October 3, 1944 The Littlest War Dog

The decks around them were shaking from anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, when Smoky guided Wynne to duck at the moment an incoming shell struck, killing 8 men standing next to them. She was his “angel from a foxhole.”

The first dog may have approached some campfire, long before recorded history.  It may have been hurt or it maybe it was looking for a morsel.  Dogs have been by our side ever since.

Over history, the unique attributes of Canis Familiaris have often served in times of war.  Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts dogs at work in multiple capacities.  The ancient Greeks used dogs against Persian invaders at the Battle of Marathon.

sgt_stubby_6
Sergeant Stubby

The European allies and Imperial Germany had about 20,000 dogs working a variety of jobs in WWI. Though the United States didn’t have an official “War Dog” program in those days, a Staffordshire Terrier mix called “Sgt. Stubby” was smuggled “over there” with an AEF unit training out of New Haven, Connecticut. Stubby is credited with saving an unknown number of lives, his keen sense of hearing giving his companions early warning of incoming artillery rounds. Once, he even caught a German spy who had been creeping around, mapping allied trenches. It must have been a bad day at the office for that particular Bosch, when he was discovered with a 50lb terrier hanging from his behind.

The US War Dogs program was developed between the World Wars, and dogs have served in every conflict since. My son in law Nate served in Afghanistan with a five-year old German Shepherd named Zino, a Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD), trained to detect as many as 64 explosive compounds.

The littlest War Dog first appeared in the jungles of New Guinea, when an American soldier spotted a “golden head” poking out of an abandoned foxhole.  It was a 4lb, 7″ tall Yorkshire Terrier.  At the time, nobody had any idea how she had gotten there. The soldier brought her back to camp and sold her for $6.44 to Corporal William Wynne, who named her “Smoky”.  For the next two years, Smoky lived a soldier’s life.

They first thought she might have belonged to the Japanese, but they brought her to a POW camp and quickly learned that she understood neither Japanese nor English commands.

The little dog flew 12 air/sea rescue and photo reconnaissance missions, secured in Wynne’s backpack. She survived 150 air raids and a typhoon, often giving him early warning of incoming fire. Wynne credited Smoky with saving his life one time, on an LST transport ship. The decks around them were shaking from anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, when Smoky guided Wynne to duck at the moment an incoming shell struck, killing 8 men standing next to them. She was his “angel from a foxhole.”

Smoky-CulvertOnce, the small dog was able to perform a task in minutes that otherwise would have taken an airstrip out of service for three days, and exposed an entire construction battalion to enemy fire. The air field at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, was crucial to the Allied war effort, and the signal corps needed to run a telegraph wire across the field. A 70′ long, 8” pipe crossed underneath the air strip, half filled with dirt.

Wynne recalled the story: “I tied a string to Smoky’s collar and ran to the other end of the culvert . . . (Smoky) made a few steps in and then ran back. `Come, Smoky,’ I said sharply, and she started through again. When she was about 10 feet in, the string caught up and she looked over her shoulder as much as to say `what’s holding us up there?’ The string loosened from the snag and she came on again. By now the dust was rising from the shuffle of her paws as she crawled through the dirt and mold and I could no longer see her. I called and pleaded, not knowing for certain whether she was coming or not. At last, about 20 feet away, I saw two little amber eyes and heard a faint whimpering sound . . . at 15 feet away, she broke into a run. We were so happy at Smoky’s success that we patted and praised her for a full five minutes”.

Smoky-Therapy DogSmoky toured all over the world after the war, appearing in over 42 television programs and entertaining thousands at veteran’s hospitals. In June 1945, Smoky toured the 120th General Hospital in Manila, visiting with wounded GIs from the Battle of Luzon.  She’s considered to be the first therapy dog, and credited with expanding interest in what had hitherto been an obscure breed.

Smoky died in her sleep in February 1957, at about 14, and was buried in a .30 caliber ammunition box. A bronze life-size sculpture of Smoky sitting in a GI helmet was installed over her final resting place almost fifty years later, where it sits atop a two-ton blue granite base.

Smoky-MemorialBill Wynne was 90 years old in 2012, when he was “flabbergasted” to be approached by Australian authorities. They explained that an Australian army nurse had purchased the dog from a Queen Street pet store, becoming separated in the jungles of New Guinea. 68 years later, the Australians had come to award his dog a medal.

