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This Special Forces legend was saved by his beard


Col. James "Nick" Rowe without the beard that saved his life. Photo: US Army

Col. James "Nick" Rowe played a large role in designing the modern training programs for Special Forces soldiers, especially the school that prepares troops to survive being taken captive.

Rowe graduated West Point in 1960 and was eventually sent to South Vietnam as a military advisor. In 1963, then-1st Lt. Rowe was captured in a Viet Cong ambush and taken to a prison camp.Rowe's intimate knowledge of how to survive captivity came from the more than five years he spent as a captive of the Viet Cong before successfully escaping, something he likely wouldn't have accomplished without his beard.

For five years, the young Special Forces officer spent most of his time in a cage and wasn't allowed more than 40 yards from it. Limited to two cans of rice per day, Rowe and fellow prisoners would capture snakes and rats whenever they could. Rowe also tried to escape three times.

In order to convince his guards that he wasn't a threat, Rowe told them that he was an engineer drafted into the Army. They still tortured him, but he stuck to his story until anti-war activists in America released his bio and the North Vietnamese government learned he was Special Forces.

Angry at his deceit and the training he had provided South Vietnamese soldiers, the North Vietnamese sentenced Rowe to death. A Viet Cong patrol took Rowe into the jungle for the execution.

As they were heading to the execution point though, Rowe heard a flight of helicopters. He shoved a guard to the ground and sprinted into a nearby clearing, waving his arms to get the pilots' attention.

Photo: US Army Sgt. 1st Class James K. F. Dung

They were American helicopters, but the first pilot to spot Rowe saw his black pajamas and nearly fired on him. Then he noticed Rowe's beard that had grown out during his captivity. After realizing that Vietnamese men were incapable of growing a thick beard, the helicopter scooped Rowe up and carried him to safety.

Rowe returned to the states as a major. He left the military for a short period before returning in 1981 as a lieutenant colonel stationed at Fort Bragg. There, he developed the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Course using the lessons he learned in captivity.

Rowe later deployed to the Philippines as the ground forces director for the Joint U.S. Military Advisory group for the Philippines where he provided counterinsurgency training for Philippine forces.

On Apr. 21, 1989, he was on his way to the advisory group headquarters when his vehicle came under fire and he was killed.

Rowe wrote a book about his time in the prison camp, "Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW."