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The Vietnam War spawned heroes whose valor still 'echoes across the years.'
"In his too-short life, he traveled to a distant land to bring the hope of freedom to people he never met. In his defiance and later his death, he set an example of extraordinary dedication...
His story echoes across the years, reminding us of liberty's high price and of the noble passion that caused one good man to pay that price in full."
President George W. Bush, awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor to Capt. Humbert "Rocky" Versace, July 8, 2002
By: Jeff Stoffer

Special Forces Capt. Humbert "Rocky" Versace, a second-generation West Point graduate, could tell his Viet Cong captors to go to he** in three different languages. So he did - in English, French and Vietnamese - according to fellow prisoners. But no one needed directions. Deep down, they all understood they were already there.


By the time the young Green Beret was taken prisoner - months before most Americans knew we had soldiers in Vietnam, or why - Versace had already completed one tour of duty there and was two weeks from finishing a second. Fate, not he, had any intention of allowing the relationship to end so soon.

A member of a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group that trained civilian militia to defend against communist guerrillas, Versace planned to enter the priesthood after discharge, become a missionary and return to the jungles of Southeast Asia to help orphans whose lives were unsinged by war. He had met these children. He knew they needed him. Unyielding was his devotion to the Special Forces motto: "De Oppresso Liber" - free the oppressed. He was willing to give everything he had, no matter the cost, to live up to those words.

He did not make it to the priesthood. But Rocky Versace fulfilled his obligation to the principles that sent him to Vietnam in the first place.

That's why he's a hero.

On Oct. 29, 1963, in what might otherwise have been his final combat mission, Versace was helping lead a group of civilian irregulars in an attack on a Viet Cong command post in Thoi Binh district, An Xuyen province. When his men got there, the VC had fled. On the way out, they reappeared, on three sides. It was an ambush. The U.S.-led force was outnumbered approximately 1,000 to 120. Under heavy assault, Versace gave the order to withdraw. He dug in and provided cover fire so the South Vietnamese soldiers in his command could escape. In the melee, he was shot several times, in the leg and back.

1st Lt. James "Nick" Rowe, one of three Americans captured that night, later wrote in his book, "Five years to Freedom," that Versace was undaunted in the face of death. "Rock wanted to charge out with the seven rounds he had left in his carbine and get that many more shots off..." wrote Rowe, who miraculously escaped from captivity in 1968 but was killed by a terrorist in the Philippines in 1989. "I showed him that his wounds were pumping like a fire hydrant and that he would bleed to death if he didn't let me get a bandage on him. I got the first compress on his leg and was starting to put the second one on...when all of a sudden the reeds broke open, and I heard someone yelling: "Do tay len!" Hands up!"

Versace was not a model prisoner. He used his diverse language skills to plant doubt in the heads of his guards, until they gagged him. He assumed command of the others held there, until they isolated him. Unable to walk due to his wounds, he tried three escapes, belly-crawling away, until they secured him with manacles inside a bamboo cage barely larger than a casket. As mosquitoes blackened his skin, he remained indomidably uncooperative. His strategy: to distract the guards from other POWs, protecting them from torture.

Finally, sometime in September 1965, the VC couldn't take it anymore. They executed Capt. Versace. His skin was yellow with jaundice; his hair had gone white. But the last time his fellow captives heard his voice, they heard him singing, with all his remaining strength, "God Bless America." He was 27.

Within the elite fraternity of 245 Vietnam War heroes who have so far received the Medal of Honor, the Versace story is not the most heroic; they all are heroic. It is not the most dramatic; they all are dramatic. Awarded just 14 months ago, Versace's is the most recent Vietnam War Medal of Honor - unique for having been bestowed upon an Army soldier for actions taken as a POW.

Although every Medal-of-Honor story is unique, the common thread among them was perhaps best summarized by Versace's West Point classmate, Ret. Army Brig. Gen. Pete Dawkins, who said of the recalcitrant POW: "He was a soldier. He was killed because honor, duty and country meant more to him than life."

It does not have to take 23 months to demonstrate such character content. Most often, heroism happens in a flash, without meditation - when the first impulse is to defy death, or meet it head-on, so that others may live or achieve a greater goal. The odds of getting killed are the odds they take.

It is the very definition of guts.

