personnel, they immediately sentenced him to death, angry that the American prisoner made a fool out of them. They also did not like that he trained the South Vietnamese soldiers. A Viet Cong patrol brought him into the jungle for his execution, but Rowe was not ready to die yet.
The Last-Minute Escape
As they were walking toward that spot that would be Nick Rowe’s place of death, a flight of helicopters happened to pass above them. His executioners were distracted by the American helicopters for a brief moment but long enough for Rowe to take the opportunity. With all his rice-powered enthusiasm, he shoved one of the guards to the ground. He then sprinted to the nearest clearing and flailed his arms as hard as possible to get the pilot’s attention.
Above was Major David E. Thompson piloting the UH-1 helicopter, who noticed a figure in black pajamas waving from below. At first, he had Rowe mistaken for an enemy and prepared to shoot him until he realized that the person he was looking at had an overgrown beard. He knew Vietnamese men could not grow such a thick beard; he figured he was an American. He held his fire, scooped Nick up, and brought him to safety.
He returned to the United States Army after the war. In 1981, he was assigned as a Lieutenant Colonel stationed at Fort Bragg. He would also visit the Philippines, where he worked as the ground forces director for the Philippine forces. There, he provided training for the Philippines forces. On April 21, 1989, his vehicle came under fire and was killed.
Rowe left behind his legacy of the SERE training program and a book he authored in 1971 titled Five Years to Freedom. The book was his account of his years as a prisoner of war.
If you’re curious about how the whole SERE training program works, you might want to check out the school experience one delta operator shared here.