Where the Brave Go When There’s Nowhere Left to Go: The Story of Colonel Nick “Five Years to Freedom” Rowe

Colonel Nick Rowe
Colonel Nick Rowe: Public Domain

You could read the bible a hundred times, and each time you’d take away something different. The words don’t change, but we do, hardening here, softening there. That’s not to say “Five Years to Freedom, The True Story of a Vietnam POW” is comparable to the bible, but each time you read it, you’re guaranteed to take away something different. Man, woman, young, old, soldier, civilian—everyone will find the inspiration, comfort, or push they need from James N. Rowe’s story of captivity. The Special Forces Intelligence Officer and man eventually responsible for developing the US Army’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training program was one of only two men to escape the Viet Cong. He was not held, as we most often think of Vietnam POWs, by regulars of what was then the North Vietnamese Army in a building complex in Hanoi, but by terrorists in a series of jungle camps in the formidable U-Minh Forest in South Vietnam. Both were nightmares, one indoors, one out.

When you understand how Rowe evolved personally during captivity and what he may have left out of his account, you see even more fully how God shaped both his resilience and his soul in that small, frustrating, and painfully ugly world deep in the darkness of communism.

Rowe’s parents brought him up right and although he never thought much about it, when he needed it most, their guidance onto God’s path proved the fulcrum to his survival. Onto that spiritual base, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point ingrained in him the concepts of duty, honor, and country. Those words aren’t patriotic platitudes to an Army officer, but concrete guideposts as to how one conducts oneself. Your position, your rank, binds you to act with a sense of service when carrying out even the simplest of tasks. You go about your work with respect for yourself and everyone around you. Honor comes through your example; you build your character and thereby your reputation, you show respect to both superiors and subordinates, and you pay homage to the greater concepts that built you and that you now serve, like your country.

Add to this, Airborne, language, and Special Forces training, and you forge a physically, mentally, and emotionally superior warrior—the elite of the elite. Plus, by all accounts, one could share a drink with Rowe and feel both genuine friendship without any breakdown in military decorum. He wasn’t above writing himself orders, either. He was the exact right mix of goodness, hardness, warmth, mirth, daring, and bearing to wear the Green Beret.

Rowe, who was a First Lieutenant at the time, was captured on Oct. 29, 1963 during a combined U.S. advisory and Special Forces effort in support of their South Vietnamese counterparts to take the village of Le Coeur. One only needs schoolbook French to recognize that on so many levels this would be a battle for “the heart” of ally and foe alike. More than once he notes the less-than-ideal communications set-up. If it were a movie, you’d hear a collective “uh oh” from the audience. Communication breakdowns never bode well, be they with your people, your God, or your government. In fact, the only part of the creation story that God said was “not good” was when he saw man was alone.

Aside from Rowe asking God to get him back to that glass of iced tea waiting for him at base camp and the just captured Americans saying “God be with you” to each other, Rowe does not talk about God in depth until much later in his captivity. He is slowly starving to death in consecutive jungle camps that are indistinguishable in their ill-provisioned, unsanitary, and politically brainwashing sameness. The only way to tell them apart is by the humorous names the Americans give them, No-K Corral, the Neverglades, the Salt Mines. At one point Rowe and a fellow prisoner escape together.

When they are re-captured, Rowe tells the camp cadre that he had no choice but to try to escape or he’d starve to death. They’re incredulous. Not only do they believe their own propaganda that the National Liberation Front is providing “lenient” and sustaining care for the prisoners of war, but they can’t believe that the food isn’t enough to survive on. Since they use the POWs in their propaganda warfare, they must have them alive so they can break them and force them to turn against each other and their country.

Rowe socked a guard early on and immediately saw the futility of outright violence. He banked on stoicism and his identity as Special Forces, a West Pointer, an American. At this point, he is suffering from life-threatening dysentery and infected fungal sores all over his body, both of which have gone on seemingly incessantly since his arrival with little to no medical attention from the NLF. He is being physically tortured by a rack-like setup that keeps his body in an unnatural position without break, even for latrine use. Rowe is unable to move, to clean himself or his surroundings, and he’s in more pain than he’s ever suffered in his life.

One guard, who is getting a perverse pleasure in seeing the only person lower than him in camp in such duress, checks on Rowe. “I could feel his gaze and his revulsion at the sight in front of him. Then, almost as a reflex action, without thinking, I turned my head toward him and smiled. It was unexpected even for me. The expression on Base’s face was one of unguarded surprise. I felt the smile spreading, my cheeks beginning to crinkle, the anguish wiped out in the joy of a real smile,” he wrote. The guard left. “I felt like chuckling. Suddenly the headache and the pains weren’t so bad, and the sense of a victory, no matter how small, was sweet to taste. By the time supper came, I was ready to do what I could to clean up, make the situation a little more bearable, and hang with it a little longer.”

For six days, Rowe suffered through a straight rice diet, no water, and his limbs being incrementally hyperextended to the point where he felt his joints were being pulled apart. The guard returned to kick him for his impudent smile. Finally on the morning of the seventh day, Rowe agreed that if he and Dave were returned to lenient treatment, he would agree not to try to escape again. That night he received half a cup of water with his rice and his leg irons were moved slightly closer together. Although this was valiant resistance, he writes that it stemmed from ego and pride. Eventually, he found something better.  

Comparisons are dangerous if exposed to cruel and unsympathetic people who lack encouraging words. Don’t let anyone tell you that what you’re enduring isn’t real or doesn’t count. You could be out of a job, facing the loss of your home. Maybe you let a checkup go because of the pandemic and now you face health issues. The republic is dead and you’re depressed and unmotivated. Censorship is only the beginning of what communism brings. Maybe you’ve refocused and found a new mission, but everything you see or hear in the news enrages or confuses you. The quicker you rally, adapt and overcome, not only will you be a physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger, but you will be imbued with a spiritual strength that God can use. You’ll find yourself in a leading position, a place where you can encourage others.

