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U.S. Gives Philippines Lukewarm Reminder to Keep Col. Rowe's Killers in Jail
February/March 1995 Issue
By Ted Sampley
U.S. Veteran Dispatch
The U.S. government, in a less than demanding statement, told the Philippine government on January 25 that it "remains opposed" to the release from jail of the convicted killers of a U.S. Army colonel slain nearly six years ago by communist guerrillas.
Col. James "Nick" Rowe, assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group, was ambushed and killed by the New People's Army rebels as he drove to work in suburban Quezon City in April 1989.
The U.S. government has said the two convicted assassins, Juanito Itaas and Donato Continente, should not be freed under any government amnesty program because they violated international law by killing a diplomat.
"Our position has not changed. They should not be entitled to any pardon by the Philippine government," embassy spokesman James Nealon told reporters.
Lawyers for Itaas and Continente argue the killing was a political act of war because Col. Rowe was a combatant in the 26-year Marxist insurgency here. The rebels claim Rowe's unit was secretly aiding government forces. The embassy denies the claim.
Former political prisoners assailed Nealon's statement as "interference" by the U.S. government in Philippine internal affairs.
In another time, in another war, Nick Rowe would have been one of America's most honored heroes.
He won a Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts for his gallantry in combat.
More significantly, Nick Rowe, a Green Beret lieutenant, survived and escaped after five years of captivity in a Viet Cong prison camp, enduring five years of torment and torture during which he was subjected to constant physical humiliation and repeated attempted political indoctrination and threats of execution.
Lt. Rowe, the only officer to successfully escape from long term captivity of the communist Vietnamese, brought back from captivity horrific stories of torture and cruel living conditions inside Viet Cong prison camps.
Lt. Rowe's experience and leadership would later be instrumental in rewording and reinterpreting parts of the military Code of Conduct and he eventually designed and developed the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and Schools Program on Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) at Fort Bragg. Rowe was later promoted to full Colonel and sent to the Philippines to provide anti-insurgency training for the Philippine military.
The jungle war was heating up by the time Lt. Rowe was sent to Vietnam in 1963. His Green Beret unit was responsible for a counter insurgency program in the Mekong River Delta of South Vietnam, with Lt. Rowe acting as a Special Force's advisor to Civilian Irregular Defense Forces (CIDG) at Tan Phu.
On October 29, his unit of CIDG set out on an operation to Le Cour, a small hamlet northwest of Tan Phu. The day's mission was considered routine, but for Nick Rowe and his friends, Capt. Rocky Versace and medic Dan Pitzer, the firefight that broke out in the early morning marked the end of a life of order and sense.
For 62 months, Rowe battled dysentery, beri-beri, fungal diseases, and the morally undermining realization that he might be executed, or worse, kept alive, but never released.
His home was a tiny cage made of slender saplings, three feet by four feet by six feet in dimension. His bed was a rice sleeping mat. At times, his only friends were small creatures unconcerned with the American's "imperialistic ways."
Lt. Rowe endured physical torture and forced isolation. He resisted attempted political indoctrination, or "thought correction," even concocting a cover story that he was merely an engineer building civil projects in South Vietnam with no soldiering experience whatsoever. Lt. Rowe understood that if the Viet Cong realized he was a Special Forces officer, they would then deduce that he knew his Special Forces camp defense system in detail. By using a simple cover story, he hoped he could save his peers from jeopardy. The scheme worked - the North Vietnamese believed him.
Lt. Rowe continued to resist attempts to force him to denounce his country and its mission in Southeast Asia. His release, the communist cadre informed him, was dependent on learning the "truth" about "U.S. imperialism and its war crimes against the freedom loving Vietnamese people" - and believing it. He was told if the truth was not learned, there would be no release, regardless of the outcome of the war.
Lt. Rowe's cover story held true for five years. It was betrayed in the end, however, by the very people whose freedom he was struggling to help protect.
Acting on a request from the North Vietnamese, students in a so-called anti-war organization in the United States researched public records and formulated biographies on Americans captured in Vietnam.
After reading Lt. Rowe's biography, his Viet Cong captors became furious. They marched him into a cramped bamboo hut and forced him to sit on the damp clay floor. Several high ranking Viet Cong officials were staring down at Lt. Rowe.
They held out a piece of typed onion skin paper.
"The peace and justice loving friends, of the National Liberation Front, who live in America, have provided us with information which leads us to believe you have lied to us," they informed Lt. Rowe. "According to what we know, you are not an engineer . . . you have much military experience which you deny . . . You were an officer of the American Special Forces."
Lt. Rowe sat dumbfounded, unable to comprehend that his own people would betray him. He felt it was over. He had lied to the communists for five years. Worse in their eyes, the Viet Cong had believed him. They had lost face and, for that, he would be punished.
Soon after, the Viet Cong Central Committee for the National Liberation Front sent orders to Rowe's camp ordering the cadre to execute the uncooperative American prisoner.
