This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing "God Bless America"
This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”

Mike Wood - March 26, 2018

“If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.”
– Code of the United States Fighting Force

As anyone who has seen The Great Escape knows, it is the duty of every prisoner of war to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the enemy, even while in captivity. Many stories of heroism in the Second World War were written by those who resisted in the most spectacular fashion possible or in the smallest of ways that they could manage: whether by constantly trying to escape and thus diverting attention towards themselves, or simply by getting on the guards nerves as much as they could to slowly sap at morale.

In ancient times, those captured in battle could expect to find themselves either summarily executed or sold into a life of slavery, but as the years went by, their rights improved. The status of prisoners of war over the years changed drastically when an accepted set of rules regarding their treatment was created at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, called to end the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. While the major powers of Europe agreed to treat each other’s captured well, the first camp was not built until 1797, nearly 150 years later, and the idea of exchanging each other’s prisoners did not occur until even after that.

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
German prisoners captured in France during the First World War. Google Sites.

There was always a give and take between factions on the issue: soldiers were meant to keep fighting in any way they could and not simply sit in captivity waiting to be freed when the war ended, while guards were not meant to overly harm prisoners, even when they were clearly fighting back against their guards. It was an impasse that would see little resolution. The Geneva Conventions on the rights of Prisoners of War were agreed in 1929 – confusingly, there are three Geneva Conventions, the one that most people have heard of being the 1949 nuclear non-proliferation Convention and not the Convention concerning the rules of war. The 1929 convention made it illegal to torture prisoners, gave them the right to packages and letters home, ensured decent food and work, disavowed slave labour and allowed them not to disclose any information that they did not want to.

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
Prisoners of War held in a Japanese camp during the Second World War. WWII Today.

Of course, when the Second World War started, plenty of this went out of the window. The Nazis and Soviets routinely flouted their obligations to each other’s prisoners: 57% of Soviet prisoners held by the Germans died, while 35.8% of Germans held by the Soviets did too. The British and Americans fared much better, with death rates of around 3% if they were captured by Germans, while Germans captured by Brits and Americans died at a rate of less than 1%. The Geneva Convention of 1929, however, was never ratified by Japan. Almost a third of those captured in the Pacific perished, and it would be a trend that continued in the region well after the war had ended.

 

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
Senator John McCain after his release from captivity in Vietnam. IndieWire.

 

When the Americans returned to South East Asia in the 1960s, their soldiers would suffer the same treatment again. The Vietnamese prisoner of war camps were notorious for their brutality. Torture, beatings, starvation and maltreatment were the norm, with future Presidential candidate John McCain, who spent four years in captivity later stating: “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine,” after he had agreed to go on television to make anti-American statements. The POWs mantra, according to veterans, was: “Take physical torture until you are right at the edge of losing your ability to be rational. At that point, lie, do, or say whatever you must do to survive. But you first must take physical torture.”

The most notorious prison in North Vietnam was the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where McCain was held. It was situated in the city centre of the capital of North Vietnam, Hanoi, and was renowned for its harshness and brutality. The food was dreadful, it was riddled with disease and the temperatures were stifling. Captured GIs ironically named it after the famous Hilton hotel chain and even went as far as dubbing the various sections of the prison after hotels on the Las Vegas Strip – many of the airmen who found themselves in there having training at Nellis Air Force base, close to Sin City.

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
US soldiers suffering at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison in North Vietnam. Learning History.

Prisoners could expect to be torture via methods such as cladding in irons to restrict movement, beatings, extended time without human contact, sleep deprivation and rope-binding, where they were suspended for extended periods of time with their arms behind their backs so as to induce shoulder dislocations. A large proportion of those who captured as prisoners of war in Vietnam had already been injured, especially Air Force personnel who had crash-landed behind enemy lines, and the guards and torturers were always willing to take advantage of existing medical issues to gain the information that they wanted to obtain from captured Americans.

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
Rocky Versace during his time in South East Asia. Arlington National Cemetery.

One man who took more than his fair share was Humbert “Rocky” Versace. In fact, he took so much that the Vietcong killed him for refusing to ever give up. Versace was born in Hawaii in 1937, the son of an Army Captain, and followed his father into the forces as soon as he was able. He volunteered for Vietnam and first arrived in 1962. He stayed for a year and then extended his tour of duty by a further six months. Just a fortnight before his stay in Vietnam was due to end, he was ambushed along with South Vietnamese soldiers in the Mekong Delta and found himself spirited away to a jungle prison camp with two other Americans.

Versace, a military child and a career soldier, knew his rights and knew what he needed to do if captured. He attempted to escape on four separate occasions and, when interrogated, refused to say a word to the Vietcong. He hurled insults at them and constantly cited the Geneva Conventions, telling his captors that he had enshrined rights as a Prisoner of War. Vietnam, of course, never signed up to the Geneva Convention and was not bound by it.

They tortured Versace, but he never gave in, and was eventually taken away from the other two Americans who had been captured with him. The last they heard of Humbert Versace was him singing “America the Beautiful” at the top of his voice, in defiance of his captors. In September 1965, almost two years after he had first been taken prisoner, the Vietcong radio station announced that he had been executed.

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
Humbert “Rocky” Versace’s Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. Blackfive.

No body was ever discovered and Versace’s grave lies empty in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. His parents, on hearing of his death, travelled to France to visit a Vietcong delegation that were there negotiating the Paris Peace Accords. They were unsuccessful in garnering any information and eventually resigned to never finding the remains of their son. Humbert Versace was awarded the Silver Star – he had been nominated for a Medal of Honor – and largely forgotten about.

It was only after a campaign group, the “Friends of Rocky Versace” campaign, raised awareness of Humbert Versace’s heroism that his story came back to prominence. After years of lobbying for it, Versace was finally awarded the Medal of Honour, posthumously, by President George W. Bush in a ceremony at the White House. Four of his siblings were present to see their brother honoured by the United States, the first soldier ever to be given the Medal of Honor for valour shown while held captive as a Prisoner of War.

This Medal of Honor Recipient Was Executed for Singing “God Bless America”
The family of Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Stirm greet him as he lands home after being released from captivity in South East Asia. Newsela.

Rocky Versace is not alone in waiting a long time to be fully awarded for service in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. The status of those either missing in action or hald captive was still debated long after the end of the conflict in 1975. For years after the end of the war, it was alleged that many Americans remained in captivity in Vietnam, or had otherwise been moved away from South East Asia to the custody of one of North Vietnam’s allies. Many airmen who had been shot down over North Vietnam or neighbouring Laos were unaccounted for, as it was unclear how many had died in the process of being downed and how many had found themselves in captivity. The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia was set up by the wives of servicemen in 1971, as the Vietnam War was still raging, and continues to fight for those left behind.

As of 2018, some 1600 Americans are still listed as missing in action/prisoner of war in South East Asia. The United States has spent decades in discussions with the Vietnamese and Laotians in the hope of finding the remains of killed soldiers from the War. Between 1991 and 1993, a commission led by Senator John McCain – as well as former Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Bob Smith, both of whom also served in Vietnam – declared that “no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Rocky Versace: The Bravest Man You Have Never Heard Of” Donald R. McLarey, The American Catholic, May 29, 2016

Humbert Roque Versace. Wikipedia

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