The Army's Special Forces SERE course was designed by a Green Beret who relied on its four elements — survival, evasion, resistance, and escape - to return home from the Vietnam War in one of that war's most improbable survival stories.
In 1963, Special Forces first lieutenant James "Nick" Row, a 25-year-old West Point grad, was assigned to the dangerous MeKong Delta, where he advised and organized local South Vietnamese troops. During a failed early morning raid on October 29, his company was overtaken by Viet Cong guerrillas, and while bandaging an injured soldier Rowe was taken prisoner.
It was the beginning of a five-year nightmare in which he endured death threats, beatings, arm and leg irons, dysentery, hepatitis, jaundice, endless propaganda, and long periods of isolation (two years in all).
Much of the time, he was confined to a bamboo cage in the woods of U Minh, aka "The Forest of Darkness." When he was allowed out during the day, he made traps that he used to catch animals to avoid eating the rotten fish and rice that he was given.
The VC experimented with various methods of torture to weaken Rowe. But he didn't cave in and he didn't die. He became known as Mr. Trouble to his captors, because of his refusal to cooperate and his repeated attempts to escape. After five years, the VC discovered that he fooled them into thinking he was an engineer when in fact he was a Special Forces soldier. It was the last straw. They sent him off to be executed. On New Year's Eve in 1968, as he was being moved, Rowe heard an Army helicopter flying overhead and overpowered his guard. He ran into a field and waved down the helicopter. Within days, a photo of the bearded, hollow-cheeked Rowe and the story of his dramatic rescue was all over the news.
For years, he turned to writing as a catharsis, chronicling his extraordinary experience in the book Five Years to Freedom. In 1981, he returned to the military as a lieutenant colonel and oversaw part of the Green Berets' training at Fort Bragg. It was there that he designed the Army's highest level SERE course. Part of the training included stories of what he and his fellow POWs endured. For the SERE instructors, Rowe is the embodiment of a survivor, and they speak of him with reverence. "You hear what he went through and you think, 'I would have quit,'" says John, SERE's chief instructor today. "It literally brings tears to my eyes."
Rowe eventually returned to Southeast Asia in 1988. The following year, while working as a military advisor to the Philippine armed forces, he was assassinated by leftist rebels who ambushed his car in Manila. Rowe, 51, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Today, the Special Forces survival school that he created at Fort Bragg bears his name.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.