The Man, The Myth, The Legend
I am extremely honored and humbled to be part of this ceremony in recognition of this great American. You may be wondering why I am talking today. It is usually appropriate for the senior at the building to talk during the building dedication program, but I would hope by the end of my talk you will see the other reason why I am speaking.
I would like to talk about the man at this point. Colonel James Nicholson Rowe was born in McAllen, Texas, February 8, 1938 to a Russian immigrant who had lived through the Bolshevik Revolution. Located in southern Texas, McAllen was a small town during that time and was and still known for the birds and butterflies that inhabit the area. When he was six, his older brother Richard who had just graduated from West Point was killed and Nick vowed to complete his brother’s destiny in the military. He graduated from McAllen High School in 1956 and to fulfill that earlier vow entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1960 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in field artillery.
As a new lieutenant, he completed the Army's Airborne School and Ranger School, both at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 1961, he completed the Field Artillery Officers Basic Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
His first assignment after the basic course was with the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. During that assignment, he attended the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he studied Chinese Manderin, then returned to the 7th Special Forces Group to serve as the assistant group adjutant, and later as executive officer of Special Forces A Detachment.
Lieutenant Rowe graduated from the U.S. Army Unconventional Warfare School at Fort Bragg in 1962. He then trained as a military free-fall parachutist. In July 1963, he deployed to South Vietnam with Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 23. During a firefight with Viet Cong forces on October 29, 1963, Lieutenant Rowe was captured during a firefight with the Viet Cong and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
While in captivity, Lieutenant Rowe was subjected to torture, solitary confinement, food deprivation, and medical neglect. For 62 months, he endured these inhuman conditions and made three attempts to escape his captors. His will to survive carried him through the physical and mental torture that eventually killed three of his fellow prisoners of war. Two other fellow prisoners of war, who, like himself, had successfully resisted the indoctrination efforts of the Viet Cong, were executed.
The fate that claimed the lives of these two prisoners awaited Lieutenant Rowe. When his captors learned of his Special Forces background, he was marked for execution. As Lieutenant Rowe was transported to his execution, American helicopter gunships surprised his guards, and Lieutenant Rowe made his fourth and final escape attempt. In the chaos, he managed to escape from the Viet Cong patrol. He was spotted from the air and identified as an American only because of his beard.
Captain Rowe emerged from his experience as an authentic American hero, as a man who maintained his faith in God and country during the most trying circumstances.
On his return from Vietnam, Captain Rowe was assigned to the Army General Staff, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, and later to the Adjutant General’s Office to work on the Army POW/MIA program.
After an assignment to the Defense Intelligence Agency, MAJ Rowe left the Army in 1974 and entered the political arena, where he ran for state office in his home state of Texas.
Major Rowe was recalled to active military duty in 1981 and promoted to lieutenant colonel. He returned to Fort Bragg, where he developed the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Course for personnel serving in duty positions with a high risk of capture. His program standardized the Army’s survival instruction by providing a rigorous, realistic, yet safe training environment where soldiers could learn how to avoid capture or to survive capture and return home with honor. The program continues as he envisioned to this day. Could I see by a show of hands how many folks in attendance here actually had the privilege of knowing COL Rowe? Thank you.
It is at this time in his service to the nation that I met LTC Rowe and at this point I would like to now talk a little about the myth and the legend. On 19 Sep 1982, at Camp McCall, North Carolina, I started the SERE Instructor Qualification Course that was designed by and led by LTC Nick Rowe. I was assigned to a Combat Aviation Battalion on Ft Bragg and was asked if I wanted to attend a SERE course. I did a little research on the course and found out that a previous POW was running it and that intrigued me, but really didn’t give me much insight into what I would learn or go through. I thought back about my Ranger School days and thought about the SERE training there and though it was not enjoyable, I thought why not since I believed the odds of getting shot down in combat would be high. My first impressions of LTC Rowe was… that this was the individual who had persevered over five years of captivity in a cage that was 3 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet, who was routinely tortured and beaten, and who had tried to escape 3 times before his successfully 4th time. I didn’t see who I expected. The myth is that it would take a huge man to be to be able to deal with those conditions. What I saw was an average size and soft spoken professional who had a passion for what he was doing. He didn’t look super human to me, but as always don’t judge a book by its cover. I didn’t expect the next 27 days in this course would have the impact on me that it did. I would like to now describe in 3 quotes what dramatic lessons that LTC Rowe taught me in such a small portion of my life and military career. This part of the talk covers the legend.
