Name: Humberto Roque "Rocky" Versace v017p
Rank/Branch: Captain/US Army
Advisory Team 70, 5th Special Forces Group,
1st Special Forces
Date of Birth: 02 July 1937 (Honolulu, HI)
Home of Record: Norfolk, VA
Date of Loss: 29 October 1963
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 092626N 1050917E (WR170435)
Click coordinates to view maps
Status in 1973: Prisoner of War/Died in Captivity
Category: 1
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: Ground
Other Personnel In Incident: James N. Rowe (escaped) and Daniel Pitzer (released)


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 one 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 at Tan Phu and was manned by Detachment A-23. This camp was located deep in the U Minh Forest. Its isolated location in the midst of a known heavy enemy presence made the camp vulnerable to attack.

On 28 October 1963, Capt. "Rocky" Versace, Advisory Team 70's intelligence advisor; met with the Thoi Binh district chief and learned that "an irregular platoon of Viet Cong (VC) moved into the small hamlet of Le Coeur" with the intent of establishing a VC command post there. The possibility that it would be used to direct attacks against the Tan Phu Special Forces Camp located on the Ca Mau Peninsula approximately 8 kilometers southeast of the hamlet was unacceptable. After meeting with the district chief, Capt. Versace made a liaison visit Special Forces Team A-23 stationed at Tan Phu Special Forces Camp, Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, South Vietnam.

A hastily planned operation was scheduled to leave before dawn on 29 October 1963. Capt. "Rocky" Versace, 1st Lt. "Nick" Rowe; and SFC Daniel "Dan" Pitzer, the detachment's medic; accompanied a 129-man a CIDG force comprised of 2 companies of strikers and 1 of CIDG militia from Thoi Binh. Le Coeur was located in a VC-dominated area on one of the main canals leading into the dreaded U Minh Forest. It was also located approximately 17 miles due north of Quan Long, 22 miles east of the Gulf of Thailand, 55 miles west-southwest of Soc Trang, 59 miles southwest of Can Tho and 135 miles southwest of Saigon.

The American and allied troops had never ventured into that area before and the close proximity to the enemy's well-established sanctuary in the legendary "forest of darkness," so named because of the exceptionally dense triple-canopy jungle, made it a cinch that there would be a large scale fire fight.

The basic plan was to roust the small VC unit in the hamlet with one company while the other two formed an ambush between the hamlet and the U Minh Forest. However, when the district militia's assault company led by Vietnamese Special Forces Lt. Lam Quang Tinh, with Capt. Versace as his mission advisor, reached the village, the enemy ran just as the Americans thought they would. As the CIDG troops swept the hamlet for intelligence, 1st Lt. Rowe picked up a spent Mossin-Magant cartridge. The significance of that Russian K-44 shell casing meant that they were not chasing a small irregular Viet Cong unit but either a well-trained, well-armed regional or main force unit.

When the communist force retreated from Le Coeur, they ran in the opposite direction from the U Minh Forest where the rest of the allied troops were waiting to ambush them. The American advisors directed the assault company to return to camp while they joined two ambush companies for the return trip. At approximately 1000 hours, the two ambush companies started back to camp along canal #8. When they were roughly 2 kilometers down the canal, they looked toward the northeast across the rice field separating it from canal #9 and saw a whole line of black clad figures rapidly moving into position to cut them off.

Once the enemy successfully closed to 900 meters, they opened fire with automatic weapons. While ineffective at that distance, the ground fire did pin the friendly forces in place long enough for the communists to begin firing 60mm mortars at them. A group of Vietnamese strikers broke for the bank of a rice paddy, which was all the VC needed to establish the correct range. Then they fired a salvo of 12 mortar rounds that nearly wiped out all the strikers located along that bank.

The allied forces rapidly moved into a tree line to set up a defensive perimeter. Almost immediately the enemy hit them with a blocking force from one side, a pressure force from another side and the assault from the third side across an open rice field. According to Nick Rowe, "I never saw so many VC in my life. They must have had at least three platoons coming across that paddy and they just kept coming. As long as our strikers had ammunition, it was like a turkey shoot." Then the VC tried to lure the US led force across a large open rice paddy with a classic three-sided attack with an ambushed escape route.

As the battle raged below, two American aircraft passed nearby, one was a T-28 and the other a Caribou. The embattled ground team radioed the pilot of the T-28 requesting immediate emergency air strikes on the advancing VC positions. Unfortunately, the pilot radioed back saying he "could not engage (the enemy) without authorization from Saigon," and continued on his way. Enemy ground fire of all types continued coming in from numerous positions. Allied troops kept up their own accurate fire and were stacking up enemy dead like cord wood 10 to 15 meters in front of the their positions. Nick Rowe believed that the assault company would return to give them a hand when they realized the others were in need of it. Unfortunately, that company had been badly mauled by the VC and was unable to be of assistance.

For 3 hours the allies battled roughly 1,000-seasoned guerrilla fighters of the Main Force 306th VC Battalion. Finally they reached the point of no return when they were nearly out of ammunition and large numbers of VC were still coming at them. Capt. Versace, SFC Pitzer and 1st Lt. Rowe told their troops to pull out and withdraw, that the Americans would cover them and then leap frog back. Dan Pitzer had the M79 grenade launcher, Rocky Versace a carbine and Rick Rowe an M1. As a VC assault squad suddenly came through the trees at close range in front of them, Dan Pitzer hit its pointman in the chest causing him to all but disappear and the sight stopped the squad cold in their tracks. They had never seen the M79 before and the shock of the weapon's power gave the Americans time to get out of there.

