|Name:||Isaac "Ike" Camacho|
|Rank/Branch:||Sergeant First Class/US Army|
5th Special Forces Group,
1st Special Forces
|Date of Birth:||3 June 1937|
|Home of Record:||El Paso, TX|
|Date of Loss:||24 November 1963|
|Country of Loss:||South Vietnam|
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Escapee|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Claude McClure and George Smith (released), and Kenneth M. Roraback (missing)|
REMARKS: ESCAPED 650713
SYNOPSIS: The US 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. The total strength of US personnel in 1963 was 674, all but 98 of whom were on temporary duty from 1st Special Forces Group, Okinawa, Japan, and from the 5th and 7th Special Forces Groups, Ft. Bragg, NC. On 1 July 1963, USSF Provisional was given complete charge of the CIDG program.
The USSF Provisional/CIDG network consisted of fortified strategically located camps, each 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 Hiep Hoa Special Forces Camp was strategically situated just north of Highway TL7A and east of the Song Vam Co Dong River in the densely populated and hotly contested Plain of Reeds located approximately 22 miles west-northwest of Saigon and 24 miles south-southeast of Tay Ninh. It was also 11 miles east of the South Vietnamese/Cambodian border and Cambodia's infamous "Parrot's Beak," which was a major Viet Cong (VC) staging area. The 125 by 100 meter camp was built on the bank of a canal encircled with barbed wire. It was protected by .30-caliber machinegun emplacements on all four corners and two 81mm mortars located near the front gates. Surrounding the camp were numerous villages, sugar cane plantations and rice fields.
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 machineguns.
At the same time, SFC Ike Camacho grabbed a carbine and made his way to the mortar bunker where he waged a one-man mortar barrage against the enemy. SSgt. Smith and SSgt. McClure also grabbed weapons and moved to other strategic parts of the camp to combat the VC insurgence. Roughly half an hour later, Ike Camacho was still firing mortars when John Colbe joined him in the mortar bunker. Under the intensity of the VC attack and seeing that some of the CIDG troops were fleeing, Lt. Colbe determined further efforts to defend the camp were futile.
Lt. Colbe handed SFC Camacho a grenade to use for added protection. As the executive officer departed the bunker, he ordered SFC Camacho to escape while he could. John Colbe continued to move through the ravaged camp ordering its defenders to initiate escape and evasion (E&E) plans. He found SSgt. Smith, SSgt. McClure and SFC Roraback giving them the same orders. Once outside the camp, Ike Camacho realized other Americans were still fighting within the camp. He reentered it and made a dash for cover in a machinegun bunker. Within minutes the VC captured him along with 3 of the other 4 American advisors. In the confusion of the battle, only John Colbe successfully escaped. 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.
Much later it was learned that during the fierce fighting within the camp, Claude McClure suffered phosphorous burns from a grenade and Ike Camacho received a rifle butt stroke to the back of the head that immediately knocked him unconscious. Neither Ken Roraback nor Smitty Smith was injured during the battle. 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.
The VC kept the Americans blindfolded as they moved the prisoners first on foot, then by oxcart covered with a tarp. As they were going around Nui Ba Dinh Mountain, Ike Camacho was able to see the North Star through a small gap and thought they were being moved along Highway 22. Eventually they were transferred to a sampan that took them to Trai Bai, a small camp near the Cambodian border and deep within the communist sanctuary in the U Minh Forest. This forest was commonly referred to as "the jungle of darkness" because so little light penetrated through the triple canopy foliage to reach the jungle floor below. In this camp the Americans were housed in individual cages that were only 6 feet by 8 feet, put in ankle chains that were fastened to a huge tree and guarded by 4 VC. The POWs were used on work details to gather timber in the dense jungle that surrounded the camp. They were also used to build additional structures, dig wells and work on a new rice mill that was located nearby.
A frequent sight that frustrated and angered the four Americans was watching the VC pass their cages carrying sacks of flour or rice, condensed milk, vegetable oil for cooking; and all of it with lettering saying, "Donated by the People of the United States." To add insult to injury, the guards made rucksacks out of the sacks for the POWs so they could carry personal items, such as a bowl and change of black pajamas, on work details. In spite of the abundance of food, the prisoners were provided only enough to sustain them. As a result, the Americans suffered from a wide variety of illnesses in addition to their injuries and wounds.
In addition to frequent interrogations by the VC, the POWs received a visit early in their captivity from Wilfred Burchett, an Australian writer; and Roger Pic, a French photographer; who were both communist sympathizers. A propaganda picture by Roger Pic depicting the 4 POWs lined up side by side and dressed in black pajamas facing Wilfred Burchett as he documented their plight was widely distributed. This grainy black and white picture was the first confirmation that all 4 Special Forces advisers were in fact Prisoners of War. After US intelligence personnel evaluated the photo, the status of SFC Camacho, SFC Roraback, SSgt. McClure and SSgt. Smith was upgraded from Missing in Action to Prisoner of War.
