Isaac ‘Ike Camacho was born in the farming community of Fabens, Texas, where crops and cotton-picking are a way of life. Along with his widowed mother and two sisters, he later moved to El Paso, where he attended Thomas Jefferson High School and enjoyed being a part of El Paso’s large Mexican-American community.
In 1957, while Camacho was enrolled in the ROTC program, an airborne trooper addressed the group. He made quite an impression on Camacho and three of his buddies, who later joined the Army together and requested airborne training. For Camacho, it was the beginning of a successful military career.
By 1960, Camacho had been promoted to E-5 and was serving as an airborne jump instructor for the old 503rd Airborne (later the 173rd). A friend told him about an elite new unit then being formed that needed personnel. Intrigued, Camacho investigated and shortly became a member of the newly formed 77th Special Forces Group. At the end of the training period, he was ordered to Vietnam.
Initially, Camacho was assigned to the Kontum-Dak To area, in the A Shau Valley. During his second tour in-country in 1963, he was part of the 5th Special Forces Group, serving in the province of Hau Nghia. That unit had established an A-Team camp at Hiep Hoa, in the Plain of Reeds, about 45 miles northeast of Saigon, to train Civilian Irregular Defense Guard (CIDG) personnel to conduct reconnaissance and raids in enemy-controlled areas. Built on the bank of a canal and encircled with barbed wire, the 125-by-100-meter garrison was protected by .30-caliber machine-gun emplacements on all four corners. In addition, two 81mm mortars were located near the gates. There was ample reason for the high level of security, since the camp was located near Cambodia’s infamous Parrot’s Beak region, a major VC staging ground.
In October 1963 a friend of Camacho’s who was also serving in the Special Forces, 1st Lt. Nick Rowe, was captured at Tam Phu, on the Ca Mau Peninsula. The following month it was Camacho’s turn.
On the night of November 22, moving stealthily under cover of night, several hundred VC infiltrators attacked the Hiep Hoa outpost. Aided by information from their spies, the guerrillas were familiar with the garrison’s layout and were also apparently aware that half the camp’s troops were out on a reconnaissance mission. Moving in quietly, they quickly killed some of the perimeter guards and then machine-gunned the camp’s inhabitants as they emerged from their billets. 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.
A few minutes later, aircraft came and started dropping napalm and making strafing runs. Our hands were tied at the elbows as tight as could be and they had rope around our necks. We were being pulled like donkeys. Once we got out of bomb range, Smitty and I were told to walk down this little road, and they began to lock and load their weapons. They were going to kill us, but then someone came from the front of the column and gave a different order. We were spared.
They kept us blindfolded and moved us out–first on foot and then we were placed on an oxcart and covered with a tarp. I was able to move the canvas enough to see even though I was tied. We were going around Nui Ba Den Mountain, and I saw the north star in front of us. We might have been on Highway 22 or just a branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When we entered Cambodia, the VC took off their headgear and began to sling arms. It seemed odd, because in Vietnam they controlled their noise, but over here they were unwinding, even talking. We traveled a long way blindfolded and were told to be quiet. Later that night we moved out on foot again.
We boarded a sampan to reach this place that looked like an island–it had water all around it. It must have been some kind of haven or R&R center. The VC stacked their weapons and were cooking and relaxing. There were classrooms for training and indoctrination. We were placed in a hooch watched by four guards. They had us locked up with chains. Really, there wasn’t much you could do about it with the chains around your ankle and fastened to a huge tree.
Two nights after Camacho’s capture, a telegram was dispatched to his mother, Mary Elorreaga, informing her that her son was missing. It revealed only the briefest details of the Special Forces base camp’s being overrun and promised that a representative of the U.S. Army would contact her soon.
The four Americans had been taken to Trai Bai, a small camp site near the Cambodian border, no more than 60 miles from Saigon. The Vam Co Dong River lies just east of it. The VC found it ideal as a jungle sanctuary. Everyone in the camp focused their attention on the new arrivals. Camacho’s head was still aching, and it seemed to him that their chances of survival were slim.