As the Americans caught up with the disorganized strikers and militia, they all moved into a cane field with the three advisors continuing to cover the rear. The VC fired a BAR at the retreating column with three rounds striking Rocky Versace in the leg. As he fell to the ground, an enemy grenade exploded nearby peppering him with shrapnel. 1st Lt. Rowe was struck in the face and chest by grenade fragments as he reached to help Capt. Versace. The concussion also knocked him to the ground. As he attempted to get up, the wounded Captain put his arms around the Lieutenant's neck and Nick Rowe tried to drag him off the trail to hide in the cane field until the enemy passed by. The Americans broke reeds back across their trail to camouflage it. During the firefight, SFC Pitzer also suffered grenade fragmentation wounds as well as severely spraining an ankle.

Rocky Versace's wounds were bleeding profusely. Nick Rowe put a compress on one of the wounds and was putting another bandage on the second one when all of a sudden the reeds broke open and they heard someone yell, "Do tay len" - Hands up! As they looked up, there was a Mossin-Nagant and a US carbine pointing down at them. Nick Rowe continued bandaging the second wound. When finished, the VC grabbed him by the arms, pulled him to his feet and tied him with a large VC flag that he had tucked into a pocket after one of the strikers gave it to him in the hamlet. The three Americans were also stripped of their boots before being led into the U Minh Forest.

The forest was a dark maze of mangrove, canals and swamps. The prisoners were kept in small bamboo cages, deprived of food and exposed to insects, heat and disease. In the early days of their captivity the three Americans were photographed together in a staged setting in the U Minh Forest. It was evident from the beginning that Capt. Versace, who spoke fluent French and Vietnamese, was going to be a problem for the Viet Cong. His captors isolated him, kept him in irons, flat on his back and frequently gagged in a dark and hot isolation box that was 6 feet long by 2 feet wide and 3 feet high in an attempt to break him. As the senior ranking officer in the prison camp, Capt. Versace frequently communicated with the others by singing messages to them to the tune of popular songs of the day.

The VC cadre set up indoctrination classes. Dan Pitzer and Nick Rowe "adopted a sit and listen" attitude between bouts of body-wrenching dysentery, feeling the more we said the worse off we would be." Rocky Versace, on the other hand, attended the sessions at the point of a bayonet and engaged the communists in verbal combat at every opportunity that presented itself. At one point the other Americans heard him tell the camp's cadre, "You can make me come to class, but I am an officer in the United States Army. You can make me listen, you can force me to sit here, but I don't believe a word of what you are saying." Further, Nick Rowe added that as Capt. Versace did verbal combat with the cadre, "The instructor's voice would climb an octave from its already high pitch as Rocky tripped him up with verbal gymnastics."

Increasingly the VC separated him from the other prisoners as Rocky Versace 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. He proved very uncooperative; a situation that infuriated the communists and his actions drew much close scrutiny to himself and away from the others.

The VC made it clear right from the start they had absolute power of life and death over the prisoners. They frequently stated, "Do not think that merely because the war ends that you will go home. You can rest here long after the war."

In spite of his serious wounds and debilitated condition due to decease and malnutrition, Rocky Versace attempted four escape attempts. With each attempt, his treatment worsened while his fierce determination seemed to increase. The last time Nick Rowe and Dan Pitzer heard him, Rocky Versace was singing "God Bless America" at the top of his lungs from the isolation box. As opportunities presented themselves, Nick Rowe and Dan Pitzer also made escapes, but were recaptured in short order.

On Sunday, 28 September 1965, "Liberation Radio" announced the execution of Capt. Rocky Versace and Special Forces SFC Kenneth Roraback on 26 September in retaliation for the deaths of 3 terrorists by South Vietnamese officials in DaNang. SFC Roraback was captured a month after Capt. Versace 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 to 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.

The Versace and Roraback families learned of their loved one's reported death from a television broadcast rather then from the US government. According to Steve Versace, "The thing that hit my dad hardest was when he heard Rocky had been executed on the 6 o'clock news. I think he started dying then." Tere Versace refused to believe the reports. She pressed the US government for more information and flew to Paris to try to meet with North Vietnamese diplomats. In the end, she never received satisfactory answers to her many question regarding the fate of her son.

Meanwhile the affect of the reported execution on Dan Pitzer and Nick Rowe was devastating. The VC intensified their pressure on both men to write propaganda statements denouncing the "US government and their puppet regime in Saigon for their illegal war of aggression against the freedom-loving people of Vietnam" as well as to extract military information, whether it be useless or helpful, from them. After writing a statement the VC deemed sufficient, Dan Pitzer was moved into Cambodia where he was released to US control on 11 November 1967 in a demonstration of the Communists "humane and lenient" policy toward American captives.

Nick Rowe remained in isolation away from the new prisoners who had been moved into the same general camp area in which he was being held. Finally on 31 December 1968, while the other POWs were away from the camp on a "work detail," 1st Lt. Nick Rowe was able to take advantage of a nearby American helicopter and escaped while being moved from one camp to another. In so doing he become the longest held American Prisoner of War to successfully escape from the Viet Cong.

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 Capt. Versace 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 Rocky Versace 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 Rocky Versace 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.

In 2001, the Medal of Honor was approved for presentation to Humberto R. Versace posthumously for his behavior as a Prisoner of War. In addition to presenting the information outlined above, the citation reads: "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 26 September 1965. Captain Versace's 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 US Armed Forces."

Humberto R. Versace graduated from United States Military Academy at West Point in 1959.