The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in combat a U.S. servicemember can earn. To earn the Medal, a troop has to conspicuously distinguish his or herself by valor above and beyond the call of duty at the risk of life and limb.
Since 1861, when Congress established the Medal of Honor, there have been 3,527 awards. The devastating majority of recipients have earned the highest honor in the heat of combat, usually in a single action or battle. Only a small number have earned the Medal for actions that spanned years and that didn’t involve continuous combat.
Captain Humbert Rocky Versace is one of them.
On the Ground in Vietnam
As an intelligence officer and advisor, Versace was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group for a tour of duty in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region in 1962. When the tour was ending, Versace volunteered for a six-month extension.
Versace, who could speak French and Vietnamese, was a man of strong faith and for some time had been contemplating donning the cloth and becoming a Catholic priest and missionary in southeast Asia after the completion of his service.
Then, in October 1963, with his tour ending in just two weeks, Versace went on another combat patrol with the Civilian Irregular Defence Group (CIDG). This joint unit was comprised of a combination of Green Berets and local Montagnard fighters who hated both the North Vietnamese and Communism dearly.
The Special Forces operators and their Montagnard fighters were targeting strong forces of Viet Cong insurgents in the area of the U Minh Forest. During that routine mission in October, a Viet Cong force ambushed the CIDG patrol. The heavily armed Viet Cong battalion poured machine-gun fire and mortars into the American-Montagnard patrol, inflicting heavy casualties. Versace was wounded twice but kept fighting and encouraging his comrades.
“As the battle raged, Captain Versace, although severely wounded in the knee and back by hostile fire, fought valiantly and continued to engage enemy targets. Weakened by his wounds and fatigued by the fierce firefight, Captain Versace stubbornly resisted capture by the over-powering Viet Cong force with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition.”
In the end, the Viet Cong battalion overpowered the patrol, and Versace and two of his comrades—including legendary Green Beret and father of the Survival, Evade, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course Colonel Nick Rowe—were captured despite their genuine attempts not to be captured alive. His actions enabled most of the patrol to retreat from the area safely, but it was at that point that the American captain’s ordeal would begin—an ordeal that would end up costing his life, while his actions would elevate him to immortality.
Prisoner of War & the Medal of Honor
While a prisoner of war, Versace took command of his fellow American captives and fought the North Vietnamese’s efforts to indoctrinate him and his comrades into Communism tooth and nail. For his defiance, Versace was repeatedly interrogated and tortured.
The Viet Cong sought to alienate him from the other prisoners of war and thus break his spirit. They put him into isolation in a bamboo cage and kept him shackled with chains, providing scant food and water as an additional form of pressure. And yet Versace did not break. He kept rallying his comrades even from isolation. According to local villagers, the worse the Viet Cong treated the American captain, the more joyful and defiant he became, always denouncing Communism and holding fast with the help of his Christian faith.
His Medal of Honor citation is telling:
“Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he exemplified the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into Prisoner of War status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American soldiers, scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and made three unsuccessful attempts to escape, despite his weakened condition which was brought about by his wounds and the extreme privation and hardships he was forced to endure.”
During his captivity, Captain Versace was segregated in an isolated prisoner of war cage, manacled in irons for prolonged periods of time, and placed on extremely reduced ration. The enemy was unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America.”
Then, after four unsuccessful escape attempts and with no sign of breaking or converting to Communism, the Viet Cong decided to do away with the troublesome American. On September 26, 1965, Versace left his cage for the last time. He was executed shortly thereafter. On his way to his death, he sang “God Bless America.”
“Captain Versace, an American fighting man who epitomized the principles of his country and the Code of Conduct, was executed by the Viet Cong on 26 September 1965. Captain Versace’s gallant actions in close contact with an enemy force and unyielding courage and bravery while a prisoner of war are in the highest traditions of the military service and reflect the utmost credit upon himself and the United States Army.”
The full story of Versace and his actions didn’t become known until the escape of Rowe, who had been captured alongside the martyred captain, in 1968. He told the Army and the world how Versace had valiantly fought a different battle and how pivotal he was in boosting the morale of his fellow prisoners of war.
Rowe’s account began a process for awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Versace. However, the Pentagon downgraded the proposal and instead awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor. It wasn’t until 2002, after a multi-year effort by his friends and family, that President George W. Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Versace’s family.