On the day Lt. Rowe was being led to a destination for execution, he and his small group of guards were caught on the edge of an American B-52 saturation bombing raid. The guards scattered, leaving Lt. Rowe with only one.
Lt. Rowe knew he had nothing to lose. He bided his time until the remaining guard carelessly moved to Rowe's front, whereupon Lt. Rowe bludgeoned him with a log and escaped.
Not only did Lt. Rowe survive his ordeal as a POW, he escaped and emerged stronger than before his capture, more committed to the American ideal and more convinced than ever that what the communists had planned for Vietnam and the world was a blueprint for tyranny and human suffering.
Nick Rowe frustrated the communists. They never broke him. They never shook his faith in the American system. He was the quintessential American fighting man, unable to be broken mentally or physically.
The communists, however, never forgot Lt. Nick Rowe. They never forgot the threat men such as he posed to them and their view of world domination.
Shortly before 7 a.m. on April 21, 1989, a small white car pulled alongside a gray, chauffeur-driven vehicle in a traffic circle in the Manila suburb of Quezon City. The barrels of an M-16 rifle and a .45-caliber pistol poked out the window of the white car and spit out more than two dozen shots. Twenty-one of them hit the gray car. One of the rounds hit Col. James "Nick" Rowe in the head, killing him instantly. The hooded NPA killers had ties to the communist Vietnamese, Rowe's old enemies in Vietnam.
It took the communists nearly 25 years, but they finally silenced Nick Rowe. What they could not do in a jungle cage in South Vietnam's U Minh Forest through torture, intimidation, and political indoctrination, they did with a .45 and an American-made M-16 on the streets of Manila.
At the time of his death, Col. Rowe was serving at the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group providing anti-insurgency training for the Philippine military. He had carried to the Philippines the same hard-line anti-communist message that he had brought home from Vietnam. It was a message the NPA could not tolerate because Rowe, in his quiet, unassuming way, was more effective than any dozen diplomats in spreading freedom and democracy.
Col. Rowe had warned U.S. Embassy officials in the Philippines weeks before his death that the NPA was planning a major terrorist act, that a high-profile American might be in danger. The NPA wanted to prove its viability as a communist insurgency and convince them that not even American military might could stop them.
The State Department ignored Col. Rowe's warnings.
Rowe was left to fend for himself in the Philippines, just as the American military was left to fend for itself in Vietnam. Nick Rowe was as much a victim of America's impotence abroad as he was a victim of the communists.
Just how feeble America's foreign policy has become was evident in the State Department's response to his murder.
Col. Rowe's death prompted no unusual response from the American government or the public for whom he had diligently labored as a career Army officer. There were no reprisals, no retribution, no outraged calls for vengeance over the death of this American hero.
Col. James N. Rowe was buried May 2, 1989, in a steady rain near a grove of flowering cherry trees at Arlington National Cemetery. There were about 450 mourners at the funeral services, including Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Secretary of State James Baker. Those high-ranking career bureaucrats offered little solace and raised little commotion about Rowe's death. They are merely functionaries of a government that has abandoned its military men and allowed them to be used as political pawns.
Col. Rowe was a true believer in America and the American system, despite the ineptitude displayed by diplomats and politicians in Washington.
Col. Rowe was a soldier's soldier, and even though his government abandoned him in his time of need, he died a hero's hero, faithful to his country to the end.
When the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs issued its final report in January 1993, the senators who served on the committee decided to print a list of former POWs whom they considered heroes. To explain their choices the politicians wrote in the report:
"During the course of our investigation, the Select Committee was struck by the heroics of the Americans held in captivity in Vietnam.
"The commitment and sacrifice of these men under the most extreme conditions was truly remarkable. In spite of discord at home, propaganda, and torture, the conduct of most of the POWs stands as an inspiration and example to all who wear our country's uniform.
Following are a few examples of those who were captured and detained in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia."
The senators did not list Col. James N. Rowe, a war hero who should have been treated as a national treasure. Col. Rowe had, for years before his death, been a critic of U.S. government policy as it pertained to the issue of U.S. servicemen, because he believed some men are still being held in captivity.
Communist rebels have urged the Ramos government to release all political prisoners as a condition for the resumption of peace talks, which were stalled last year.
"If the U.S. government interferes, it means the U.S. is against our quest for peace," former prisoner Antonio Liongson said.
Liongson joined more than 100 political prisoners who went on hunger strike in early January to demand freedom. He was one of 24 released by President Fidel Ramos a day before Pope John Paul II arrived in Manila on Jan. 12 for a five-day visit.
The Roman Catholic church-backed Task Force Detainees claim there are still more than 250 political prisoners who were convicted of common crimes such as murder and robbery.
Vacandi Ladled, another former political detainee, said "it is time for the Philippine government to assert its sovereignty by rejecting the dictates of the U.S. government."
The committee has thrice recommended conditional pardon for Itaas and Continente, Ladled said.
In a Senate hearing Jan. 24, Justice Undersecretary Ramon Esguerra said he supports giving amnesty to Continente and Itaas, but the decision is up to Ramos.