 

As a personal aside, Nate and Zino were separated after their tour in Afghanistan.  They were reunited in 2014, when the dog came to live with Nate and our daughter Carolyn in their home in Savannah.  Last fall, Sheryl and I went with a friend to Houston, to celebrate our anniversary at the “Redneck Country Club”.  2,000 miles from home and completely by chance, who do we meet but the trainer who taught Zino to be a TEDD in the first place.  Small world.

Advertisements

October 2, 1918 1st Division Rags

Rags survived our nation’s deadliest battle with the loss of an eye, but Donovan wasn’t so lucky. He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

Private James Donovan was AWOL.  He had overstayed his leave in the French town of Montremere, and the ‘Great War’, awaited.

When the two MPs found him, Donovan knew he had to think fast. He reached down and grabbed a stray dog, explaining to the two policemen that he was part of a search party, sent out to find the Division Mascot.

RagsIt was a small dog, possibly a Cairn Terrier mix. He looked like a pile of rags, and that’s what they called him.  The dog had gotten Donovan out of a jam, now he would become the division mascot for real. Rags was now part of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

Instead of “shaking hands”, Donovan taught him a sort of doggie “salute”.  Rags would appear at the flag pole for Retreat for years after the war, lifting his paw and holding it by his head.  Every time the flag was lowered and the bugle played, there was that small terrier, saluting with the assembled troops.

Donovan’s job was hazardous. He was on the front lines, stringing communications wire between advancing infantry and supporting field artillery. Runners were used to carry messages until the wire was laid, but they were frequently wounded, killed or they couldn’t get through the shell holes and barbed wire.

The dog learned to imitate the men around him, who would drop to the ground and hug it tightly during artillery barrages. He would hug the ground with his paws spread out, soon the doughboys noticed him doing it before any of them knew they were under fire. Rags’ acute and sensitive hearing became an early warning system, telling them that shells were incoming well before anyone heard them.

Rags-3
A great book, if you want to learn more.

Donovan trained Rags to carry messages attached to his collar.  On October 2, 1918, Rags carried a message from the 26th Infantry Regiment to the 7th Field Artillery.  The small dog’s successful mission resulted in an artillery barrage, leading to the capture of the Very-Epinonville Road.

An important objective had been taken, with minimal loss of life to the American side.

Rags was small and fast, and often ran messages across open battlefield. The terrier’s greatest trial came a week later, during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. The small dog ran through falling bombs and poison gas to deliver his message. Mildly gassed and partially blinded, shell splinters damaged his right paw, eye and ear. Rags survived and, as far as I know, got his message where it needed to be.

Rags survived our nation’s deadliest battle with the loss of an eye, but Donovan wasn’t so lucky. He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

Rags recovered quickly, but Donovan did not.  Donovan was transferred to the United States, and brought to the Fort Sheridan base hospital near Chicago, where medical staff specialized in gas cases.  It was here that the dog was given a collar and tag, identifying him as 1st Division Rags.  Donovan died of his injuries, in early 1919.  Rags moved into the base fire house becoming “post dog”, until being adopted by Major Raymond W. Hardenbergh, his wife and two daughters, in 1920.Rags Grave

The 1st Division marched down Broadway in 1928, part of the division’s 10th anniversary WW1 reunion, a small terrier-mix in the vanguard.

Rags lived out the last of his years in Maryland.  A long life it was, too, the dog lived until 1934, remaining the 1st Infantry Division for all his 20 years.

On March 22, 1934, the 16-paragraph obituary in the New York Times began: “Rags, Dog Veteran of War, Is Dead at 20; Terrier That Lost Eye in Service is Honored.”

September 30, 2013 Living Memorial

The final resting place of over 400,000 honored dead is a living memorial, combining tens of thousands of native and exotic plants in a unique blending of landscapes, combined with formal and informal gardens. More than 8,600 native and exotic trees representing 325 varieties and species fill the landscape with color.

Think for a moment of an empty and lifeless stone mausoleum, and then forget it.  That’s not what it’s like, at Arlington.

80 to 100 military service members, veterans and their loved ones go to their final rest in Arlington National Cemetery, every week.  Not one of them goes alone. Since 1948, a volunteer with the “Arlington Ladies” attends each and every one of them, 365 days a year, seven days a week.

arlington-national-cemetery

The final resting place of over 400,000 honored dead is a living memorial, combining tens of thousands of native and exotic plants in a unique blending of landscapes, combined with formal and informal gardens. More than 8,600 native and exotic trees representing 325 varieties and species fill the landscape with color.  The first and last impression of the visitor is that of beauty and a sense of peace.