The four Americans had another reason to be demoralized. The morning after their capture, the VC had received a radio dispatch announcing President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As the Americans were being taken through small hamlets inhabited by people who were sympathetic to the VC, the villagers had turned out to taunt them: Kennedy di-et (Kennedy is dead).
Soon after they arrived at Trai Bai, Wilfred Burchett, an Australian writer and Communist sympathizer, and Roger Pic, a French photographer, arrived to document their plight. I don’t remember being photographed, said Camacho, but the proof is there–all of us Americans in black pajamas. Wilfred Burchett walked up to me and introduced himself. He said that we Americans were in trouble because we were fighting an unpopular war, and that he would try to see what he could do to help us. He asked if I understood. He asked me a few questions, and I answered politely without giving out any real information. He asked me if there was anything he could do for me, and I told him, ‘Yes, sir, can you tell me who won the fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay?’ He must have been disappointed, because he gave me this look and just walked away.
Shortly after that visit, Kenneth Rorback was summarily taken out and executed in retaliation for Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing of North Vietnam authorized by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Camacho had to fight depression at that point. I think what scared me most was when some Cubans came to talk to me, he recalled. They had on berets like Che Guevara. The incident happened after Burchett left. What they did was sit me down on a stump, and they stood over me and looked down. I guess they were trying to make me feel low while they were on top. This one asked me, ‘Eres Latino?’ (‘Are you Hispanic?’), and I answered, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then he asked me, ‘What is your nationality?’ and I told him I was Indian.
He asked me if I knew Fidel Castro, and I said no. He got real mad and said, ‘You don’t know Fidel Castro?’ I told him, ‘No, the only Castro I know is the Castro I went to school with in Fabens, Texas.’ Next he asked ‘Do you like guitar music?’ I answered, ‘Yes, I like guitar music. Then he asked, ‘Do you like Sabicas?’ ‘I don’t know who Sabicas is,’ I told him. ‘You like guitar music but you don’t know Sabicas?’ I said, ‘No.’ He asked, ‘How come you like guitar music?’ and I responded, ‘Because Elvis Presley played the guitar.’
They got mad, and I heard them say, ‘Este pendejo no sabe nada. Es un baboso bien hecho‘ (‘This fool knows nothing. He’s a natural blithering idiot’). They didn’t realize that I could understand what they were saying. One of them said to the other, ‘Ya no voy’ a hablar con este‘ (‘I’m not speaking to him anymore’). So he walked around and put his gun next to my temple. ‘Hacete para ya!’ (‘Move over there!’) he said. I told him, ‘If you’re going to shoot me, just shoot me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I just kept speaking English all the time until they finally said, ‘Dejalo, el no sabe nada. El es nada mas que un titere de los Estados Unidos‘ (‘Leave him alone, he knows nothing. He’s nothing more than a puppet for the United States’). My questioner finally spoke in English and said, ‘Well, you know you’re here as a prisoner of war and these people have been suffering many years. We’ll talk to you later.’ I think they were trying to break us down mentally.
The camp was administered by this Vietnamese who called himself ‘the commissioner.’ He would tell us what a predicament we were in, that they were being bombed all the time and it was hard to provide us with food and medicine. He would say, ‘I understand that you’ve been sick, but you have no business in this country and must pay for your sins. What we expect from you is that you join with your fellow Americans, and now there are many people your age protesting the war, and you should join your comrades in the struggle to let the Vietnamese people live the way they want to.’ It cracked me up because they had every bit of information about the anti-war movement.
The interrogation included efforts to extract a confession, which mainly had to do with burning and looting and killing innocent children, murder and rape and all this other stuff. That’s what the context of the confession was. Finally, they wanted us to admit that we had invaded their sovereignty by coming in and doing all these things. I never did sign it. They would pressure me by asking me, ‘When are you going to see the light?’ I told them the confession did not mean anything to me, and I asked, ‘What do you want me to do, lie?’ ‘No, no,’ they said, ‘the confession must come from your heart.’
