James N. Rowe: Green Beret survived 5 years as POW and escaped thanks to his beard

Green Beret as POW in Vietnam James Nicholas Rowe
Col. James N. “Nick” Rowe was a Green Beret who spent 5 years as POW in Vietnam (Photo: XY)

James N. Rowe was an U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and was one of the first prisoner of War during the Vietnam War. He was captured by Viet Cong soldiers in 1963 and spent 5 years captive before he managed to escape.

As it is known, during the Vietnam War, there were a certain number of United States Army soldiers who were taken as prisoner. Some of them never returned, while other were an exchange. A small number of them managed to escape on their own.

Introduction

This is the story of Col. James N. “Nick” Rowe who later played a large role in designing the modern training programs for Special Forces soldiers, especially the school that prepares troops to survive being taken captive.

Nick Rowe graduated West Point academy in 1960 and was eventually sent to South Vietnam as a military advisor serving in U.S. Army Special Forces. In 1963, then-1st Lt. James N. Rowe was captured in a Viet Cong ambush and taken to a prison camp under unknown circumstances.

Prisoner of War

His intimate knowledge of how to survive captivity came from the more than five years he spent as a captive of the Viet Cong before successfully escaping, something he likely wouldn’t have accomplished without his beard.

For five years, Rowe spent most of his time in a cage and wasn’t allowed more than 40 yards from it. Limited to two cans of rice per day, young Special Forces officer and fellow prisoners would capture snakes and rats whenever they could to survive. Before the final escape, Rowe had three unsuccessful attempts.

Son Tay was a prison camp in Vietnam where were held American POWs
Son Tay was a prison camp in Vietnam where were held American POWs (Photo: American Grit)

Things got worse when anti-war activists in the United States released his bio. The problem was that Rowe already told his guards that he was an engineer drafted into the Army. He did that in order to convince his captors that he wasn’t a threat. Despite that, they still tortured them, but the things got worse when the North Vietnamese government learned he was Green Beret.

Angry at his deceit and the training he had provided South Vietnamese soldiers, the North Vietnamese sentenced Rowe to death. A Viet Cong patrol took Rowe into the jungle for the execution. He knew that he had nothing to lose.

Escape

As they were heading to the execution point though, Rowe heard a flight of helicopters. He shoved a guard to the ground and sprinted into a nearby clearing, waving his arms to get the pilots’ attention.

Luckily for him, they were American helicopters, but the first pilot to spot Rowe saw his black pajamas and nearly fired on him. Then he noticed Rowe’s beard that had grown out during his captivity. After realizing that Vietnamese men were incapable of growing a thick beard, the helicopter scooped Rowe up and carried him to safety after he spent five years in hell.

SERE co-author

James N. Rowe returned to the United States as a Major. He left the Army for a short period before returning in 1981 as a Lieutenant Colonel stationed at Fort Bragg. There, he helped to develop the Army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Course (SERE) using the lessons he learned in captivity.

Death

His experience led him to the Philippines where he was deployed as the ground forces director for the Joint U.S. Military Advisory group for the Philippines where he provided counterinsurgency training for Philippine forces. And unfortunately, it was his last assignment.

On Apr. 21, 1989, James N. Rowe was on his way to the advisory group headquarters when his vehicle came under heavy fire. He died on the spot.

Lt. Col. James N. Rowe grave site at Arlington cemetery
Lt. Col. James N. Rowe grave site at Arlington cemetery (Photo: XY)

Legacy

Upon his comeback from the Viet Cong POW camp, he wrote a book about his experience there, “Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW.”

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