Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW

Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW

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by James N. Rowe

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When Green Beret Lieutenant James N. Rowe was captured in 1963 in Vietnam, his life became more than a matter of staying alive.

In a Vietcong POW camp, Rowe endured beri-beri, dysentery, and tropical fungus diseases. He suffered grueling psychological and physical torment. He experienced the loneliness and frustration of watching his friends die. And he


When Green Beret Lieutenant James N. Rowe was captured in 1963 in Vietnam, his life became more than a matter of staying alive.

In a Vietcong POW camp, Rowe endured beri-beri, dysentery, and tropical fungus diseases. He suffered grueling psychological and physical torment. He experienced the loneliness and frustration of watching his friends die. And he struggled every day to maintain faith in himself as a soldier and in his country as it appeared to be turning against him.

His survival is testimony to the disciplined human spirit.
His story is gripping.

From the Paperback edition.

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Two hui—helicopters pushed northward, two thousand feet above the swamp and rice paddy domain of the Mekong Delta’s Vietcong legions, their blades beating a steady rhythm against the air. One of them, the unarmed “slick,� carried Capt. Humbert “Rock� Versace, intelligence adviser with the Military Assistance and Advisory Group at Camau. The other chopper, flying slightly to their right front, was an armed helicopter, its landing skids heavy with rocket tubes and machine guns. Their destination was a small Special Forces camp twenty-six kilometers north of the provincial capital and in the center of a Vietcong-controlled zone.

Rocky was a trimly built, twenty-six-year-old West Point graduate who had volunteered for a six-month extension after completing one year as an adviser. His slightly outthrust jaw and penetrating eyes were indications of his personality, but his close-cut, black-flecked, steel-gray hair looked as if it belonged on someone much older.

He had recently been assigned as MAAG intelligence adviser in Camau and had witnessed some hard combat as the Vietnamese units his detachment was advising stood toe to toe with the best the Vietcong had to offer. The battles were typical of that period: Vietcong nighttime assaults; chance daylight encounters with an elusive enemy and the seeming impossibility of pinning him down; bloody ambushes; lack of adequate air support and artillery even though our pilots were flying the wings off of the available T-28’s, the frustration that went with the “old war� before the arrival of jets, artillery support, and American Combat units. This was the war known to the American advisers, to the isolated U.S. Special Forces detachments in their efforts to combat the Vietcong in their own territory. This was Vietnam, 1963.

Small groups of huts, clustered along canal banks bordered by coconut palms and banana trees, passed below the open doors of the choppers. The countryside was deceptively peaceful. To shatter the illusion all one had to do was drop down into range of the weapons which were, no doubt, pointed skyward at that very moment, hidden by the foliage of the trees. Farmers worked thigh-deep in water, tending their rice paddies, their conical hats reflecting the sunlight. Water buffalo wallowed in the mud, oblivious to all around them. A graceful “spirit bird� hung motionless in the sky, “suspended high in a rising air thermal,� its lonely world undisturbed by the passing helicopters.

Ahead, now visible at the intersection of two larger canals, was Versace’s destination, Tan Phu. A streamer of green smoke billowed up from the landing zone, a small rectangular area cleared for chopper landing. At Tan Phu there was only one way in or out—by chopper—and it wasn’t safe that way either. The terrain one kilometer away from camp for 360 degrees belonged to Charlie. It was an isolated fortress manned by an American Special Forces A-Detachment, their Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB) counterpart team, and four companies—about 380 men on an average day—of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. These were the Vietnamese and Cambodians from that area who had been recruited, equipped, and trained to resist the Vietcong in their home villages. It was a lonely spot for the Americans.

The armed Huey made its first pass over the camp, a cluster of brown thatched huts surrounded by a mud wall, narrow moat, and several distinct barbed wire barriers. Large machine-gun bunkers on the corners and scattered rifle positions along the wall marred the otherwise smooth rectangular layout of the camp’s main defense. Mortar positions within the perimeter, a watchtower, a masonry and tile dispensary, and a large concrete cube completed the major interior parts of this barrier to complete Vietcong domination of the area.

The large concrete structure was being used as an ammunition bunker now that it had been strengthened and sandbagged. It was the only survivor of a militia post that had been overrun by the VC in 1962. The last of the soldiers then manning the post had been trapped inside the building as they made a final stand. The Vietcong had jammed the muzzles of their weapons into the firing ports and riddled the inside of the building, then hurled grenades into the ports and wiped out the remaining defenders. The inside walls of the building still bore the scars of that last stand.

The choppers settled onto the sheets of perforated steel matting which prevented them from sinking over their skids in the soft muck of this delta swampland. Rocky jumped to the matting, clutching a small bag in one hand and a portable Thermofax machine under his other arm. His baseball cap was canted to one side of his head and his carbine had slipped from his shoulder to the crook of his arm.

