Rocky Versace: The Bravest Man You Have Never Heard Of
FOR THE ROCK and the children and sugar people of NamCan
Dedication of the book The Fifteenth Pelican by Marie Teresa Rios Versace
For his entire life Captain Humbert Roque ‘Rocky’ Versace was on a mission. His first mission was as an Army Ranger. His second mission was to be a Catholic priest and to work with orphan kids. He had been accepted to a Maryknoll seminary but then fate intervened. The son of Colonel Humbert J. Versace from Puerto Rico and his wife Marie Teresa Rios Versace, a novelist and poet who, among many other books, wrote The Fifteenth Pelican on which the TV series The Flying Nun was based, Rocky was an unforgettable character. A graduate of West Point in 1959, he was an Army Ranger and a soldier as tough as they come. He had an intelligence of a high order as demonstrated by his fluency in French and Vietnamese. He loved to laugh and have a good time. At the same time he was deeply religious and a fervent Catholic. In short, he was a complete man.
Volunteering for service in Vietnam, he began his tour as an intelligence advisor on May 12, 1962.
Rocky fell in love with the Vietnamese people, especially the kids. In his free time he volunteered in a Vietnamese orphanage. He believed in his mission and regarded it as a crusade to prevent the people he loved living under Communism. During his tour he received news that his application to attend a Maryknoll seminary had been accepted. He planned after ordination to return to Vietnam and work with Vietnam orphans as a priest. He agreed to a six month extension of his tour since that fit in with his plans to attend the seminary.
On October 29, 1963 he was serving as an intelligence advisor with the 5th Special Forces Group (Green Berets). He accompanied several companies of South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense (militia) that were seeking to remove a Viet Cong command post in the U Minh Forest. They were ambushed and Rocky gave covering fire to allow the South Vietnamese to retreat and get away. He was captured. The Viet Cong murdered him on September 26, 1965. What happened in between made Rocky a legend. He was taken to a camp deep in the jungle along with Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer. After their eventual release they told all and sundry what they witnessed Rocky do.
There was simply no quit in the man. He attempted to escape four times. During the re-education sessions he would argue continually with the Viet Cong lecturers. His fluent French and Vietnamese allowed him to badger them with a steady stream of questions and swear words. He continually cited the Geneva Convention and refused to give the Cong a syllable more of information than he was required to do.
He kept up the spirit of his fellow captured Americans, deliberately deflecting upon himself blows and tortures by his defiant spirit that the enemy simply could not break. Sergeant Dan Pitzer summed up Rocky:
“ROCKY WALKED HIS OWN PATH. ALL OF US DID, BUT FOR THAT GUY, DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY WAS A WAY OF LIFE. HE WAS THE FINEST EXAMPLE OF AN OFFICER I HAVE KNOWN . . . . ONCE, ROCKY TOLD OUR CAPTORS . . . . THEY MIGHT AS WELL KILL HIM THEN AND THERE IF THE PRICE OF HIS LIFE WAS GETTING MORE FROM HIM THAN NAME, RANK, AND SERIAL NUMBER . . . . HE GOT A LOT OF PRESSURE AND TORTURE, BUT HE HELD HIS PATH . . . HE WAS BRUTALLY MURDERED BECAUSE OF IT . . . . I’M SATISFIED HE WOULD HAVE IT NO OTHER WAY. I KNOW THAT HE VALUED THAT ONE MOMENT OF HONOR MORE THAN HE WOULD A LIFETIME OF COMPROMISES.”
The Communists finally decided that they could never break Rocky’ s spirit, so they would murder his body. The last time his fellow Americans saw him, he was loudly singing God Bless America.
His body was never recovered. A stone was raised for him in Arlington and the bodies of his parents rest there. A move was made to award him posthumously the Medal of Honor. It was unsuccessful, and he was awarded a Silver Star. In 2002 Rocky finally received his Medal of Honor, and I can think of no man who did more to earn one.
His medal of honor citation:
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.
The remarks of President Bush during the award ceremony:
Remarks by the President at Presentation of Medal of Honor The East Room July 8, 2002 3:07 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. It’s a — this is a special occasion. I am honored to be a part of the gathering as we pay tribute to a true American patriot, and a hero, Captain Humbert “Rocky” Versace.
