Captain Rocky Versace Plaza

On 6 July 2002, the family of Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace, members from his United State Military Academy Class of 1959, City of Alexandria representatives, brothers-in-arms, and the Friends of Rocky Versace dedicated Alexandria’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Page updated on Oct 13, 2021 at 11:36 AM

In honor of 68 Alexandria Men who gave the Ultimate Sacrifice

     On 6 July 2002, the family of Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace, members from his United State Military Academy Class of 1959, City of Alexandria representatives, brothers-in-arms, and the Friends of Rocky Versace dedicated Alexandria’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial - the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The ceremony, two days after our nation celebrated its 226th birthday, was the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year effort to appropriately honor Captain Rocky Versace.  Two days later, in a White House East Room ceremony attended by hundreds, President George W. Bush posthumously awarded his family the Medal of Honor for Versace’s heroic, 23-month sustained resistance “above and beyond the call of duty” against the communist Viet Cong while the senior officer in a jungle Prisoner of War (POW) camp.  On the 8th of July, Rocky’s valor was further recognized when Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White and Chief of Staff of the Army General Eric K. Shinseki inducted Captain Versace into the Department of Defense Hall of Heroes in the Pentagon building. 

     Rocky Versace was the son of a soldier – born at Schofield Barracks in the Territory of Hawaii in 1937.  His father was a 1933 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  Because of varied military assignments, the Versace family moved frequently.  Rocky lived longer in Alexandria (from 1948-1953) than anywhere else during his short life.  The Versace family resided in a home on Forrest Street – just two blocks north of the Mt. Vernon Recreation Center and this Memorial.  He attended grammar school in Alexandria, then was a student at Gonzaga College High School in the District of Columbia for 2 years.  With his father’s assignment to U.S. Army in Germany, he spent his junior year at Frankfurt American H.S.  In order to better compete for admission to the U.S.M.A., he moved in with relatives in Norfolk, graduated from Norfolk Catholic H.S. and earned a Presidential appointment to West Point.  As a cadet, Rocky excelled in his French language studies and was a tenacious competitor in intramural sports - especially wrestling and handball.  Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Armor Branch upon graduation, he completed his Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY, then Ranger and Airborne Schools at Fort Benning, GA.  His first overseas tour of duty was in an Armor unit with the 1st Cavalry Division, then based in the Republic of Korea. Back in the U.S., Versace served with The Old Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment) at Fort Myer as the Reconnaissance Platoon Leader and earned the Expert Infantryman Badge.  He volunteered to be an Advisor to the South Vietnamese Army in 1962, attended an Army Intelligence course and received Language Training (Defense Language Institute) at Presidio Monterey, CA, then arrived in South Vietnam in May.  Following his one year of combat, he extended his tour six months.  On October 29, 1963, two weeks before his scheduled departure from Vietnam to attend the Maryknoll Catholic Seminary, the Viet Cong captured him and two other American soldiers.  Rendered defenseless with two leg wounds, in the ensuing 23 months Rocky had only his intellect, language fluency (Vietnamese and French), belief in the goodness and greatness of the United States and his faith in God to battle the communist cadre.  He defeated them on that higher ground.  The Viet Cong murdered Captain Rocky Versace on September 26, 1965.  His story is told in the memoir by one of his fellow POWs, James N. “Nick” Rowe, Five Years to Freedom.  

     The Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial includes the names of 68 Fallen Heroes who died or are still Missing in Action (MIA) in Southeast Asia from the Vietnam War.  These Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines indicated “Alexandria” as their Department of Defense “Home of Record,” attended high school in Alexandria, or joined the Armed Forces at the Alexandria Recruiting Station.  The Memorial includes the names of 45 Soldiers, 15 Marines, five Airmen, and three Sailors.  The names on the circular bench are in the chronological order of each man’s death - or the date he entered POW/MIA status - in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.  The initial Fallen Hero is First Lieutenant Lewis Stone (11 January 1963) (U.S. Army (USA)).  The last to fall is First Lieutenant Richard Gray (5 June 1973) (U.S. Air Force (USAF)). The oldest man remembered is Lieutenant Colonel Robert Whitbeck (38 years old) (USA) and the youngest is Lance Corporal Richard Freudenthal (18 years, 4 months of age) (USMC).  The military awards received in recognition of their valor which were earned by the 68 include the Medal of Honor (Captain Versace), Navy Cross (Lance Corporal James Ward), Silver Star (six), Distinguished Flying Cross (eight), and Bronze Star Medal (15), as well as the Purple Heart (50) and Air Medal (21).  Seven of the 68 men remain MIA in Southeast Asia (Captain Versace (USA), Seaman Apprentice John Winkler (USN), SFC Douglas Blodgett (USA), Major Joseph Davies (USAF), Major Morgan Donahue (USAF), First Lieutenant Leland McCants (USA) and First Lieutenant Lawrence Lilly (USA)).  The remains of two former MIAs were recovered from Southeast Asia and positively identified in the late 1980s (Captain George Lockhart (USAF) and Captain Henry Spengler (USA)).  Both Fallen Heroes were buried with Full Military Honors in Arlington National Cemetery.  Forty-one of the 68 Fallen Heroes rest in honored glory in the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  Four of the MIAs (Blodgett, Davies, Lilly and Versace) have “in memory of” cenotaphs in Arlington National Cemetery.  Seventeen of the 68 (25%) were sons of career military men.  Seven men are Service Academy graduates (Captain Versace (USMA 1959), Captain James Walters (USMA 1964), Captain Frank Meszar (USMA 1966), Captain Henry Spengler (USMA 1968), Major Morgan Donahue (U.S. Air Force Academy 1967), Captain George Lockhart (USAFA 1969) and First Lieutenant Richard Gray (USAFA 1971)). 

     Alexandria City Councilman David Speck was the driving force behind the Versace Memorial Project and guided the process for two years to see it through to completion.  Versace’s Del Ray boyhood friend, entrepreneur Michael Heisley, guaranteed payment for the Memorial with a $175,000 contribution.  The Friends of Rocky Versace received $75,000 in donations from Great Americans.  Antonio Tobias (Toby) Mendez is the architect who designed and sculpted the memorial (of note, Toby’s father, Tony Mendez, was a career CIA master of disguise professional - one of whose operations was depicted in the motion picture “Argo”).  The Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a generous gift from Michael Heisley to the city and citizens of Alexandria in order that his friend, Rocky Versace - and Alexandria’s 67 other Vietnam War Fallen Heroes - are not forgotten.  Alexandria’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities is responsible for the preservation and maintenance of the Memorial.  The Friends of Rocky Versace (FoRV) assist in this effort and not only oversee the Plaza’s state of repair, but annually conduct Memorial Day and Veterans Day Ceremonies at the Plaza and Mt. Vernon Recreation Center.  Patriotic citizens who appreciate the service and ultimate sacrifice of these Fallen Heroes continue to donate to the FoRV’s requests for assistance in the upkeep of the Plaza/Memorial.  For additional information, take a copy of the Versace Plaza Information Brochure and visit Rocky’s Display Case in the foyer of the Mt. Vernon Recreation Center.