The 12 Days of Resilience with COL Nick Rowe: Day 2 Skills and The Code

So many myths surround the origins and meanings behind “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s challenging to trace the birth and intended message in any older song, especially one that dates to 1780. You can conduct your own research, but I’m seeing more reference to the carol being French rather than English. The idea that the song was a mnemonic for various Christian tenets, such as the partridge in the pear tree being symbolic of Jesus, the two turtledoves representing the Old and New Testaments, and so on is countered by the theory that it was more likely a festive, dancing wedding song or a game played with family at home gatherings, in which items were forfeited if a mistake was made by the person as they made an attempt to sing the next line in the song, round-robin style. I’m thinking, do people tote 12 extra baubles around with them in case they get caught in a mandatory fun session like this? In reference to the wedding song theory, symbolism abounds with the numerous references to birds representing fecundity and the partridge in the pear tree standing in for the male side of the equation. These folks had some imagination. As you might detect, I appreciate original sources. As we move into day two of “The Twelve Days of Resilience” with COL James N. “Nick” Rowe, we find our primary source is an original alright. If you missed Day 1, visit: “The 12 Days of Resilience with COL Nick Rowe.”

For anyone not familiar with COL Rowe, his small stature belied his mountain-sized character and lion-sized heart. The Texan graduated from West Point in 1960 and in Vietnam served as a Special Forces executive officer with Detachment A-23, 5th Special Forces Group. The team advised a Civilian Irregular Defense Group in the Mekong Delta region. In the course of trying to wrest back a village from the Viet Cong, Rowe was captured (along with two other military advisors) after having been in country only three months. He survived a near-starvation level of food intake, consisting mainly of rice and whatever protein sources scrounge, such as a measly fish he might spend more energy catching than he reaped in calories. His medical care was scant to non-existent, and he suffered from skin conditions, digestive issues, and other ailments brought on by the breakdown of his immune system. He was physically tortured, emotionally tortured with promises of release and seemingly endless disappointment. He heard fellow soldiers sing patriotic songs as a form of resistance on the one hand, while on the other, some gave up under the constant cycle of fear, anticipation of release or torture, indoctrination, incessant hunger and illness, isolation, and outright and despondency.


In this segment of the interview, COL Rowe reiterates the elements of his upbringing that helped him make it through his five-year imprisonment, namely family, community, and faith, along with education and his military training at West Point. He emphasized the importance of mastering the technical skills he’d learned as a Green Beret, but also the bonding he’d experienced on the teams, which led to an “I won’t fail; I’ll keep trying until I get it done” approach. He appreciated the values that had been instilled in him up until that point in his young life; he was 25. It’s important to recognize that he also had a basic understanding of psychology and survival training. It takes a few viewings to pick up everything Rowe’s saying, but one is his understanding that all of these layers need to be absorbed and applied to one’s self. Modern technology may quicken the process, but it still takes time. Rowe possessed everything he needed to survive being a prisoner, but it would take the ordeal itself to show him and the world what he was capable of enduring.

The Code of Conduct

When American Korean War prisoners were released, U.S. military members were taken by surprise by how effective the communist prisoner management system was. In an attempt to provide guidance for any future captives, the Code of Conduct was developed. Number 5 proved to be a tragic sticking point. It was boiled down to “give the Big Four and nothing more,” which amounted to name, rank, service number and date of birth. By separating this tenet from its paired sentence, many men were left without a means to negotiate the North Koreans mental and physical torture system. This overemphasis on the Big Four would carry down to Vietnam veterans. The second part of the section reads: “I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.” Rowe explains how this gave prisoners “the ability and right to think for themselves.” When he returned to the military after a hiatus to write his must-read book, “Five Years To Freedom,” he developed the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course for U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. The Code gave soldiers the what but not the how, and now SERE would provide the training on how to evade further questioning to the utmost of your ability without getting yourself killed.

Rowe mentions what he refers to as respondent or Pavlovian conditioning and how everything about you that contributes to your character and personal power is stripped away. Then you are brought through a process to make you question everything you think and believe in. The goal being to destroy your faith in those beliefs and values that make you who you are. This is followed by incremental but increasing pressures to turn you toward the communist way of thinking and acting. Throughout the process, the North Koreans kept the prisoners at a near constant level of hunger, tiredness, illness—an exhaustion that left them softened up for the mental gymnastics they were forced through during indoctrination sessions. Of course, the carrot-and-stick approach of release promises, an extra bit of food or medicine, time with other prisoners were stacked against the denial of release, physical torture, and isolation.

In this interview, COL Rowe reiterates his spiritual development. In his book, though, we also know he reminded himself frequently that he was an officer in the United States Army and a Green Beret. This reassured him of who he was and how he should act. He didn’t want to disappoint the generations of officers who come out of West Point before him or his fellow elite soldiers who wore the Green Beret. Without identity or power, rank or weapon, wearing black pajamas (and clothes do have a psychological effect on how you present yourself and how you feel about yourself), in a bamboo cage and with nobody to listen, he made a herculean contribution to the world just by surviving, never mind coming back to share what he learned with the next generation of soldiers. Of course, his belief in God was honed throughout the ordeal and he touches on this with the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School staff chaplain at the time, CH (MAJ) Paul E. Barkey.


On Day Three of Mr. Trouble’s “12 Days of Resistance” he’ll talk about being scared and how to approach fear.

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