Air Force Sgt. John Levitow of Connecticut later said he had no memory of the actions that saved him and his crew aboard a Douglas AC-47 gunship on a battlefield-illumination mission the night of Feb. 24, 1969, above the Bien Hoa area. They were at about 3,500 feet when an 82-mm mortar round blasted into the plane, blowing a two-foot hole in the wing and spraying shrapnel through the cargo bay. All four crewmembers were badly wounded. Levitow was struck by 47 fragments. Severely bleeding, he staggered to a more badly hurt crewman who was in danger of falling out of the plane. While attempting to move him toward the front of the bay, Levitow saw that the blast had knocked loose a live 2-million-candlepower magnesium flare that was rolling around amid spilled ammunition, as the AC-47 lurched through the sky. Levitow leaped onto the 27-pound tube and coaxed it to the door, knowing that at any second it would ignite white-hot and could burn through the floor, into the fuel tanks. At best they would be blinded if the flare went off. More likely, they would be incinerated. But Levitow made it, leaving a trail of blood behind him before pushing it out the door. The flare barely cleared the plane's tail when it ignited. In an interview before his death from cancer in 2000, he credited his actions to training. He called what he did a "blank, conditioned response."

On May 14, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon awarded him the Medal of Honor. At the time, he was the lowest-ranking airman to receive the medal and to this day remains a symbol of inspiration for enlisted service-members in all branches.

Levitow said he was asked to arrive at his medal ceremony in civilian clothes and to maintain a low profile, due to antiwar demonstrations outside the White House. "I think you have to step back in history a little bit," he once said, humbly. "We were in a very troubled time."

Levitow never took much credit for the heroism he showed that night. But when he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Jim Finch told gatherers that what he did boiled down to an inner principle training alone cannot impart. "Through his heroic efforts, he was the embodiment of our core value: 'service before self.'"

Service before self made Rhode Island native John Baca, an Army Specialist Fourth Class, leap onto a live grenade, cover it with his helmet, absorb the full impact himself, saving the lives of the eight men on patrol with him in Vietnam. He received the Medal of honor in 1971.

Service before self drove Pvt. John Andrew Barnes III of Boston to perform similarly on Nov. 12, 1967. Barnes was serving as a grenadier when his unit was attacked by a North Vietnamese force estimated to be a battalion. He dashed through the whizzling bullets of an all-out fight to take over where a machine-gun team had been knocked out. Barnes blew away nine enemy soldiers who were trying to assault his position and was reaching for more ammo when a live grenade landed in the midst of several wounded men nearby. Without hesitation, he jumped on it, saving their lives, ending his, at age 22. He's on the wall now, one of 152 others who paid for their Medals of honor with their lives.

Marine Capt. Jay Vargas of Arizona received the Medal of Honor for leading three companies through fierce enemy mortar, rocket and artillery fire, across open rice paddies in an advance on the heavily fortified village of Dai Do between April 30 and May 2, 1968. He suffered many wounds while leading his Marines up to the enemy perimeter, and on the third day saw that his battalion commander had been badly hit. Disregarding his own excruciating pain, Vargas carried his commander back to a covered position, through the fire-swept battleground, and returned quickly to his men to set up a new defense.

They successfully held their ground, in the face of massive counter attacks.

After a distinguished career in the Marine Corps, Vargas went on to become a leader in veterans affairs, serving as California's Secretary of Veterans Affairs under former Gov. Pete Wilson.

Army Staff Sgt. Nicky Bacon chose a similar career path after receiving the Medal of Honor, serving as VA director for Arkansas and as an American Legion department service officer. His care for those with whom he served could not have been demonstrated more boldly than on Aug. 26, 1968, when he stood atop an exposed tank in heavy enemy fire west of Tam Ky and directed an attack on enemy positions so wounded soldiers could be evacuated. Earlier that day, Bacon had pushed his squad through a hostile attack and destroyed an enemy bunker with grenades. Two platoon leaders went down around him. He assumed command and single-handedly brought down a North Vietnamese gun crew, killed four enemy soldiers, silenced an antitank weapon and led a successful strike that made possible the rescue effort.

So often, that's what it takes - one man willing to gamble his life for others.

South Dakota-born Maj. Patrick Brady went through three UH-1H ambulance helicopters on Jan. 6, 1968, hovering low along foggy trails, descending through shortrange enemy fire and smoke. At one point that day, he and his crew had to land their Huey in a mine field. A mine detonated, severely damaging the helicopter and wounding two of the men. Brady kept moving, replacing disabled Hueys and taking off again to save, in the course of the day, a total of 51 American and South Vietnamese soldiers' lives. Many of the wounded lay less than 50 meters from enemy forces. None would have survived if not for his willingness to risk his own life, for them.

Marine Lt. Harvey Barnum of Cheshire, Conn., assumed command of his rifle company, pinned down by heavy, accurate enemy fire, separated from the platoon, with limited hope of survival. His commander lay dying. The commander's radioman lay dead. The wounded were everywhere. Barnum took the radio and strapped it to himself. Fully exposed to enemy fire, he calmly encouraged the men to keep moving. He launched a successful counter-attack and, against all odds, created a small area so casualties could be evacuated. Duty, for him, came before self.

Army Specialist 4th Class Michael John Fitzmaurice and three fellow soldiers were under attack at Khe Sanh on March 23, 1971, when three explosive charges were thrown into their bunker. Fitzmaurice hurled two out and leaped on the third, covering it with his flak jacket. The impact seriously wounded and partially blinded him. Still, he charged out of the bunker and fired at the enemy until his rifle was disabled by a grenade. While searching for a new weapon, he overcame a North Vietnamese sapper in hand-to-hand combat. Upon finding a new rifle, he returned to his position and continued to fire, refusing medical treatment, so his comrades could get out. He fought and kept fighting and, because of that, others lived. That is why Fitzmaurice is a hero.

On April 1, 1970, at Tay Ninh province, Sgt. Peter C. Lemon of Michigan fended off a numerically superior enemy force, using rifle and machine-gun fire until all his weapons malfunctioned. Then he used hand grenades to dispose of all but one North Vietnamese foe, whom he ran down and overcame, hand to hand. Suffering fragment wounds from a grenade, Lemon regained his bearings and saw a more seriously hurt U.S. soldier. Lemon carried the man to an aid station and returned to his post, where he was wounded a second time. Realizing his position was in danger of being overrun, he lobbed more grenades and continued to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. He was wounded a third time, and yet - through sheer determination - kept the enemy at bay. He found his way to an operable machine gun and kept firing until he collapsed, exhausted and bleeding from multiple wounds, victorious, and a hero who would soon wear the medal.

On Nov. 18, 1967, west of Cai Lay, Pvt. Sammy L. Davis of Indianapolis rejected warnings to seek cover and instead manned a Howitzer that had been directly hit by the Viet Cong, and as it burned, he kept loading it and firing, getting knocked to the ground each time, over and over. Extensively injured, he ignored his inability to swim and used an air mattress to cross a deep river in an effort to save three wounded comrades. He stood upright and fired at enemy positions in dense vegetation along the river to cover the hurt men. Once they were out, he returned to his position, refused medical attention and joined another Howitzer crew that drove out the VC.

Then there was Air Force Maj. George E. Day who escaped a jungle POW camp and lived on berries and frogs. He became disoriented and was shot and recaptured by the Viet Cong, to whom he fed false information before they took him back to Hanoi.

And there was Navy Chaplain Vincent Capodanno of New York, who in 1967 ran through a fiery battlefield to administer last rites and provide aid to the wounded, even after a mortar round blasted him and severed a portion of his right hand. He kept going, trying to help every man he could, until machine-gun fire cut him down.

Army Specialist 4th Class Gary George Wetzel of Milwaukee, Wis., distinguished himself near Ap Dong An, Republic of Vietnam, on Jan. 8, 1968, this way: while serving as a door gunner in an assault helicopter company, he was part of an insertion force that was trapped in a hostile and deadly landing zone. His commander had been hit. Wetzel went to him, but two enemy rockets exploded just inches away, and suddenly, Wetzel had no left arm. His right arm also had been hit, as were his left leg and chest. Somehow, he got up. He staggered through the rice paddy. Blood poured from his wounds. He found his gun-well and weapon. He began firing until he destroyed the enemy machine-gun unit that had trapped them. As he bled, Wetzel attempted to return to his aircraft commander but passed out due to blood loss. He regained consciousness and made his way to his crew chief, who was trying to drag the commander to the safety of a nearby dike. Again, Wetzel passed out. Again, he reawakened, staring death in the face, giving everything he had to reach the safety of cover.

Ten months later, Wetzel was in Wahington, where President Lyndon B. Johnson proudly acknowledged with the Medal of Honor that his actions in that rice paddy warranted a permanent place in the history of American bravery and valor.

The list goes on.

Every citation a different story of heroism, each unique in its drama but consistent in value, the value of service above self, of duty, honor and country, of De Opressor Liber - the inner voices that have placed 245 from the Vietnam War among the 3,440 greatest heroes in American history.

Jeff Stoffer is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.

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