Nearly four decades ago, his courage and defiance while being held captive in Vietnam cost him his life. Today it is my great privilege to recognize his extraordinary sacrifices by awarding him the Medal of Honor.
I appreciate Secretary Anthony Principi, the Secretary from the Department of Veteran Affairs, for being here. Thank you for coming, Tony. I appreciate Senator George Allen and Congressman Jim Moran. I want to thank Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense; and General Pete Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Army General Eric Shinseki — thank you for coming, sir. I appreciate David Hicks being here. He’s the Deputy Chief of Chaplains for the United States Army.
I want to thank the entire Versace family for coming — three brothers and a lot of relatives. Brothers, Dick and Mike and Steve, who’s up here on the stage with me today. I appreciate the classmates and friends and supporters of Rocky for coming. I also want to thank the previous Medal of Honor recipients who are here with us today. That would be Harvey Barnum and Brian Thacker and Roger Donlon. Thank you all for coming.
Rocky grew up in this area and attended Gonzaga College High School, right here in Washington, D.C. One of his fellow soldiers recalled that Rocky was the kind of person you only had to know a few weeks before you felt like you’d known him for years. Serving as an intelligence advisor in the Mekong Delta, he quickly befriended many of the local citizens. He had that kind of personality. During his time there he was accepted into the seminary, with an eye toward eventually returning to Vietnam to be able to work with orphans.
Rocky was also a soldier’s soldier — a West Point graduate, a Green Beret, who lived and breathed the code of duty and honor and country. One of Rocky’s superiors said that the term “gung-ho” fit him perfectly. Others remember his strong sense of moral purpose and unbending belief in his principles.
As his brother Steve once recalled, “If he thought he was right, he was a pain in the neck.” (Laughter.) “If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.” (Laughter.)
When Rocky completed his one-year tour of duty, he volunteered for another tour. And two weeks before his time was up, on October the 29th, 1963, he set out with several companies of South Vietnamese troops, planning to take out a Viet Cong command post. It was a daring mission, and an unusually dangerous one for someone so close to going home to volunteer for.
After some initial successes, a vastly larger Viet Kong force ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit. Under siege and suffering from multiple bullet wounds, Rocky kept providing covering fire so that friendly forces could withdraw from the killing zone.
Eventually, he and two other Americans, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer, were captured, bound and forced to walk barefoot to a prison camp deep within the jungle. For much of the next two years, their home would be bamboo cages, six feet long, two feet wide, and three feet high. They were given little to eat, and little protection against the elements. On nights when their netting was taken away, so many mosquitos would swarm their shackled feet it looked like they were wearing black socks.
The point was not merely to physically torture the prisoners, but also to persuade them to confess to phony crimes and use their confessions for propaganda. But Rocky’s captors clearly had no idea who they were dealing with. Four times he tried to escape, the first time crawling on his stomach because his leg injuries prevented him from walking. He insisted on giving no more information than required by the Geneva Convention; and cited the treaty, chapter and verse, over and over again.
He was fluent in English, French and Vietnamese, and would tell his guards to go to hell in all three. Eventually the Viet Cong stopped using French and Vietnamese in their indoctrination sessions, because they didn’t want the sentries or the villagers to listen to Rocky’s effective rebuttals to their propaganda. Rocky knew precisely what he was doing. By focusing his captors’ anger on him, he made life a measure more tolerable for his fellow prisoners, who ooked to him as a role model of principled resistance.
Eventually the Viet Cong separated Rocky from the other prisoners. Yet even in separation, he continued to inspire them. The last time they heard his voice, he was singing “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs.
On September the 26th, 1965, Rocky’s struggle ended in his execution. In his too short life, he traveled to a distant land to bring the hope of freedom to the people he never met. In his defiance and later his death, he set an example of extraordinary dedication that changed the lives of his fellow soldiers who saw it firsthand. His story echoes across the years, reminding us of liberty’s high price, and of the noble passion that caused one good man to pay that price in full.
Last Tuesday would have been Rocky’s 65th birthday. So today, we award Rocky — Rocky Versace — the first Medal of Honor given to an Army POW for actions taken during captivity in Southeast Asia. We thank his family for so great a sacrifice. And we commit our country to always remember what Rocky gave — to his fellow prisoners, to the people of Vietnam, and to the cause of freedom.
God rest your soul Rocky. You made an unforgettable soldier and you would have made an unforgettable priest.