WASHINGTON - Army Capt. Humbert "Rocky" Versace is one of 88,000 Americans still listed as missing in action since the outset of World War II, including 1,800 from the war he fought in Vietnam.
Rocky was wounded and taken captive by the Communist Vietcong on Oct. 29, 1963, in the U Minh Forest of South Vietnam. He was never repatriated.
President Bush has honored Rocky and all Americans who were prisoners of war or are still missing in action by proclaiming today National POW/MIA Recognition Day, an annual event held the third Friday in September.
|Courtesy of the Versace family|
|Army Capt. Humbert "Rocky" Versace, seen before he became a prisoner of war in Vietnam.|
"We will not rest until we have achieved the fullest accounting for every member of our armed forces missing in the line of duty," the president said in a proclamation released on Wednesday.
From the outset of his captivity, Rocky defied his Communist captors.
"Rocky stood toe to toe with them," fellow POW Dan Pitzer said after his own release in 1967. "He told them to go to hell in Vietnamese, French and English. He got a lot of pressure and torture, but he held his path."
Beaten, starved and shackled, Rocky refused to give in to the Vietcong.
"He was the one who set the lead for all of us in the camp," Nick Rowe, another POW, said not long after escaping in 1968. "He was a tough act to follow, but there was nobody in our camp who broke."
On Sept. 26, 1965, nearly two years into his captivity, 28-year-old Rocky Versace was taken out and executed by the Vietcong for his unrelenting defiance. His remains were never recovered.
"He was killed because duty, honor and country meant more to him than life itself," Pete Dawkins, a West Point classmate and retired brigadier general, said in a speech in 2002.
Rocky was awarded a posthumous Silver Star in 1971, but a group of friends and admirers felt he deserved better. They felt he deserved a Medal of Honor.
"Rocky Versace earned the Medal of Honor every day he got up and went on for 23 months," West Point classmate John Gurr said in an interview in 2000. "He was absolutely uncompromising."
The Army eventually agreed and awarded Rocky the military's highest honor "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty."
President Bush presented Rocky's Medal of Honor to his brother Steve at a White House ceremony on July 8, 2002.
"Rocky's story echoes across the years," the president said, "reminding us of liberty's high price, and of the noble passion that caused one good man to pay that price in full."
Steve said recently that he thinks every day about his older brother Rocky, who had planned to return to Vietnam as a Catholic Maryknoll missionary and run an orphanage he had begun as a soldier.
"That's what he really wanted to do," Steve said, "but he never got a chance."
John Rutherford is an NBC News Producer based out of the Washington, D.C., bureau and is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.dailynightly.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories").