The First American POW to escape captivity during the war in Vietnam.
Green Beret Army Capt. Isaac Camacho vividly recalled the terrible night when he was captured by Viet Cong. It was the night of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. He was held for nearly two years until he fled, becoming the first U.S. prisoner to escape from Viet Cong captivity. That evening, Nov. 22, 1963, the Viet Cong forces started firing mortars into the Hiep Hoa U.S. Army Special Forces base camp, in South Vietnam, about 35 miles north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). While half of his team was away, he said, Viet Cong fighters infiltrated the camp, silently killed guards and forced Vietnamese civilians to lay down their weapons — they only wanted to kill the Americans.
Several of the Special Forces troops manned a machine-gun position and began trying to stem the tide of invaders.
Camacho, who was the camp’s heavy weapons specialist, grabbed a carbine and made his way to the mor-tar bunker, where he waged a one-man mortar barrage against the enemy. He was still firing approximately 30 minutes later when he was joined by Lieutenant John R. Colby, the detachment’s executive officer, who was trying to rally the defending forces. In light of the attack’s intensity, and seeing that some of the CIDG troops were fleeing, Colby decided that further efforts to defend the camp would be futile. He handed Camacho a grenade to use for added protection and ordered him to leave while he could.
Camacho left reluctantly. He knew that a couple of Americans were still fighting inside the camp. Once outside the compound, he thought of his friends and could not bring himself to abandon them. He re-entered the enclosure and encountered heavier firepower and exploding mortar rounds. When he suddenly came face to face with some VC, he blasted at them with his carbine. The enemy fire was so overwhelming that he tossed his grenade at the VC and made a dash for cover in a machine-gun bunker. But the VC soon located him, as well as Sergeant George E. Smith, Specialist Claude McClure and Staff Sgt. Kenneth M. Rorback.
Apparently, I was seen, Camacho later recalled, because in the next 30 seconds, I was surrounded and flashlights were being shined on me. I was ordered to get up, and as I did a VC grabbed my carbine. He felt the barrel, which was hot, then he said something to the others in Vietnamese. While they were tying me up, one VC gave me a butt stroke with his M-1 and I was out. When I came to, I had blood all over from a gash on the back of my head. Then another order was given, and we were practically dragged across the barbed wire.
Although he survived the intense attack, Camacho and the three other men captured by the Viet Cong were beaten and blindfolded. They were transported like cargo to one of the guerrilla army’s bases. Camacho lived in shackles and was confined to cages, one of which was just six by eight feet, for much of the next 21 months.
The action (at the camp) earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. On July 9, 1964 His escape, spending four days evading pursuers in order to return to U.S. control, earned him the Silver Star.
We honor you, Isaac Camacho.