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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 12:12 p.m., Monday, July 8, 2002

Hawai'i-raised Army captain honored

By Mitch Stacy
Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. Standing before a black granite wall bearing the names of fallen heroes today, modern soldiers remembered the courage of an Army captain who died a generation ago as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

On the same day President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to the soldier's family at a White House ceremony, U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base unveiled a plaque honoring Capt. Humbert R. Versace.

Versace, who was reared in Hawai'i and Washington and followed his father to the U.S. Military Academy, was wounded and captured in a battle at Tan Phu on Oct. 29, 1963. He assumed command of his fellow American prisoners and continued to resist his Viet Cong captors until they executed him two years later.

The Green Beret became well-known among the villagers and other POWs for his continued defiance in the face of brutal beatings and torture.

"By taking time to honor his memory, we cannot help but renew our own commitment to the ideals and principles for which he long ago sacrificed his youth and gave the last full measure of his life," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James C. McCombs, who unveiled the plaque on the U.S. Special Operations Command memorial wall.

Versace was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he was captured. He immediately became an annoyance to his captors, resisting exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts and making several unsuccessful escape attempts. Three attempts by U.S. forces to free him also were scuttled.

"Rocky's captors clearly had no idea who they were dealing with," Bush said in the White House ceremony. "He was fluent in French, English and Vietnamese and would tell his guards to go to hell in all three."

Versace was executed on Sept. 26, 1965, and his remains were never recovered. He was 27.

"The last thing fellow prisoners reported they heard from Rocky Versace was the battered Army captain defiantly singing 'God Bless America' in his cell the night before his execution," said Col. William Kay, deputy director for Special Operations Command.

The ceremony in Washington marked the first time the Medal of Honor has been awarded to an Army POW for conduct while in captivity.

"It is particularly appropriate that the recognition given Capt. Versace comes now, at a time in our nation's history when we find ourselves engaged in a conflict against another enemy, one who continues to display a hatred for freedom and Western ideals," McCombs said.