Three of these trees are Virginia state champions and one is state co-champion, including the Royal Paulownia, below.  State champion trees are those having the greatest height, crown spread and trunk circumference, for their species.

royal-paulownia-arlington-cemetery_zpsoytkrgpz
Royal Paulownia at Arlington Cemetery Photo © 2015 by Greg Zell

Take a single species of tree, for instance, the eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), of which 165 specimens live at Arlington. Each tree stands 10′ to 30′ tall, with pink and purple flowers emerging directly from bark and branches in early April. Five-inch wide, heart shaped leaves emerge later in the spring. At first a glossy purple, by summer they have turned to green and pods have begun to grow.  Like pea pods, they grow green to reddish during the early months, later turning to black before falling off. In late winter, there is no more striking contrast with a fresh fall of snow.

The cemetery also has 24 Chinese Redbuds, a strain native to central China. These are only two of Arlington’s hundreds of varieties of flowering trees.

About 200 trees are removed every year, and 240 planted.  Every tree in the place will be pruned at least once, every four years.

Arlington in snow

Bring your walking shoes, and you’ll have to leave your pooch, behind.  In 2013, cemetery authorities permitted bicycles on a specified route between 8:00 a.m. and 6:45 p.m., from April 1 to September 30.  Today, be prepared to walk. Effective October 26, 2016, policy prohibits bicycles on Cemetery grounds, without a family pass.  “As there are no bike paths on the cemetery grounds, mixing cyclists with pedestrians and vehicles creates a safety hazard”.images (2)

The Cemetery’s horticulture division recently installed 297 tree labels, identifying many of the cemetery’s noteworthy specimens. 36 of them form a right angle along Farragut & Wilson Drive, lending a sense of history as each is a direct descendant of a famous ancestor, each a living memorial to recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Ancestors of these “tree descendants” include the Cottonwood of Delta Colorado, which shaded the peace meetings between settlers and Ute tribes in 1879. The Sweetgum of the Westmoreland, Virginia home of four generations of the Lee family, including Richard Henry and Francis “Lightfoot” Lee.  The only brothers to have signed the Declaration of Independence. The great Charter Oak of Connecticut is represented there, a specimen sprouted sometime in the 12th or 13th century. There is the American Sycamore descended from a “witness tree” at Gettysburg. There is the Red Maple from Walden Woods, outside of Boston, and the Sycamore Maple, witness to George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.

Picture2Other tree ancestors include the Water Oak next to the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma, where Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “We Shall Overcome” speech, before setting out on the 50-mile march to Montgomery.  The George Washington American Holly was grown from seeds gathered at Mount Vernon. Helen Keller climbed the 100-year-old Water Oak, as a child.  The Overcup Oak descends from a tree which shaded the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

SONY DSC
“The 17th Airborne Division donated the Japanese Zelkova tree shown at the right. It is located in Section 33”. – http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Memorial-Arboretum-and-Horticulture/Trees/Memorial-Trees

For years, the 624-acre grounds at Arlington have been a living memorial.  Some of the most beautiful gardens you are ever going to see, the work is performed by a full-time staff of only three Master Gardeners, and an army of contractors. In 2013, the cemetery received official accreditation as a level II arboretum by the Morton Register of Arboreta. A living memorial taking its place on the nation’s most comprehensive list of arboreta and public gardens, designated the Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Arboretum.

 

This “Today in History” is dedicated to my paternal grandfather, Norman Francis Long, United States Army, who left us the night his namesake, my brother, came into the world.  December 18, 1963.  It was too soon.  Arlington National Cemetery – Section 41, plot #2161Norman Francis Long

September 29, 1780 John André

In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.   John André was a spy.

In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.  André was a British Major at the time of the American Revolution, taking part in his army’s occupations of Philadelphia and New York.

Andre
Adjutant General John André

John André was a spy.

Major André was a favorite of Colonial-era Loyalist society. For a time, André dated Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia loyalist. She married an important Patriot General in 1779, a relationship which provided the connection between the British spy and a man who could have gone into history as one of the top tier of our founding fathers.

Had he not turned his coat.  Peggy Shippen’s husband was Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was Commandant of West Point at the time, the future location of one of our great military academies. At the time, West Point was a strategic fortification on high ground, overlooking the Hudson River. The British capture of West Point would have split the colonies in half.

John André struck a bargain with Benedict Arnold that would turn a Hero of the Revolution into a name synonymous with “Traitor”.  General Arnold would receive £20,000, over a million dollars today, in exchange for which he would give up West Point.

