Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the first son of Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace. Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of The Fifteenth Pelican. If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story. It was called The Flying Nun.
Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky”), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.
Rocky earned his Ranger tab and Parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Armored Cavalry regiment in South Korea, then with the 3d US Infantry. The “Old Guard”.
Versace attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.
In his spare time, this Green Beret, Army Ranger and Special Forces warrior would volunteer to work in the countless orphanages of South Vietnam.
By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his second tour. He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam. Now he planned to go to seminary school.
Rocky intended to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to Vietnam to help the nation’s orphaned children. He’d already received his acceptance letter.
It wasn’t meant to be.
On October 29, Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense force of South Vietnamese troops, to remove a Viet Cong command post in the Mekong Delta, when the unit was ambushed by an overwhelming force of VC .
This was a daring mission in a dangerous place. It was unusual for anyone to come forward for such a hazardous assignment, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”, but Rocky had volunteered.
Under siege and all but overwhelmed, himself suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.
Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived too late to effect the outcome. Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.
Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.
For much of the next two years, 2’x3’x6’ bamboo “Tiger” cages would be their home. On nights when the netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, that it looked like they were wearing socks.
Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother. “If he thought he was right”, Steve said, “he was a pain in the neck. If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.”
There in the East Wing of the White House, the line was met with great laughter. In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them. These people were not going to break his brother.
Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly. Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, after which he’d only try harder.
Fluent in French and Vietnamese as well as English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so. He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him senseless.
Incessant brutalization and repeated confinement in “isolation boxes” earned his tormentors nothing but an invitation to “Go to Hell”, in three languages.
Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy. They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear the man blow up their communist propaganda in their own language.
Finally, Captain Versace was separated from the rest of the prison population, and placed in an isolation box. He responded by singing, the lyrics of popular songs replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs. He was last heard belting out “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs.
Rocky was murdered by his captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965. He was twenty-eight.
Versace’ remains were never recovered. His name is inscribed on panel 1E, line 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The headstone bearing his name in memorial section MG-108 of Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.
If you’re ever in Alexandria, Virginia, pay a visit to the Mount Vernon Recreation Center. There in the central plaza, a sculpture by artist Antonio Tobias Mendez, depicts a Special Forces warrior. With hands on their shoulders, he is coaching two Vietnamese kids, how to play ball.
This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort which culminated in a posthumous Silver Star.
In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor. The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.
Let Rocky’s Medal of Honor citation, tell his story.
- For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versaces extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.