Special Forces Legend James N. Rowe was saved by his beard

Col. James “Nick” Rowe without the beard that saved his life. (Credits: US Army)

Col. James “Nick” Rowe without the beard that saved his life. (Credits: US Army)

Col. James “Nick” Rowe 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. Rowe graduated West Point in 1960 and was eventually sent to South Vietnam as a military advisor.

In 1963, then 1st Lt. Rowe was captured in a Viet Cong ambush and taken to a prison camp. Rowe’s 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, the young Special Forces officer 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, Rowe and fellow prisoners would capture snakes and rats whenever they could. Rowe also tried to escape three times.

In order to convince his guards that he wasn’t a threat, Rowe told them that he was an engineer drafted into the Army. They still tortured him, but he stuck to his story until anti-war activists in America released his bio and the North Vietnamese government learned he was Special Forces.

UH1-D Helicopters in Vietnam, 1966. (Credits: Photo: US Army Sgt. 1st Class James K. F. Dung)

UH1-D Helicopters in Vietnam, 1966. (Credits: Photo: US Army Sgt. 1st Class James K. F. Dung)

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.

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.

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.

Rowe returned to the states as a major. He left the military for a short period before returning in 1981 as a lieutenant colonel stationed at Fort Bragg. There, he developed the Army’s Survival, Evasion,

James N. Rowe's Book

James N. Rowe’s Book

Resistance, and Escape Course using the lessons he learned in captivity.

Rowe later deployed to the Philippines as the ground forces director for the Joint U.S. Military Advisory group for the Philippines where he provided counterinsurgency training for Philippine forces.

On April 21, 1989, he was on his way to the advisory group headquarters in when his vehicle came under fire and he was killed.

Rowe wrote a book about his time in the prison camp, “Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW.”

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This article originally appeared at We Are The Mighty. Copyright 2015. Follow We Are The Mighty on Twitter.

James N. Rowe

James N. Rowe

Reference 1: The Man, The Myth, The Legend by Defense Intelligence Agency
Reference 2: Col. James ‘Nick’ Rowe on Military
Reference 3: Col. James Rowe, 51, War Hero, Is Killed in an Ambush in Manila in New York Times
Reference 4: Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW by James N. Rowe


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