Benedict Arnold
General Benedict Arnold

André sailed up the Hudson River in the Sloop of War HMS Vulture on September 20, 1780. Dressed in civilian clothes, Major André was returning to his own lines on the 23rd, six papers written in Arnold’s hand hidden in his sock. André was stopped by three Patriot Militiamen; John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart. One of them was wearing a Hessian overcoat, and André thought they were Tories. “Gentlemen”, he said, “I hope you belong to our party”. “What party”, came the reply, and André said “The lower (British) party”. “We do”, they said, to which André replied that he was a British officer and must not be detained. That was as far as he went.

The discovery of those papers brought Benedict Arnold’s treachery to light. Arnold immediately fled on hearing of André’s arrest, even as George Washington was headed to his place for a meeting over breakfast.

John André was tried and sentenced to death as a spy, and jailed on September 29. He asked if he could write a letter to General Washington.  In it he asked not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad, considered to be a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.

Peggy-Shippen
Peggy Shippen

General Washington thought that Arnold’s crimes were far more egregious than those of André, and he was impressed with the man’s bravery.  Washington wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, asking for an exchange of prisoners.

Having received no reply by October 2, Washington wrote in his General Order of the day, “That Major André General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death. The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”

John André was executed by hanging in Tappan, New York, on October 2, 1780. He was 31.
Andre Postcard

John André had lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house during his nine month stay in Philadelphia, while the British army occupied the city. As they were packing to leave, a Swiss-born citizen named Pierre Du Simitiere came to say goodbye. He was shocked to find a Gentleman such as André looting the Franklin residence. The man had always been known for extravagant courtesy, and this was completely out of character. He was packing books, musical instruments, scientific apparatus, and an oil portrait of Franklin, offering no explanation or response to Du Simitiere’s protests.

Long afterward, in the early 20th century, the descendants of Major-General Lord Charles Grey returned the painting to the United States, indicating that André had probably looted Franklin’s home under orders from the General himself. A Gentleman always, it would explain the man’s inability to defend his own actions. Today, the oil portrait of Benjamin Franklin hangs in the White House.

obj_331_672_lrg
Benjamin Franklin, Oil on canvas, by David Martin, 49″ x 40″

September 28, 1920 Chicago Black Sox

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.  There was no response.

The scandal started with Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the first baseman with ties to Chicago gangsters. Gandil convinced Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a friend and professional gambler, that he could throw the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. A New York gangster named Arnold Rothstein supplied the money through his right-hand man, the former featherweight boxing champion Abe Attell, and the “fix was in”.

blacksoxPitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, along with outfielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch, and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg were all principally involved with fixing the series. Third baseman George “Buck” Weaver was at a meeting where the fix was discussed, but decided not to participate.  Weaver handed in some of his best statistics of the year during the Series.

Star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson may have been a participant, though his involvement is disputed. It seems that other players may have used his name in order to give themselves credibility. Utility infielder Fred McMullin was not involved in the planning, but he threatened to report the others unless they cut him in on the payoff.

The more “straight arrow” players on the club knew nothing about the fix. Second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber had nothing to do with it, though the conspiracy got an unexpected boost when Faber came down with the flu.

Eight Chicago Black SoxRumors were flying when the series started on October 2. So much money was on Cincinnati that the odds were flat.  Gamblers complained that nothing was left on the table. Williams lost his three games in the best-out-of nine series, which I believe stands as a World Series record to this day. Cicotte became angry, thinking that gamblers were trying to renege, and he bore down, the White Sox winning game 7.

Williams was back on the mound in game 8.  By this time he wanted out, but gangsters threatened to hurt him and his family if he didn’t lose the game. The White Sox lost Game 8 on October 9, ending the series 3 to 5.

Rumors of the thrown series followed the White Sox through the 1920 season and a grand jury was convened that September.  Two players, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, testified on September 28, 1920, both confessing to participating in the scheme. Despite a virtual tie for first place at the time, club owner Chuck Comiskey pulled the seven players then in the majors (Gandil was back in the minors at the time).  The damage to the sport’s reputation prior to the 1921 season was profound.

Franchise owners appointed a man with the best “baseball name” in history to help straighten out the mess. He was Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner, federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

blacksoxKey evidence went missing from the Cook County courthouse before the trial, including Cicotte’s and Jackson’s signed confessions. Both recanted and, in the end, all players were acquitted. The missing confessions reappeared several years later in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer. It’s funny how that works.

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.  There was no response.

The Commissioner was unforgiving, irrespective of the verdict. The day after the acquittal, Landis issued a statement: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball”.

Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Williams, Risberg, and McMullin are long dead now, but every one remains Banned from Baseball.

black-soxIronically, the 1919 scandal would lead to a White Sox crash in the 1921 season, beginning the “Curse of the Black Sox”. It was a World Series championship drought that lasted 88 years, ending only in 2005, with a sweep of the Houston Astros. Exactly one year after the Boston Red Sox ended their own 86-year drought, the “Curse of the Bambino”.

The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper published a poem back on opening day for the 1919 series.  They would probably have taken it back, if only they could.

“Still, it really doesn’t matter, After all, who wins the flag.

Good clean sport is what we’re after, And we aim to make our brag.

To each near or distant nation, Whereon shines the sporting sun.

That of all our games gymnastic, Base ball is the cleanest one!”

September 27, 1943 The Waving Girl

Legends grew up around her, over the years. She had fallen in love with a sailor. She wanted him to find her when he returned. He’d been lost at sea. The bittersweet truth is less dramatic.

Following the War of 1812, President James Madison ordered a series of coastal fortifications to be built, to protect the young nation from foreign invasion. Fort Pulaski, located on Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia, is one of them.

Florence Margaret Martus was born there in 1868, where her father was an ordnance sergeant. She spent her childhood on the south channel of the Savannah River, moving in with her brother, keeper of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, when she was 17.

cockspur

Sometime around 1887 while still a young girl, Florence began waving at ships passing in the river. She’d use a lantern by night and a white handkerchief by day.

It started with friends, working the river.  Harbor masters, bar pilots and tugboat captains.  Before long, “the waving girl” and her collie were familiar figures, greeting every ship that came or left the port of Savannah.  Sailors would look for her and salute in return. Vessels would blow their horns, but few ever met her in person.

The Waving Girl Statue
The Waving Girl Statue

Legends grew up around her, over the years. She had fallen in love with a sailor. She wanted him to find her when he returned. He’d been lost at sea.

The bittersweet truth is less dramatic. She later said, “That’s a nice story. But what got me started – I was young and it was sort of lonely on the island for a girl. At first I would run out to wave at my friends passing, and I was so tickled when they blew the whistle back at me“.

And so, Miss Martus would take out her handkerchief by day or light her lantern by night, and she would greet every vessel that came or went from the Port of Savannah.  Every one of them.  Some 50,000, over 44 years.

Florence Martus
Florence Margaret Martus

In 1893, Martus and her brother braved hurricane conditions, rowing out to save several men from a sinking boat.

She waved an American flag at the troop ship St. Mihiel after WWI, on its return to Savannah carrying the United States Army of the Rhine.

“The Waving Girl” had taken it upon herself to greet every single ship entering and leaving the Port of Savannah, from young womanhood until old age.

She stopped only when she was forced to do so when her brother, then 70, had to leave his lighthouse job and the home which went with it.

All that time she kept a careful record of every ship:  name, date, where it was from and type of vessel.  It must have broken her heart to move, because she burned the entire record.  44-years’ worth. WWII-era reporter Ernie Pyle lamented “The daily record for forty-four years, one of the most legendary figures of the Seven Seas, kept in her own hand, gone up in smoke in two minutes”.

Martus never reconciled herself to the move, saying, “It’s just like trying to dig up that big oak tree and get it to take root someplace else.”

The artist Felix de Weldon, who sculpted the United States Marine Corps Memorial outside Arlington National Cemetery, erected a statue of the Waving Girl and her collie. You can see it in Morrell Park, on the west bank of the Savannah River.

1200px-The_Marine_Corps_War_Memorial_in_Arlington,_Va.,_can_be_seen_prior_to_the_Sunset_Parade_June_4,_2013_130604-M-MM982-036

Florence Martus passed away on February 8, 1943, following a brief bout with bronchial pneumonia.  One of the Liberty ships built in Savannah during World War II, was named in her honor. The SS Florence Martus was officially christened seven months later, September 27, 1943.

FlorenceMartusTheWavingGirl

September  26, 1965 Rocky

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, posthumously.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

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.

Versaces
“Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace receives his 90-day combat infantry badge from his father, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace”. H/T http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net, for this image

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.

versacekids070302In 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.

versace_pow
POW Rocky Vesace

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.

Tiger cage
H/T United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) at Carlisle Barracks, photographer John Messeder, for this image.

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.

MOH_VersaceRocky 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.

Versace, playing ballRocky 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.

vietnam-memorial

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.

Cmoh_army

Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
Place:  Republic of Vietnam
Entered service at:  Norfolk, VirginiaBorn:  Honolulu, Hawaii
Citation:

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.

versace_humbert

%d bloggers like this: