|© 6 July 2002
Local captain to get Medal of Honor
Humbert R. Versace
By MATTHEW DOLAN,
|Humbert R. Versace, an honors graduate of Norfolk's Catholic High School and prisoner of war who loudly demanded humane treatment for his fellow soldiers for almost two years before the Viet Cong executed him, will receive the nation's highest award for military valor, the White House confirmed Friday.
Versace, a 27-year-old Army captain known as Rocky, will be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in an East Room ceremony on Monday, more than 30 years after he was first denied the combat award. A fellow POW, an Alexandria-based group of friends, classmates from West Point, the Army's Special Forces Command and a devoted researcher struggled for years to secure the rare honor for Versace.
Unlike the Air Force, Navy and Marines, the Army never before has awarded a Medal of Honor to a POW from Vietnam for heroism during captivity. "Most win it for a battle over a five-hour span or over a day,'' said John Gurr, one of his classmates from West Point and a member of the grass-roots Friends of Rocky Versace. "Rocky won the medal of honor for every day of his 23 months in captivity.''
Living with his grandmother and aunt, Versace spent his senior year at Catholic High while the rest of his family was stationed in Germany. "He wanted to get into West Point,'' Stephen V. Versace, one of his younger brothers, said in an interview Friday. "Norfolk Catholic was a bit more challenging than the schools in Germany.''
In 1955, Rocky Versace graduated fourth in his class at the school, which has since moved to Virginia Beach. Strong-willed was the common way friends and loved ones described Versace. Born on July 2, 1937, he was the oldest of five children. His father's career in the Army meant the family moved often.Versace filled the void left by his father's regular absences, his family said.
"He could pretty much drive anybody crazy,'' said Stephen Versace, a professor at the University of Maryland. "There was no gray for Rocky and he lived that way. Right is right. Wrong is wrong.''
As the end of high school approached, Rocky Versace struggled with a choice: West Point or the priesthood. He picked the Army. The first call to rise at West Point came every morning at 5:45, said Gurr, who is now retired outside Charlottesville. Most of the cadets slid back toward their bunks after the first rise and shine. Not Versace. He'd walk over toward the chapel. "Into the cold, dark winter,'' Gurr remembered. "And there he goes.''
At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Versace excelled at sports, too, winning the intermural wrestling championship at West Point. After graduation, he went to Korea, then Vietnam in 1962 as a military adviser. He asked for and received a six-month extension of his Vietnam tour in the Mekong Delta. "He was so eager to accomplish his mission of gathering intelligence that it was bound to get him into trouble sooner or later,'' retired Lt. Gen. Howard G. Crowell Jr., who bunked with Versace, told a historian preparing the Medal of Honor application.
By 1963, Capt. Versace had had enough. Scheduled to return home, Versace planned to leave the Army and study to become a priest with the Maryknoll Order missionaries.
But Versace was captured on Oct. 29 by the Viet Cong, sustaining three bullets to one leg, shrapnel wounds and a blow to his head. As the senior member of the imprisoned Americans, Versace insisted that his captors follow the Geneva Convention rules on humanitarian treatment, according to his fellow prisoners.
He sang popular American songs to lift morale. He berated his guards, who in turn shackled and gagged him. His captors tied a rope around his neck and dragged his emaciated, jaundiced body from village to village to show locals they had defeated this strong American soldier, witnesses told Versace's historian.
But the dog and pony show only steeled Versace's resolve. "He wouldn't just say nothing,'' Gurr said. "Rocky's nature was combative and stubborn. He would yell and curse. They were wrong, communism was wrong and he wasn't afraid to say so.''
Adding to the Viet Cong's ire, Gurr said, Versace rebuked them in French and Vietnamese.
"And he paid the price,'' Gurr said. He was kept hungry. His captors placed him in a tiger cage, its bamboo walls only 6 feet long, 2 feet wide and 3 feet high.
"Like a coffin,'' Gurr said.
For other prisoners, the guards thatched only the top to beat back the heat.
For Versace, they covered the sides to turn up the temperature.
"He went from 185 pounds down to something over 100,'' Gurr said.
He attempted to escape three times. But in September 1965, North Vietnamese radio announced that he and another American prisoner had been executed in reply to the death of three terrorists in Da Nang.
His remains have never been found.
Testimonials about his valor came first from James "Nick'' Rowe, who escaped from Viet Cong captivity in 1968. Rowe secured an audience with Richard Nixon. Awestruck at Versace's heroism, the president reportedly ordered the deceased Army captain be given the Medal of Honor.
But the Army awarded Versace the Silver Star instead, enraging supporters who argued that his refusal to give in helped protect other captured Americans from the Viet Cong's abuses.
After a group of Alexandria men tried and failed to have a local school named after Versace, the Army's Special Forces Command joined up with Versace's classmates at West Point to resurrect the effort to award him the highest medal.
Today, supporters will unveil a bronze statue of Versace accompanied by two children in Alexandria. His achievement on Monday will be enshrined at the Pentagon in its Hall of Heroes. "There is no bitterness in the end about the wait,'' Gurr said. "There is instead a marvel that it happened.
"Our system did work,'' he said. "Rocky would be proud.''
SPECIAL to WWW.HISTORICALMILITARIA.COM 6 July 2002