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Pacific Stars and Stripes
Five Star Edition

Vol. 19, No. 304

Friday, Nov. 1, 1963

3 Aides Seized in Vietnam Battle

Saigon (AP)
Communist guerrillas smashed a Republic of Vietnam task force after disrupting its radio communication Tuesday, and probably captured all three U.S. Army advisers with the 120-man Saigon outfit.

The three Americans listed as missing and believed captured were two officers and an enlisted medic.  Stragglers returning from the rout said both officers had been wounded early in the fight--one in the head and the other in the leg.

The Army identified the three as Capt. Humbert R. Versace, Baltimore; 1st Lt. James M. Rowe, McAllen, Tx; and Sgt. Daniel L. Pitzer, Spring Lake, N.C.

A second government force of about 200 men operating only a few thousand yards from the main fight, learned of the disaster too late to help.  U.S. authorities said the communist radio jammers had knocked out both the main channel and the alternate channel on all local military radios.

"Rocky"

"They could not break him....

....They couldn't even bend him!"

 

First Lieutenant James "Nick" Rowe reviewed the reports that had been coming in about enemy activity near the small outpost at Tan Phu in Vietnam.  The situation wasn't good, and Nick knew it.  Tan Phu was one of two isolated outposts in the Mekong Delta Region of South Vietnam.  

The defensive force consisted of four companies, about 380 local Vietnamese and Cambodians recruited for service in the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group).  The twelve men of Special Forces Team A-23 worked with the CIDG and their counterpart South Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB) to secure the region from the terrorists attacks of the Communist Viet Cong.

Not far from the camp lay the foreboding U Minh Forest, a haven for the enemy into which the Special Forces Team had yet to venture.  The year was 1963, well before most Americans had ever heard of Vietnam and two years in advance of the full-scale war that would involve nearly three million American soldiers and cost more than 58,000 lives.  In the fall of that year there were fewer than 1,000 American Green Berets serving in Vietnam to advise the CIDG in the defense of their country.

Twenty-five year old Lieutenant Rowe believed in what he was doing in Vietnam, was committed to the Special Forces motto to "Free the Oppressed".  A graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1960, he also lived and led by the creed Duty, Honor, Country.

Nick looked up as an imposing figure strolled across the small compound at Tan Phu.  Tall, strong, with piercing eyes and steel-gray hair, Captain Humbert Roque Rocky Versace drew attention wherever he went.  The Special Forces Captain had graduated from West Point one year ahead of Lieutenant Rowe, and had already served one full tour in Vietnam, then extended his tour.

Years later a Marine who had met Captain Versace in Vietnam said of him, "If you were going to ask for a West Point cadet from central casting, he was it."  

Like Lieutenant Rowe, Captain Versace believed in his mission.  Though he appeared to be a soldier without fear and was a powerful foe in battle, he loved the Vietnamese people and had a captivating smile that warmed the heart of children and civilians.  His relationship to these innocent victims of the brewing war in Southeast Asia was further enhanced by the fact that Captain Versace was fluent in both French and Vietnamese.  Indeed, under other circumstances, Rocky might have come to Vietnam to minister instead of to fight.  

Raised in a strict Catholic household (his mother wrote "The Fifteenth Pelican", a short story that became the basis for The Flying Nun), Rocky was planning to enter the ministry as a priest with the Maryknoll Missions.  His father was a career soldier and graduate of West Point, so when Rocky received his own appointment to the Academy, he opted to be a soldier first.  He volunteered to serve in Vietnam, and then upon arriving there, still found time to minister.  In the delta town of Camau where he was based, Rocky Versace built dispensaries, procured tin sheeting to replace thatch roofs and arranged for tons of bulgur wheat to feed family pigs.  He even wrote to schools back in the United States, encouraging them to send soccer balls for the village playgrounds.  At Christmas time in 1962 Rocky voiced his convictions in a letter home stating:

"I am convinced that your taxpayers' money is being put to a very worthy cause--that of freeing the Vietnamese people from an organized Communist threat aimed at the same nasty things all Communists want--at denying this country and its wonderful people a chance to better themselves."  

In Camau Captain Versace served as a MAAG intelligence advisor to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) in the An Xuyen Province.  On October 28, 1963 when he traveled to Tan Phu on a liaison visit to exchange information, Rocky had only two weeks remaining in his second tour, after which he planned to enter the ministry and return to Vietnam on missions of mercy.

As he walked across the small compound now, he carried important information after meeting with the Thoi Binh district chief.  Captain Versace had learned that a small enemy force had moved into the nearby hamlet of Le Coeur,  eight kilometers from Tan Phu.  This posed a very real danger that the enemy could use their command post in the hamlet to launch attacks on Tan Phu.

Captain Versace met with the Team's commander, Captain Philip N. Arsenault to discuss the concerns over the nearby enemy activity.  It was decided that a quick strike on Le Coeur should be commenced  the next morning.  The plan would send out three companies of CIDG and local militia.  Third Company containing the members of the militia would be under command of Vietnamese LLDB Lieutenant Lam Quang Tinh.  They would hit the enemy command post and secure Le Coeur, while the other two companies lay in wait between the hamlet and the U Minh Forest to cut off any retreat.  

"I'm going too," Captain Versace announced as the men of Detachment A-23 looked up in surprise.

"MAAG advisors aren't allowed to accompany a team on operations," Captain Arsenault reminded Versace.  

"Look, we are undertaking this operation because of information obtained in my meeting with the district chief," Versace responded.  "That makes this a joint operation with the militia, which makes it MY responsibility to be involved."

Rocky Versace was the kind of man who had firm convictions, and when he believed he was right, there was no changing his mind.  In the end, after all the discussion, it was determined that Lieutenant Rowe, Sergeant First Class Daniel Pitzer (the medic) and Captain Versace would accompany Lieutenant Tinh and Third Company in the assault on the hamlet.


Captain Humbert Roque Versace

October 29, 1963
0300 Hours 

 

 

 

Lieutenant Tinh moved his Third Company of militia out of the perimeter at Tan Phu in the early morning darkness, and set a course for Le Coeur.  Three hours earlier the other two companies had left, planning to skirt the hamlet and set up positions  on the other side.  When Third Company hit the village, everyone expected the small enemy force there to hightail it for the safety of the U Minh Forest.

As had been expected, when the strike force reached Le Coeur, the enemy abandoned their command post.   "We had a good plan and a good bunch of troops and when we hit the hamlet on the edge of the U Minh, the Viet Cong bugged and ran just as we thought they would," Lieutenant Rowe wrote years later.  Lieutenant Tinh and his militia entered the hamlet without resistance, finding it deserted.  For a time they swept the area for intelligence.  Lieutenant Rowe picked up a spent Mossin-Magant cartridge.  Not until later did it dawn on him that the presence of the Russian K-44 shell casing indicated they were facing more than a small platoon of irregular Viet Cong.

Pleased with the mission's success, the American advisors directed the companies to return to Tan Phu.  "There was not doubt we had surprised them," Rowe continued in his book Five Years to Freedom.  "We caught them completely unaware, but they reacted in just the opposite way than we had anticipated.  Instead of falling into our ambush, they set us up for theirs."  Instead of retreating into the U Minh Forest, the Main Force 306th Viet Cong Battalion, perhaps as many as 1,000 enemy soldiers, retreated in the opposite direction to lay in wait.

While the ambushers of First Company returned by a route similar to the one they had taken to get to their post between the forest and Le Coeur, the 120-man CIDG company with the three American Green Berets followed the canals back by a different route.  By 10 A.M. they had moved about two kilometers down one of the myriad of canals when they saw a line of black-clad Viet Cong trying to cut them off.  They had caught up to the retreating enemy forces from Le Coeur, but the enemy was no longer retreating.

From a range of 900 meters, the Viet Cong began firing their automatic weapons at the South Vietnamese soldiers and their American advisors.  At that range this was no great threat, for the allied force was too distant for accuracy.  What the enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire did do, was pin down the allied force while they set up mortars.  At first, the mortars that peppered the landscape like hail, fell harmlessly beyond the allied force, as the enemy gunners had not yet established their range.

Suddenly a group of CIDG broke and ran for the shelter of a bank near a rice paddy.  They enemy had fixed the range to that point, and "There was almost dead silence and I could almost picture it in my mind...watching the VC range those (mortar) tubes," Rowe recalled.  "And then it came.  There was one flight of about 12 rounds and it was almost a complete wipeout of our people who had run for that bank."

The Americans and their CIDG force quickly pulled back into a tree line and set up a perimeter.  

And then the VC came, hitting the allied force on three sides. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I never saw so many VC in my life," Lieutenant Rowe wrote.  "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 they began to work us over with 57s and 81 mortars and we were taking casualties pretty heavily.  And out there beckoning to us was that one big open rice paddy that wasn't being defended and I thought 'what the hell, let's use it.'  But then we realized it was what they wanted us to do.  They had it ambushed at two tree lines on the other side...a classical three-sided attack with an ambushed escape route.

"We dug in and tried to stop them from overrunning us.

"At this moment two or our (allied) planes passed nearby, a T-28 Caribou, and we thought we had it made but the pilot of the T-28, who had more VC in his sights at that moment than he had ever seen before, radioed that he couldn't engage without authorization from Saigon...and he flew on.

"We had about 120 men and we were dealing out heavy casualties to the Cong, doing the job we were in Vietnam to do, and we weren't all that disturbed at first.  But then we began to run low on ammunition and we realized just how many damned VC were out there.

"I had an M1...and I was doing good work with it across those paddies.  I went through two bandoliers of ammo and you had to hit something every time you fired in that mass of bodies coming at us.  We had Buddhist Cambods with tattoos on their chest that were supposed to protect them from harm and those guys were walking around in our perimeter like it was pay day in Tan Phu.  Rounds were coming in all over the place, mortars, 57s, small arms fire, and these guys were walking around checking ammo, making status reports, laughing, and joking and stacking up Charlie (enemy bodies) like cord wood 10 to 15 meters in front of our positions.

"They were bloodying Charly's (sic) nose, something awful.  They had never been in a shootout like this before...and they were winning, and it felt good.  And in the back of all our minds was the thought that First Company, which had preceded us back to camp after we had hit the hamlet, would be back to give us a hand."

From:  Five Years to Freedom
by James N. Rowe

As the medic, SFC Pitzer was busy tending to the wounded as enemy fire continued to rain on their position, unabated despite the heavy losses incurred by the Viet Cong.  For six hours the CIDG force and the three Green Berets fought off wave after wave of enemy, confident that if they could hold on long enough,  First Company would arrive to reinforce them.

Then came the word that First Company had also been ambushed and wouldn't be coming.  "We got cold lumps in our stomachs," Lieutenant Rowe recalled.  "We knew that the game was up.  We weren't going anywhere."

Captain Versace and Lieutenant Rowe, realizing that the day was nearly spent but that the flood of enemy soldiers was not, told their CIDG forces to withdraw while the three Americans covered them.  The order didn't have to be issued twice.  What had earlier appeared to be a big victory for the CIDG force, had degenerated into a potential massacre.  "Our troops came past us at Mach 3 and accelerating," Rowe remembered.

The Green Berets stayed in their position along the canal to cover the withdrawal, hoping then to leap-frog back to Tan Phu.  Suddenly, out of the trees, an enemy assault squad swarmed the canal.  

"Dan (Pitzer) caught the first bunch with the M79 (grenade launcher).  When the first guy got it in the chest, he all but disappeared and the sight stopped the (enemy) squad cold.  They had never seen the M79 before and the shock of the weapon's power gave us time to get out of there.

"I found our guys in a big ditch and everyone had thrown away their weapons and were ready to surrender.  One of the NVSF that we called Pee Hole Bandit (Sgt. Trung) was ready to throw himself on a grenade he had ready.

"We got them up and into a cane field, moving them out, pushing them, covering for them...then the sound of a BAR--there isn't another sound like it in the world--came crashing in on us.  Rocky went down with three rounds in the leg.