According to Ike Camacho, shortly after Wilfred Burchett and Roger Pic departed the POW camp, a group of Cubans arrived to interrogate the Americans with the approval of the VC. The Cubans, who wore berets like Che Guevara, were menacing in both their demeanor and questioning. The prisoners had good reason for concern because the Cubans showed open distain for them, thought they were of no value and the VC should simply kill them.
Believing that the guards would eventually take off their leg chains, SFC Camacho began examining his cage for signs of weakness. In his post-escape debriefing, Ike Camacho recounted how he worked on a bar facing a blind spot until he loosened it sufficiently to pull it upward, then tie it in place with a small piece of cord he kept hidden. It gave him a space large enough to crawl through. Once outside, he was able push the cross bar down into place with his feet.
As months passed, the communists
prepared for the arrival of new prisoners. They moved the already occupied
cages closer together, then moved Ike Camacho and Smitty Smith into one
cage and Ken Roraback and Claude McClure into another. The VC also took
the leg irons off SFC Camacho and SSgt. Smith so they could be used on
the new prisoners when they arrived. In June 1965, Capt. Donald Cook, US
Marine Corps; and PFC Charles Crafts, US Army; were moved to the U-Minh
Forest POW camp. Known as "The Heartland Group," because of the area of
South Vietnam between Saigon and the coast where each had been captured,
they were put into a hut near the others.
Ken Roraback and Donald Cook continued to strictly adhere to the Code of Conduct, the code all military personnel are required to follow should he or she become a Prisoner of War. Both men 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.
His cellmate, SSgt. Smith, who only had flimsy plastic sandals to wear, chose to stay behind because he knew he would not be able to travel very far in them. SFC Camacho placed his extra pair of black pajamas on his cot to give the illusion he was there and pulled down the mosquito net around his cot to help mask the view. After he slipped out of the cage, Smitty Smith stayed awake until morning to make sure the oil lamp in their cell did not go out, which would have drawn unwanted attention from the guards. Four days later, Ike Camacho reached the safety of a South Vietnamese compound, and in so doing, became the first American to escape from a Viet Cong controlled POW camp.
SSgt. Smith later recounted how the guards reacted the next morning when they discovered SFC Camacho gone. "That was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life. They checked out the cage inside and out. They just couldn't see how the hell he got out! They had about five or six guys down in the hole (the POWs were to use as a bomb shelter during air raids) to see if he was (hiding) in it. Even the Commissioner (the nickname given to the camp commander by the POWs) 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 know where the exit was. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn't."
According to Ike Camacho, he had with him a small amount of rice, a piece of mirror and some tobacco paper to spell out "POW" on a piece of black plastic sheet. Over the next 4 days, he evades communist search parties who were looking for him. During the storm he followed small leaves that were floating away. The leaves lead him to a small stream that flowed into a larger one that became a running brook before finally pouring into a fork of the Saigon River. Food was not a problem as a variety of fresh fruit was readily available.
By the third day with the rain stopped, the clear water supply was gone. As he continued to move toward the east, he heard a single rifle shot in the distance and continued toward it. At roughly 1100 hours on the morning of the forth day he saw an American aircraft that he thought was a Cessna L-19 flying low over the treetops and continued to follow in its direction. Shortly after that, Ike Camacho came to a hardtop road and wondered if it was the one used by the VC when he and the others were moved toward the U-Minh Forest.
A dump truck passed his hiding place in the tree line adjacent to the road. It was followed a short time later by a small car bearing the markings of the International Red Cross on its bumper. Ike Camacho hailed the driver who drove him to a South Vietnamese compound, then the driver took him directly to the village chief's house. After a brief discussion regarding the authenticity of strange looking man dressed in black pajamas standing in front of him, the village chief called the compound's Special Forces advisor in. The advisor immediately recognized Ike Camacho as a fellow soldier and within short order SFC Camacho was transported to Ninh Tranh Special Forces Camp before being transported to DaNang where he was debriefed by military intelligence. After completing the debriefing, Ike Camacho was promoted to Master Sergeant and returned to the United States and a hero's welcome home.
On Sunday, 28 September 1965, "Liberation Radio" announced the execution of Kenneth Roraback and Special Forces Capt. Versace on 26 September in retaliation for the deaths of 3 terrorists by South Vietnamese officials in DaNang. Rocky Versace was captured the month before SFC Roraback and was equally loyal to the US and the Code of Conduct. 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.
Two months after the execution of the 2 Special Forces advisors, Claude McClure and Smitty Smith were released to US control on 28 November 1965 in a demonstration of the communists "humane and lenient" policy toward American captives. The release took place in a ceremony in Cambodia where the men had been moved after SFC Camacho's successful escape.
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.