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1,903 Days as a POW

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1,903 Days as a POW

COL James ‘Nick’ Rowe, POW Diary, 1963-1968

In the early morning hours of 29 October 1963, at Tan Phu village in southernmost Vietnam, then-First Lieutenant (1LT) James N. ‘Nick’ Rowe, the Assistant Detachment Commander, Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 23, prepared for a ‘routine’ combat patrol. Rowe, Senior Special Forces (SF) Medic Master Sergeant Daniel L. Pitzer, and Captain Humbert R. ‘Rocky’ Versace, (a visiting West Point classmate, were accompanying a company of Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) indigenous troops to clear a nearby village, Le Coeur, of reported enemy Viet Cong (VC). As the CIDG company pursued the fleeing VC, they were ambushed and all three Americans were captured. Rowe would spend the next five years in captivity. 

During his five years as a Prisoner of War (POW), Rowe was constantly starved, deprived of company, beaten, and otherwise treated harshly, which imposed great psychological strain. Throughout those long, rough years Nick kept a hidden diary, which served to keep him mentally aware and psychologically fit. That carefully hidden diary contained thoughts, dreams, and future aspirations. It bolstered him mentally by keeping his mind active and challenged while his body was confined. In it he explored philosophical questions, debated political systems and ideologies, designed ‘dream’ homes and futuristic automobiles, and honed his Vietnamese language skills by transcribing useful phrases from a ‘POW Dictionary.’ Rowe kept pens and paper provided for written confessions and ‘letters of regret’ for alleged war ‘crimes’ against the people of Vietnam. 

In his diary, Rowe penned sections of the Code of Conduct and his oath of office from memory. He wrote poetry, the words to songs, and inscribed long segments of books read in school. He listed the ‘pros and cons’ of philosophical arguments, at times to counter enemy indoctrination. During one death-threatening bout of malnutrition-induced dysentery, he lifted his flagging morale by creating an imaginary resort, the Hacienda del Sol. His diary entries could have been used against him. It was a ‘window into his soul.’ But, the therapeutic effects outweighed the danger. As Rowe said later, the diary “became my vehicle for reaching the outside world.” 

On New Year’s Eve, 1968, after five years of imprisonment, Rowe escaped. He broke away from his captors when an American helicopter task force attacked the VC moving him to another location. Rowe waved desperately at one of the attacking helicopters. It landed and allowed him to board. When the crew saw a Caucasian behind the beard they realized that they had rescued a POW. The helicopter took him to a nearby U.S. military base. It was there that Rowe discovered he had been promoted to major while in captivity. After repatriation, Rowe became a staunch advocate for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training, especially soldiers in high-risk specialties associated with special operations. Special Forces needed this training to prevent their capture in future conflicts, or, at the least, to prepare them to survive captivity. Thanks to Rowe’s professional campaign, SERE training is mandatory today for all Special Forces and most special operations soldiers and aviators.

On 21 April 1989, while enroute to the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) compound in Manila, Philippines, Colonel (COL) James N. Rowe was killed by terrorists of the New People’s Army. They attacked his armored car. Twenty-one .223 and .45 rounds were fired into the automobile. Colonel Rowe was killed instantly. The assassins were captured and sentenced to prison; one has been released to date. 

The interactive below contains a digital copy of Colonel ‘Nick’ Rowe’s POW diary. It allows one to survey the diary and discover how he exercised his mind during captivity. Through it you can see how he handled the hardships of captivity, while mentally escaping from the confines of his cage.View full diary

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