There is a quote out there, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Well after being mentored by LTC Rowe during that 4 week period, it was evident to me that this needed to be changed. So I modified it to, “When the going gets tough, you get going.” It was very evident to me listening to him that you don’t have a choice as to what will happen to you, but you do have a choice in how you react and ultimate survive. He was adamant that the will to survive and your faith can get you through the darkest of situations.
The next quote I picked up from the 3rd U.S. Corps, but it was the lesson that I learned from LTC Rowe. “Let no man’s soul cry out had I the proper training.” It was hard for me to understand why someone who had left the military after all that he had been through would come back to active duty….he said it was to develop this course and prepare others. LTC Rowe came back to active duty to ensure that all had the proper training when it came to SERE. I have yet to meet another individual that possessed that passion and drive for training that he had. I could not believe the “characters” that he hand-selected for his cadre. Just a few of these remarkable men that I remember: a one-eyed master sergeant; a human tracking bloodhound; a hand-to-hand killing machine; and a Special Forces medic. My big take away from these guys was to get the experts when training counts. LTC Rowe wanted to make sure that the training was preparing you to teach folks to survive in the hardest of conditions and not just to put you in miserable conditions…knowledge and not torture. LTC Rowe was the master at mentoring and teaching through stories. He stated that he would stay there and talk with students as long as they wanted to discuss with him his experiences and how to deal with those conditions he had encountered. Although I felt guilty, I took him up on this and talked with him every chance I got when the formal part of training was done. My guilt came from the fact that he had two young kids and a wife at home….one of which is here today. I had left my wife with a 3 week old and a toddler so that made it a little easier to take him up on his offer. It was evident to everyone and especially for me that God, Country and Family drove him. He had a great affection for Army Aviators since they saved his life and I was the benefactor of that.
The next quote that I associate with LTC Rowe is: “The measure of a man is not how he measures up to others, but how many others measure themselves by him.” I have had a lot of great mentors and great examples of leaders in my 37 year career, but none measure up to LTC Rowe.
So is he a legend, definitely. Is he a myth…absolutely not, but he was an extraordinary man that impacted so many that knew him as he did me.
A little more about the man. Lieutenant Colonel Rowe’s last assignment at Fort Bragg was as the battalion commander of the 1st Special Warfare Training Battalion (Airborne) at the John F. Kennedy Warfare Center and School. He departed Fort Bragg in early 1988 for further language training in Monterey, CA prior to his assignment as ground forces director for the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in the Philippines, providing counterinsurgency training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. On the morning of April 21, 1989, as he was driven to the advisory group headquarters, his vehicle came under fire, and Colonel Rowe was killed. America lost one of its best on that day.
Colonel Rowe’s awards and decorations include the Silver Star for heroism, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Vietnam Service medal with eight campaign stars, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, Ranger Tab, Special Forces Tab and Vietnamese Parachutist Badge.
His civilian awards included in the American Patriot Award, which was awarded by the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge in 1969. He was also awarded the Order of DeMolay, Legion of Honor in 1972, and twice named by the Jaycees as one of the “Outstanding Young Men of America.”
As an author, Colonel Rowe, published three works: The Southeast Asia Survival Journal, published by the Department of the Air Force, and two novels, The Judas Squad and Five Years to Freedom. The latter work chronicled his life and experiences in captivity during the Vietnam War.
As a speaker, Colonel Rowe gave more than 300 lectures to civilian audiences since 1969. He had also spoken at nearly every major military installation in the U.S., spreading his inspirational message of faith and perseverance under adverse circumstances.
Colonel Rowe’s distinguished career of civil and military service to the nation was characterized by unwavering devotion to duty, a high sense of honor and courage, and a deep love of his country.
Again I want to thank you all for being here to honor this great American. God Bless