James Rowe: The Legacy of an American POW

The life of James “Nick” Rowe left a legacy within the United States military that impacted how modern-day forces train, in part, because he survived as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Today, pilots and Special Forces personnel endure rigorous training that Rowe helped define. It was Rowe’s survival and escape from enemy captivity that laid the foundation for decades to come. Rowe resisted enemy attempts at extracting information and successfully escaped captivity with honor.

The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War began as a supporting role to South Vietnam rather than an all-out war against North Vietnam. Initially, the United States supported the South Vietnamese resistance monetarily and by sending equipment. As the conflict between South and North Vietnam escalated, the United States sent Special Forces soldiers to serve in advisory capacities to the local South Vietnamese and often helped to coordinate humanitarian and military action. Failing to contain the North Vietnamese aggression, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized covert operations in 1964.1 From 1964 onward, Special Forces became directly involved with the South Vietnamese and conducted military action against the Viet Cong and communist forces.

Viet Cong forces captured Rowe along with Captain Humberto “Rocky” Versace and Sergeant Daniel Pitzer on October 29, 1963.2 They were among the first American prisoners of war. While serving with the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), their unit assaulted a Viet Cong outpost. After what appeared to be a successful attack, the Viet Cong regrouped and overran the CIDG, forcing Rowe, Versace, and Pitzer to surrender. Rowe was quickly escorted to the Viet Cong’s rear echelon, reducing his chances of a successful escape.3

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gosney received intelligence of Rowe’s whereabouts during the fall of 1968. Gosney’s forces arrived at the POW site and found the empty cage where Rowe was held captive. The cage had slits cut in the bamboo poles indicating the length of time of Rowe’s captivity. Just a few months later, Rowe would have his chance at escape.

Several factors led to Rowe’s escape from the Viet Cong forces. Rowe’s ability to quickly capitalize on these key factors enabled him to escape with the highest chance of success. These factors were: intelligence, prisoner transport, confusion of battle, manipulation of guards, isolation of guards, and timing.

A couple of key events occurred during the months leading up to Rowe’s successful escape. First, the Viet Cong found out that Rowe had been fooling his captors. For the first several years of his incarceration, Rowe convinced his captors that he was an engineer, and Rowe successfully hid the fact that he was a West Point graduate and member of the Special Forces. The Viet Cong obtained this information from American anti-war protesters. The protesters visited North Vietnam with hopes of visiting with American POWs so they could report back to the states that the North Vietnamese were treating the POWs fairly. During the visit, the protesters gave the North Vietnamese names and other personal information of the POWs. The personal information included Rowe’s status as an American Special Forces soldier.4

Soon after Rowe’s captors discovered his true identity and ascertained additional information about his education and family, Rowe discovered that he was scheduled for transfer to a proselytizing camp. Rowe knew that the proselytizing camp was located further from friendly forces than Rowe’s current position. This second key event occurred partially by chance and partially through observation. Rowe happened upon official documents while the guards left their post momentarily. The document that caught Rowe’s eye had his name on it. Rowe, able to read Vietnamese, then realized that the documents called for his transfer and he believed it only a matter of time before the Viet Cong either broke him or killed him. The ability of Rowe’s current guards to get information out of him proved to be insufficient. Because if this and the recent discovery of Rowe’s true background, the cadre at the proselytizing camp would take over torturing Rowe and if he resisted their attempts to extract information, the Viet Cong would ultimately execute him. Armed with this vital intelligence, Rowe knew he had to expedite any escape attempt.5

American forces increased the amount of attacks on Rowe’s captors in December 1968.6 The relentless attacks from American bombers, fighters, and helicopters caused the Viet Cong to move constantly. The constant relocating from one camp to another greatly increased Rowe’s chances of escape. When a prisoner is stationary in a fortified camp, there are often multiple levels of security. These levels would include: the prisoner’s cage, the guard force primarily responsible for the prisoner, other soldiers within the camp, and a perimeter guard force. In order for a prisoner to escape from a camp, the escapee must evade all of these levels of security. However, when a prisoner is transported in between camps, many of these levels of security are absent. Because of these security limitations, Rowe was able to escape while in transit.

The attacks on Rowe’s Viet Cong captors reached a climax on New Year’s Eve in 1968. Rowe and his captors barely avoided bombing runs by American bombers before moving once again. The confusion caused by the intensity of battle was another factor of Rowe’s successful escape. With the awesome firepower of B-52s, the Viet Cong diverted their attention away from prisoner security and focused primarily on evading enemy contact and staying alive. However, Rowe had to consider one mitigating factor when planning his escape–the Viet Cong would eventually reach a point where they could no longer evade American forces with a prisoner in tow. Reaching that point, Rowe knew the Viet Cong would execute any prisoners before allowing them to escape or be recaptured by the enemy.7 Rowe had to make his move during the confusion of the battle before his captors decided to kill him.

Another factor that led to Rowe’s escape was his sharp mind. Aided by the confusion of battle and the relaxed security of a hasty prisoner transport, Rowe manipulated his guard with logical reasoning after casting doubt in the mind of the guard by suggesting that the guard’s superiors were incompetent. Sensing discontent between Rowe’s guard and the guard’s superior, Rowe suggested that the guard’s superior was tactically deficient. In addition to criticizing the superior guard’s abilities, Rowe expressed some admiration for the younger guard and used a little bit of flattery to boost the guard’s ego and distrust of his boss. Using the chaos of battle to his advantage, Rowe convinced his guard to separate from the main group, telling his captor that if the group made a large pathway through the foliage they were likely to be spotted and killed by American aircraft. He suggested that they separate from the rest of the Viet Cong guards lest they all die. The guard accepted Rowe’s proposition and quietly separated from the main group. Once separated, Rowe only had to overpower one guard in order to escape.8

Once isolated, Rowe further used his cunning to disable his guard’s weapon. Rowe used his knowledge of weaponry and determined that there was no round in the chamber of the guard’s weapon because the weapon fired from the open-bolt position.9 Rowe pressed the magazine release which caused the magazine to drop into the muddy water. He then delivered a blow to the guard’s head, knocking him unconscious. Had he attempted the escape while with the group, Rowe would have run the risk of being shot while attempting to overpower his guard. This scenario of Rowe isolating his guard while under attack demonstrated his great sense of timing.

After Rowe’s escape, he quickly found a clearing and waived his white mosquito net in an attempt to signal American aircraft. A pilot from B Troop, 7th Squadron, 1st Air Cavalry Division, commanded by Major David Thompson, spotted Rowe while on patrol. The pilots initially thought Rowe was the enemy. As they moved in to pick up Rowe as a prisoner, Breese Stevens, a door gunner, trained his M-60 machine gun on Rowe and was “ready to blow him away if he made any wrong moves.”10 As the aircraft approached Rowe, the soldiers realized that they had an American POW. After Rowe boarded the helicopter, he informed the crew of additional American POWs in the immediate vicinity. Major Thompson ordered a search but no one was found.11

Rowe’s accomplishments have been recognized by his peers and commanding officers. His awards include a Silver Star (the third-highest military decoration), the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts, among others. Perhaps Rowe’s greatest contribution was his part in the formation of the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training program.12

Current Army doctrine reflects many of the principles Rowe upheld while in captivity.13 Rowe had the sense to realize the potential negative effects his actions could have. Signing statements or making oaths of loyalty were some of the many tools of propaganda that the Viet Cong attempted to use on Rowe. He never allowed himself to be fooled by favorable treatment. Towards the end of his captivity, Rowe knew that he was scheduled to be transferred to the proselytizing facility and that the Viet Cong was treating him favorably in hopes that Rowe would be “lulled into another false sense of security.”14 Army Regulation 350-30, Article III specifically prohibits American POWs from making oaths, providing statements, or providing information to the enemy that could be used for propaganda purposes. Such concessions can harm the interests of the United States and its allies and can undermine any attempts by the United States in negotiating the release of POWs. James Rowe essentially wrote the book on how not only one can resist and escape detainment, but do so honorably.

References

  1. George J. Veith, Code-Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts during the Vietnam War (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 3.
  2. Veith, Code-Name Bright Light, 28.
  3. James N. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW (New York: Presidio Press, 1971), 82.
  4. Veith, Code-Name Bright Light, 214.
  5. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom, 408.
  6. Ibid, 411.
  7. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom, 427.
  8. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom, 432.
  9. Automatic weapons commonly fire from an “open-bolt” position. Upon firing, the bolt rides forward, chambering and firing the round in one motion. The recoil then pushes the bolt back to the rear, ejecting the cartridge, and the weapon is ready to fire again. Under normal combat circumstances, an open-bolt weapon would not have a round in the chamber.
  10. Breese J. Stevens, “The Repatriation of Major James Nicholas Rowe Part I,” (http://sandersusa.com/blackhawks/ws/bhsC.htm).
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ed Rouse, “Colonel James ‘Nick’ Rowe,” Psywarrior.com, (http://www.psywarrior.com/rowe.html).
  13. U.S. Department of the Army, Army Regulation 350-30, Code of Conduct, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Training (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1985), 5-7.
  14. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom, 408.
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