Beard saves Special Forces Officer’s life

by Nicholas Karnaze November 21, 2016

Infantry board helos during the Vietnam War. Photo credit: US Army

Colonel James “Nick” Rowe’s beard saved his life. Col Rowe graduated West Point in 1960 and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He joined Special Forces in 1961 and deployed to the Republic of Vietnam as a member of Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 23.

Just months after arriving in Vietnam, 1st Lt Rowe was advising a company of Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) forces when their unit came under attack by the Viet Cong. Rowe and two other Americans were captured during the attack. He was held captive in the jungle for over five years, spending most of his time in a bamboo cage, keeping busy by chopping firewood and setting traps to catch small animals.

Despite making multiple escape attempts, Rowe convinced his captors that he was not Special Forces but instead just an attached engineer “draftee” from a small liberal arts college. The Viet Cong routinely tortured Rowe to see if his story would change, but he held strong. That same torture took the lives of several of his fellow captives. Two others were executed.

Col James "Nick" Rowe sans beard. Photo credit: US Army

Then an anti-war group in the United States released Rowe’s biography and the Viet Cong learned he was, in fact, Special Forces. Sentenced to death, he was marched into the jungle for execution. In a fortunate twist of events,, American helicopter gunships happened to fly over the area and surprise the patrol. Rowe was able to break free from his captors during the chaos and ran into a clearing to signal the helicopters. They nearly opened fire on him thinking he was the enemy, but the pilot suddenly noticed Rowe’s thick beard, realized he must be an American and swooped down and lifted him to safety.

Rowe was one of only two US Army personnel to successfully escape captivity during the Vietnam War. He left the military for a number of years before returning to Special Forces, where he drew upon his experiences as a Prisoner of War to develop the Army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Course.

In the late 1980s Col Rowe deployed to the Philippines as Chief of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAAG) Philippines Ground Forces Division. He was assassinated on April 21st, 1989, on his way to the JUSMAAG headquarters in a suburb of Manila. He was 51 years old.


Rest easy, brother.



stubble & 'stache was founded by a former Marine Corps Special Operations Combat Veteran in memory of his fallen comrade. We donate a percentage of profits to organizations supporting those men and women suffering from the mental wounds sustained in combat.


Nicholas Karnaze
Nicholas Karnaze


Warfighter turned entrepreneur. Founder, stubble & 'stache. Grooming expert. Skincare nerd. Marine Corps combat veteran.

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