“Welcome to the end of the world! I didn’t expect you so soon.� Ducking against the powerful downdraft of the blades and holding my beret on with one hand, I greeted him. Members of the American team took his gear as I introduced him to Al Penneult, the crew-cut, bull-necked ex-football player—our detachment commander.

Rocky’s grin was one of the nicest things about him and his greeting made it seem as if we’d known each other for years. Actually, it had been only a few weeks since I’d met him. I had been en route to Tan Phu from Saigon after picking up funds and supplies for the camp. Rocky had been just another face in the vehicle that took us from the Catinat Hotel to Tan Son Nhut Airfield and I had said no more than “Good morning� when I first saw him. It wasn’t until we found ourselves sitting side by side on the same Caribou flight to Can Tho that we began to talk and introduced ourselves. Before we landed at Can Tho, we had gone through the whole problem of exchange of vital information that existed in our operational area and had hatched a plan to establish communication between our posts. We received permission at my B-Detachment to put in voice commo between Tan Phu and Camau. It was to be strictly for exchange of information and not used as a command net. With that guidance, we went to work and in three days had installed an AN/GRC 9 radio at Tan Phu and linked the two groups of Americans, the Special Forces and MAAG. I had spent two days at Camau, coordinating the setup and requisitioning the radio which I subsequently took back to Tan Phu to be installed. Rocky had planned to come up to Tan Phu for a visit to check out what we had and coordinate further exchanges.

This visit had been prompted by a briefing we had given his senior adviser earlier the same day on the situation at Tan Phu. He had questioned whether or not Rocky had been up to coordinate yet and after my negative reply had decided to send the choppers for him. It hadn’t been more than a couple of hours after the Colonel’s departure that Rocky arrived.

Rocky, Al, and I walked through the gate into the main camp, saluting the stern-faced striker on guard as he snapped to present arms with his carbine. We passed a clothesline, sagging under the weight of dripping fatigue shirts and trousers. “Big Boy,� our Vietnamese laundryman, was attempting to dry the freshly washed uniforms before the humid rainy-season climate induced mold to form. The intervals of sunlight were short and it took no time at all for the clothes to develop a broad velvety covering of either light green or dull orange.

Pluto, the team’s canine mascot, lay in the middle of the path, luxuriating in the warmth of a patch of sunlight while one of the Vietnamese chickens pecked intently at some delicacy it had discovered on Pluto’s tail. Neither seemed to disturb the other.

Inside the team hut, Rocky met the other members of the team and stowed his bag and weapon on the bunk Al indicated. The dirt floors and thatch construction of our buildings contrasted sharply with the masonry structures, cement floors, and screened windows at Camau, thus prompting Rocky’s first comment: “Why don’t you fix this place up a little?� He indicated the sacks of portland cement stacked high along the wall. “You’ve got plenty of cement, why not put in a floor and walls?�

The questions caused heads to turn in his direction as the team members scrutinized the visitor who had immediately begun to criticize our hootches. I felt compelled to answer, since he was my guest and I knew no one else would reply.

“We have a priority on construction, Rocky. The cement is for civil affairs projects with our Vietnamese and we can’t use it to make our quarters more comfortable until we finish the sanitation and construction in the villages.�

Rocky nodded. Once he understood why something was done, he would accept it. That is, if he agreed with the reasoning. I had, in the short time I’d known him, noticed a dynamic, outspoken frankness. He had an eagerness and disregard for danger that would blend well with Al’s similar traits, but perhaps not so well with the older team members’ outlook. It was a matter of liking Rocky a hell of a lot or disliking him intensely. He was too positive a personality to allow any other reactions and his unreserved observations could be quite abrasive.

Supper that evening was a festive occasion as our Vietnamese cooks, Hai and Sha (the grinning, bucktoothed, local con artist), outdid themselves. Barbecued pork, French fried potatoes, and green beans were steaming in serving bowls on the long tables, with French rolls and butter. Fruit cocktail topped off the meal and we were all in a relaxed mood as we sat outside the hootch, sipping coffee or beer and watching the spectacular Vietnamese sunset.

These moments of quiet were ones I think all of us will remember about Vietnam. Tan Phu was a beautiful place in the evening. The wide rice paddy, graceful coconut palms, the glorious burst of oranges and reds fanning up from the western horizon and reflecting from the masses of clouds created a feeling of harmony and peace. The village children playing and laughing along the canal banks and the birds high above, quiet and graceful, returning to their nests dispelled any thoughts of the war that began when darkness fell. The mosquitoes were the first sign that night was coming and soon after their arrival, our moments of peace ended. Darkness came and with it came the VC.

That night there was a minor probe along the outpost line across the canal. We fired a few illumination and high explosive mortar rounds. The troops on the line exchanged shots with the attackers and then it was quiet again. The team had become accustomed to these harassing attacks and paid little attention unless required to support the strikers. We slept in our fatigue trousers, with boots and loaded weapons in reach of our bunks in case something big came up. Also that night, Rocky met our mobile rattrap, a seven-and-a-half-foot python, who proved to be an affable companion to his very few friends. The strikers eyed his as a substantial meal, but refrained from tangling with him for reasons other than his belonging to the American team.

The next morning, after a breakfast of Hai’s two-ton pancakes, which were a good ten inches in diameter and as think as the palm of my hand, we began to go through the intelligence gathered at Tan Phu. Captain Versace proved to be extremely efficient in extracting the pertinent facts from agents’ reports and classifying it according to the information he already had. At the same time, he was filling our intelligence sergeant and me in on information that clarified our picture.

I briefed Rocky on the enemy situation, mentioning the new reports we had been getting on a buildup of VC regional force units, hard-core types with the latest Communist-bloc equipment. The day before, the Colonel had mentioned during the briefing that there were large units moving northward from the rest areas deep in the mangrove swamps south of Camau and they had disappeared after reaching this area. All indications pointed to our old troublemaker, the VC 306th Battalion, roaming around somewhere near the fringe of the U Minh Forest. We had clobbered them in an all-night battle on 30 July. They disappeared, licking their wounds and swearing revenge. They were now back with replacements and new equipment. It was a developing picture of enemy strength increasing radically, with no obvious reason to sit idle once they massed their forces. We could expect some rough nights ahead.

Rocky met Lieutenant Tinh, the Vietnamese Special Forces detachment commander, a quiet, sleepy-eyed, young second lieutenant, who had been assigned to Tan Phu for his first command position. Then he met Sergeant Canh, the Vietnamese team sergeant, a veteran of the French conflict who had served at Tan Phu from the time it was reestablished some seven months earlier. He had been team sergeant under Major Phong, the first camp commander, as was wise in the ways of staying alive at Tan Phu. Aspirant Dai was the second in command to Lieutenant Tinh and was a pleasant young man in a position where he balanced survival against fulfilling the requirements in this tour of duty for his promotion to second lieutenant. Tan Phu was a rough place to learn how to be an officer.

From the Paperback edition.

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Five Years to Freedom 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Ryanxia More than 1 year ago
There isn't much to say that the other reviews haven't already said. This is a powerful and deeply touching book about the author's experience as a P.O.W. It is unlike anything else I have ever read or seen, I have never looked at movies thinking they were capturing the actual conditions, but to hear this story of 5 years of imprisonment from the source is amazing. The best way I can describe it, is it puts you 'in the driver's seat' and connects the reader with information many of us war/Vietnam buffs already knew but can never truly understand if we weren't there. This is a very intimate and touching book that captured me and no doubt many others. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent book by the father of modern military survival techniques. This will touch you by the time you are halfway through.
Rio_Gene More than 1 year ago
I first read this book soon after it was published -- not so many years after Rowe regained his freedom. Those of us who lived through the Vietnam era may view his story through different eyes than Gulf War or current war contemporaries. That will not change the profound affect that this book will have on anyone who reads it. We've heard the stories and seen the movies. Most recently, "Rescue Dawn" was billed as brutally graphic; it hinted at what Rowe lived through, but still compares as a walk in the park. If you want a better understanding of the horrors of the Vietnam "conflict" that many individual soldiers went through, why so many of them suffer from flashbacks and PTSD, why they all came back changed men and women, read this book. It is a testament to the courage and strength of America's soldiers. James N Rowe defines the word "hero."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed the book. Nick was a remarkable, strong man. Residing within the military myself, this man is a true hero and role model that every soldier should aspire to be. 
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is outstanding in every way. The truth presented here is undeniable. I could not put it down. It should be required reading for the 'America is wrong all the time' crowd. It is especialy relevent today with so many (in our own country even) accusing America of torture and mistreatment. After reading this, I never want to hear that insane accusation again.I coul not help but notice that the propaganda used by the Vietcong to try and brainwash POWs is almost word for word the same as the arguments used by the 'America Haters' in this country. Go figure. Read this and wake up America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An outstanding book that places the reader right beside, James Rowe, every step of the way. You feel every ache, itch, pain, torment and desire for freedom that he lived thru! Incredible, absolutely incredible, I couldn't stop trembling as he was lifted to freedom! Should be recommended as a reading requirement for History class! What a HERO!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have ever read. Hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read emotional bravo AND WELCOME HOME
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lost lots of sleep reading this great book because i could not put it down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've ever read, recommended by the cadre of the Special Forces Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape school, founded by the author based off his experience. 
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