The withdrawal ordered by Versace and Rowe had turned into a disorganized melee, CIDG forces running in all directions in any hope of getting away from there.  SFT Pitzer realized that the allied force was now split up, decimated, and that all hope was gone.  He dropped his grenade launcher, maps and other gear and buried them in the mud, planning to hit the canal and try and swim out of there.  That was when he heard Captain Versace yell that he had been hit.  "I hesitated," he recalled years later in an interview for LOOK magazine.  "I did not want to be captured, but I could not run off on the Captain.  Just as I reached him, something exploded--a mortar round or a concussion grenade--and I was knocked down, shrapnel in my right shoulder.

"I looked up, and there was a VC with an automatic weapon pointed at me."

Nearby, Rocky Versace struggled against the pain of the three BAR rounds in his leg.  An enemy grenade exploded nearby and would have caught him full force had not his leg folded beneath him.  The blast caught Lieutenant Rowe in the face and chest as he stepped over to aid the Captain.

"I went over backwards," Rowe wrote, "and I thought I was dead.  There was just one big ringing noise and I couldn't see and couldn't hear and everything was numb.  No pain.  Just numbness.  I tried to get up and the whole world did a 360 and I went down on my knees to get straight.  Rocky put his arms around my neck and I tried to drag him off the trail so we could play dead until they went past us.

"You could hear them screaming and yelling and trailing (sic) like crazy.  We broke reeds back across our trail.  Rock wanted to charge out with the seven rounds he had left in his carbine and get that many more shots off at the VC.  That was all he could think of.

"I showed him that his wounds were pumping like a fire hydrant and that he would bleed to death before he could pull the trigger if he didn't let me get a bandage on him.  I got the first compress on his leg and was starting to put the second one on...when all of a sudden the reeds broke open and I heard someone yelling:

'Do tay len!'  Hands up!

In the distance lay the shrouded darkness of the U Minh Forest... 
For the first time, American soldiers would be entering its foreboding jungles.....

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not as victors.....but as:


Prisoners of War

    Click below to continue the Story Of  

    Rocky The Reactionary  

 

Sources:
Five Years to Freedom by Nick Rowe
"The Animal Called POW" by MSgt Daniel Pitzer, Look Magazine, Feb 18, 1969
"Honoring the Defiant One", by Steve Vogel, The Washington Post, May 27, 2001
Pacific Stars and Stripes, VIETNAM Front Pages, 1986
Neil Mishalov's Vietnam War Medal of Honor Website

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Five Years To Freedom

 

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FEATURE STORIES
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Barney Barnum  |  Jack Lucas  |  Mitch Paige  |  Wesley Fox  |  Sammy Davis
Roger Donlon
Peter Lemon  |  Drew Dix  |  Mike Novosel

Medal Of Honor Calendar  |  Books By MOH RecipientsSteve Ryan MOH Posters

What Does 
A Hero Look Like?

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FOOTNOTES
In
HISTORY

NEW
Looking for a Hero or trying to verify awards? We have posted the names of more than 120,000 recipients of the highest awards in a BRAND NEW FREE SECTION
DECORATIONS 1862 - Present
.

Military Medals & Awards 

Information and Images of ALL Military Medals
The Purple Heart 
How to Request Records/Medals Earned
  How to Obtain Military Records of a Family Member 

Honor Roll of America's Military Heroes


Brevet Medal


DSC 


Navy Cross 


Air Force Cross 

Distinguished Service Medals

Defense - Army - Navy - Air Force - Coast Guard - Merchant Marine



Silver Star

U.S. History and Information
The History Room | U.S. Flag HistoryHistory of the Flag |
How to Display the Flag
| The National Anthem | The Pledge of Allegiance The American Creed | The Seal of our Nation | Our National Symbol
Arthur MacArthur's Flag | William Carney's Flag | FDR's Flag of Liberation]

FLAG DAY           STATE FLAGS
American Presidents
U.S. Presidents | Inaugural Addresses

God & Country
ROOM

MY HERO Web Page Creator 
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SEARCH
bn_search.jpg (3967 bytes)
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OR
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***
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Remembering 911
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This 5 Disc DVD Education Program has been distributed to over 17,500 Public & Private High Schools and is now available to the public!


 

HomeOfHeroes.com now has more than 25,000 pages of US History for you to view.