Rowe’s captors told him he was no longer an Army officer, but a prisoner. That his country that he loved was the imperialist aggressor. What huts he had for homes were mosquito- and flea-infested torture chambers. He owned nothing that his enemies didn’t provide or that he secreted. His health condition was dire. Every word about America’s anti-war protestors confused and angered him. Even his pets were harassed by the guards and taken from him. But he kept looking for that next thing to make life more bearable.

It wasn’t long before Rowe described a situation that echoed his “correction” period, but his response to it shows how much better he was than his captors, as a man and as a human being. “There, clinging to Dan’s shoulder, was a hulk of human wreckage. The hunched form was a huge bone structure covered with tightly stretched, fungus-infected skin. What must have been a grin of absolute joy at seeing other Americans looked like a leering death head. The deep voice echoed from the cavernous chest, ‘God! Americans! I can’t believe it!’ I was ashamed of the repulsion I felt.”

But Rowe didn’t stay there. He used what he felt, God used what he felt, to propel him into his rightful leadership role. “I was overwhelmed by his reaction to being with Americans and a strong feeling of kinship and responsibility toward him swept through me.” Rowe became his brother’s keeper, over and over as he watched this man and others succumb to the psychological pressure of their physical starvation and disease and constant evil indoctrination. This man, Capt. Tim Barker, requested a bible in his dying days; his request was denied. When the Hawaiian with whom Rowe had escaped reached incoherency and was put on a boat to be taken to a “hospital” that Rowe knew probably didn’t exist, the man clasped Rowe’s forearm in a warrior good-bye.

Rowe wrote:

“I found myself praying. Praying more sincerely that I ever had in my life for blessing on those who had gone from us and guidance to bring those of us left through whatever lay ahead.”

But make no mistake, if anything, his resistance to the psychological operation his enemies were conducting on him only strengthened.

“No matter how they applauded their own leniency and humanitarianism, no matter how they tried to utilize the threat of our punishment as ‘criminals’ to enhance the flavor of life, its bitterness inconsequential relative to death, none of the rhetoric, that in the first months of captivity had seemed feasible, reached me now. … There had been a violent rending of the screen of hypocrisy that had been held before us and the insidious manipulation of human beings under the cloak of ‘humanitarianism’ stood naked and ugly. … I had felt bitterness and hatred building, feeding off the constant frustrations and anxiety. I could destroy myself if I allowed negative emotions to dominate my thinking, and partially from a strong sense of self-preservation, partially from a sense of responsibility to the other men, because I could offer them no solutions if I could find none for myself, I turned to the one positive force our captors could never challenge, God.”

And so, he offers his testimony.

“My religious background included Sunday schools, vacation Bible schools and church attendance as a youngster. I had never questioned religion nor had I ever really accepted it. It was something I lived with because that’s the way things were done. There had never been a time of trial serious enough to make me consciously depend on a Supreme Being except when I felt some interest of mine was beyond my direct influence. Once I achieved what I had set out to do, God was given a pragmatic “thank you” and forgotten until my next need arose. My closest association with the development of faith came at West Point. Four years of compulsory chapel each Sunday, the idea of “having to go,” failed to diminish a growing sense of peace and communication I discovered within the quiet majesty that was the interior of the Cadet Chapel. In the stillness of the Chapel I began to look at faith, not in terms of ritual and sectarian dogma, but as a very personal communication between one man and his God. After graduation, I had no time to develop that which I had begun, but evidently the foundation was still there.

“I found myself returning to and drawing from that foundation in this situation where I was stripped of all material assets, leaving only the intangibles which form the core of our existence: faith, ethics, morals, beliefs. It has become a test of whatever inner strengths I possessed against the total physical control exercised by my captors. Were I to survive with my spirit intact, I could only turn to faith in the Power I believed to be so far greater than that which imprisoned me. For the first time in my life the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm were a source of strength and consolation. From the loss of Dave on, I began to believe: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.’”

During a B-52 strike on New Year’s Eve Day, Dec. 31, 1968, Rowe escaped for a third time after being forced to kill his guard. He flagged down a helicopter ride back to Ca Mau for a promotion to Major and a what can only be described as a harsh debriefing. “Mr. Trouble” left the service of his country to write his book, then was called back to develop the SERE course. On April 21, 1989, while serving as chief of the Army division of the Joint US Military Advisory Group in Manila and working with the Central Intelligence Agency and its Philippine counterparts to prevent the communist takeover of the archipelic republic, he was assassinated. Colonel Rowe was 51

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5 thoughts on “Where the Brave Go When There’s Nowhere Left to Go: The Story of Colonel Nick “Five Years to Freedom” Rowe”

  1. A great tribute to a great man.

    I met him in the O’club when I was a Lieutenant. Never heard of him before, but one of my peers knew him through service in SF and invited me to meet a war hero. Just the three of us: two Lieutenants and a hero, having a beer. Mild mannered and introspective, he didn’t say much about his experience, but asked us about ours- and seemed interested in how we were doing.
    Rick (my friend) told me after we left that he was the only guy to successfully escape the VC… and that he wrote a book. I bought it at the PX the next day.
    Three years later, while stationed in Germany, I read the small-ish column in Starts and Stripes, detailing that he has been assassinated in the Philippines by an Abu Sayyef terror cell. It breaks my heart.

    Anyone who has not read his book, is missing a tremendous and emotional page of American history.

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