Escape from Darkness

By: Ben Bentley, B Troop Guns, 7/1st Air Cavalry

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From about two miles away at an altitude of 1,000 feet, I watched as the B-52 Arc Light strike began exactly on time. The initial flash fireball from each of the massive explosions quickly spread out in a gray-black smoke cloud of flying debris with a visible shock-wave force, destroying everything natural and man-made in its path. From 30,000 feet, each of the three giant B-52 Stratofortresses in the flight dropped approximately 27 tons of bombs, laying down an unbelievable path of total destruction. It was easy to understand why the Viet Cong referred to these strikes as “The Chain of Thunder.” The VC had no possible defense against them except to run, but run to where? They never saw or heard the aircraft. Their world just suddenly exploded all around them.

I was a Cobra pilot in B Troop, 7/1st Air Cavalry serving in the Delta region of Vietnam, tactically known as IV Corps. In reality, it was our hunting ground. A place where we sought out the VC reacted to intelligence reports and supported South Vietnamese soldiers with their Green Beret advisors. In many ways, the day-to-day routine became a mind numbing experience of simply staying alive.

This particular afternoon, we were near the edge of the U-Minh Forest, known to the Vietnamese as “The Forest of Darkness.” Our mission was to conduct a bomb damage assessment for the B-52 strike. As soon as the bombs stopped exploding, the Scouts would swoop into the area to see what they could find. Scouts flew small OH-6 light observation helicopters at treetop level looking for signs of the enemy. All too often, the first indication of VC activity was the Scouts being shot at. With Scouts flying low, the Cobras circled protectively overhead, ready to dive and attack anything that challenged them. The Cobras were AH-1 gunships carrying 2.75-inch folding fin aerial rockets and 7.62mm mini-guns.

As the Scouts searched the bombed area, they spotted a camp near the outer edge of the strike zone. Wanting more detailed information about the camp, the C&C (Command and Control) radioed our Lift Platoon to crank up their UH-1 Hueys and bring in some ground forces to sweep through the area. Although deserted when the troops arrived, they reported it was a recently occupied POW compound, complete with food, cooking gear, clothing, and cages with locks. When the Arc Light strike began, the VC guards had grabbed their weapons and disappeared into the surrounding countryside along with their prisoners.

Any discussion of Vietnam POWs invariably centers on those who were captured and held in the camps of North Vietnam, the most infamous of which was the Hanoi Hilton. However, many of our soldiers were also held in widely dispersed, crude, small camps scattered throughout South Vietnam. The few POWs who made it home alive from these camps did not return to the same fanfare of those from the North, but they too had suffered brutal treatment and endured.

The discovery of an active POW compound immediately changed our unit’s mission priorities from search and destroy to POW recovery. We spent several days and countless hours systematically searching for prisoners. None were found. About a week after the B-52 strike, the POW search was cancelled and we went back to our routine mission of responding to intelligence and hunting VC.

The morning of December 31st began like so many others, a before-dawn takeoff for a long flight deep into the Delta. We were going back to the U-Minh Forest for a day of hunting. Although called a forest, the U-Minh was nothing like the triple canopy jungles of the northern highlands of Vietnam. It was a massive plain of dense scrub brush and trees, usually five to 20 feet high, crisscrossed by a seemingly endless array of small canals. B Troop deployed the typical two hunter-killer teams of two Cobras and two Scouts per team, the Lift platoon and a C&C helicopter. Our staging area was an empty field about 20 minutes flight time from the mission area where we would refuel and rearm from prepositioned portable fuel bladders and conex containers of ammunition.

Upon arrival at the staging area, the second hunter-killer team, the Lift platoon and the C&C all landed to top-off their fuel. My hunter-killer team continued directly into the U-Minh forest to start the day’s search.

Almost immediately, the Scouts spotted a couple of long wooden boats called sampans, camouflaged and tied together in one of the small canals snaking throughout the U-Minh. They hovered around, using their rotor wash to blow away the camouflage, looking for any signs of VC. Within a couple of minutes, the lead Scout, piloted by 1LT Fred Young with gunner SP4 Abadella started taking AK-47 automatic rifle fire from a nearby clump of brush. He broke away, calling “Taking Fire” and simultaneously popped a red smoke grenade. I responded immediately, rolling into a hard left bank, then simultaneously dropped the nose and put the rocket sight on the billowing red smoke. I called “Inbound Hot” and fired 2 pairs of rockets. As the rockets exploded, my front seat co-pilot/gunner sprayed the area with the turret mini-gun. At 4,000 rounds per minute, a mini-gun spit out a solid line of red tracers, looking much like a deadly water hose.

As soon as I started my break off the target, my wingman fired a pair of rockets to cover me. His co-pilot/gunner also sprayed the area with his mini-gun. Since we didn’t receive hostile fire, I called “Going High and Dry”, signaling the Scouts to go back and check the target area. They found three dead VC and their weapons but nothing else.

Shortly thereafter, the C&C helicopter, piloted by our Commander Major David Thompson and his co-pilot, Warrant Officer-1 Louis Schantz, arrived with our relief hunter-killer team. We reported the activity, turned the search over to them and then headed to the staging area to refuel. Since I hadn’t fired much ordinance, I didn’t need to shut the engine down and reload. Instead, my co-pilot/gunner refueled us while I remained in the cockpit, holding the controls at a flight idle while monitoring the radio traffic. We had just completed refueling when I heard the lead Scout, flown by Captain Jerry Free with gunner SP4 Richard Farinha, call that he had spotted someone trying to surrender. Major Thompson radioed they were going to land to pick up the surrendering VC.

Suspecting the surrendering VC might be bait in a trap, Major Thompson advised the Cobra team to keep him closely covered. If the C&C took any fire, the Cobras were to immediately kill the VC. Throughout the landing approach, the lead Cobra flew a loose formation with the C&C, positioned to put immediate covering fire under the C&C helicopter if needed. The Cobra gunner held his turret mini-gun sight on what appeared to be the surrendering VC. As the C&C descended to about fifty feet, Major Thompson transmitted a radio call I’ll never forget: “My God, it’s an American!”

Although dressed like a VC in black pajamas and sandals, the C&C crew was now close enough to recognize that the individual was taller than the normal Vietnamese. He had a beard unlike most Vietnamese and the round eyes of a Caucasian.

When C&C touched down, the American ran toward the helicopter. He kept his hands high above his head until he was assured by the waving arm motions of the crew chief, SP/4 Michael Thompson and door gunner, SP/4 Breece Stevens, that he was not going to be shot. Once he was safely onboard, the C&C took off, climbing to a safe altitude above 1,500 feet.

The American identified himself as First Lieutenant James N. Rowe. The Scouts buzzed back into the area looking for any more POWs. Rowe indicated he was the only POW and there were only four surviving guards after the first Cobra strike. The four surviving VC were no longer important to us. Our priority shifted to getting 1LT Rowe back safely. Immediately after takeoff, Specialists Thompson and Stevens handed 1LT Rowe a canteen of water. They quickly opened several cans of C-Rations which the near-starving lieutenant eagerly devoured.

Major Thompson radioed for all B Troop helicopters to immediately join in formation on his helicopter to escort this hero on the first leg of his journey home. He radioed IV Corps Operations the code word indicating we had rescued a POW, followed by his phonetic initials, “Juliet November Romeo”. The voice on the radio asked Major Thompson to stand by. A few moments later, a different voice came on the radio asking if the POW could be put on the radio. One of the crewmen gave 1LT Rowe a helmet and showed him the transmit control switch. The new voice said “Welcome Home, Roomy!” It was Lieutenants Rowe’s roommate from West Point. We all had the privilege to monitor that heart-warming conversation.

First Lieutenant Nick Rowe was captured October 29, 1963 while serving as a Special Forces advisor and regained his freedom 5 years, 2 months and 2 days later, on December 31, 1968.

A few days later, B Troop received a short audio recording of some of the de-briefing of Lieutenant Rowe as he described exactly how he managed to get away from his guards.

Yes, he had been in the POW camp barely missed by the B-52 Arc Light strike. He and his seven guards had been living on the few small bags of rice they had carried from their camp. They added to their meager rations by eating bugs, grass and anything they could find since then. They had only a single cup of rice per day and everybody was getting very weak.

My initial Cobra strike killed three of his guards. As the survivors scrambled to get away from the Scouts and hide in the thick brush and trees, 1LT Rowe managed to get himself and one of the guards separated from the others. His guard only had two weapons, an old American M3 .45 caliber sub-machinegun, commonly called a grease-gun, and a single hand grenade. The M3 fires from an open bolt position, meaning a bullet is not carried in the chamber. When the trigger is pulled, the bolt slides forward, stripping a round from the magazine and shoves it into the chamber for firing. As they were going through some especially heavy brush, 1LT Rowe managed to bump into the guard and released the M3’s magazine latch. The guard, not realizing this had happened, was left with an unloaded gun and one grenade. 1LT Rowe figured the guard was so weak he wouldn’t dare throw the grenade at him for fear he would also kill himself. In 1LT Rowe’s mind, the guard was now unarmed and the others were nowhere to be seen. When a Scout flew close by, he knocked the young guard down with a stick and ran into a small clearing, waving his white mosquito net and praying the Scouts or Cobras would not shoot him. On this day, his prayers were answered!

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Several years later, I had the privilege of meeting Major Rowe. He had been awarded all of his missed promotions when he returned home. He came to our base on a speaking tour for Savings Bonds. Although I had only a couple of minutes to talk with him, it was a real pleasure to shake his hand and tell him that I was flying one of the Cobras when he was rescued.

I consider myself lucky to have played a small part in the escape of this American hero. That single mission made my year in Vietnam worthwhile. I don’t think this mission ever received much, if any, news coverage back home. But my fellow B Troop Dutch Masters know what we did on that day in 1968 and are proud of it. Personally, I think that all 7/1st Air Cavalry Blackhawks should take a great deal of pride in the fact our unit got one of the good guys back!

In 1971, Major Rowe’s story of his POW experiences was published in his book titled “Five Years to Freedom”. He retired from the Army in 1974. Lieutenant Colonel Rowe was recalled to active duty in 1981 and tasked to design and build a course based on his POW experiences. That course, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) continues to be a requirement for graduation from the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification Course. The other U.S. Military Services have similar courses based on his SERE school.

In 1987, Colonel Rowe was assigned to the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in the Philippines. Tragically, while serving in this assignment, he was assassinated by Communist guerrillas in April 1989.

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