During the first six months of my captivity, I told them that I was a supply clerk. They asked what kind of work that was, and I told them, ‘If someone needed a canteen or a blanket, I would provide it.’ They said, ‘Oh, you were supplying war materiel?’ and I denied it. ‘No,’ I said, ‘It wasn’t war materiel, just canteens and stuff like that.’ Everything went good for a while until they called me in one day to interrogate me and showed me a copy of Newsweek magazine. They said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I said, ‘Yes, an American magazine.’ They said, ‘Turn to page 14, so I did, and there was an article about Hiep Hoa, explaining how we had been captured. It said that Isaac Camacho had been teaching anti-guerrilla warfare. ‘We really like this, and your people wrote this!’ they said. ‘You have been deceiving us!’ They almost starved us to death after that article appeared.
Then the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times had articles about Mike Mansfield and Ernest Gruening, two anti-war politicians. Every time they would get something like that, when we went into interrogations they would show it to us. They would boast, ‘Even these people’s hearts are for the VC–these are the true patriots.’ It was very demoralizing.
The camp was located under triple-canopied forest. You couldn’t see the sky unless you were out on a work detail. It was always dark. I was kept in a cage just big enough to sleep and get some exercise. The first six months were probably the hardest, because they kept us in isolation. The only time I would see somebody is when they were going down to the well to wash up or clean the little cup they gave us. Then they decided to put us to work with a guard watching us so we couldn’t talk.
The first chance we had, we would talk to each other–‘Hey, how are you doing? You all right?’–things like that. At first the guards would whack us across the back for talking, but they soon decided we weren’t going to escape, and then we could talk a bit. Eventually we were able to carry on a conversation.
We were fed just enough so we would be strong enough to work. One detail involved building a bomb shelter, and we had to go out half a mile in the woods to cut logs. It was on work details like this when we would get to see the sky. You don’t know how nice it is to see a piece of blue out there in that type of situation. We’d look out and say, ‘God, the sky looks beautiful.’ The logs we cut had been knocked down by bombing or lightning, so we wouldn’t bother the natural foliage.
I was held in a cage approximately 8 feet by 6 feet in area. Originally, I had been placed in a one-man cell, but they put us in two-man cells to relieve the guard force. The cage was constructed of wood. They very seldom used bamboo except for maybe the rafters. The logs were hammered together with wooden pegs, not nails, and held really tight. The thatched roofs kept us dry during the monsoons. It would really pour, but by the time the water filtered through the branches and reached the cage, the roof would protect us.
There was a hole dug at one end of the cage that we used as an air raid shelter. A couple of times we had to use it. They always had a small lamp on in our cage so they could observe us, and they would yell ‘Pica‘ when a plane approached. That meant we should turn off the lamp and take cover. During one Skyraider attack, we jumped into the hole, but the chains on our legs weren’t long enough–our feet were sticking out. We knew that snakes and scorpions might be in the hole, but we still had to take cover. One bomb landed so close that the nose cone reached our cage. The foliage was scattered and you could smell smoke the next day because of the powder residue.
We did more wood cutting and dug some wells. Another detail involved working on their rice mill. I couldn’t believe how much rice they had. It was a mountain. It made me angry to see these guys pass my cage carrying sacks of flour or rice, condensed milk, vegetable oil for cooking, and all with lettering, saying: ‘Donated by the people of the United States.’ As a matter of fact, they made a rucksack out of this material so I could carry my personal items on work detail.
My physical condition deteriorated horribly. I was underweight and had gone through malaria, hepatitis and beriberi. I was really afraid of beriberi because my skinny legs would inflate and I could take my finger and poke it down almost all the way and it would leave a deep dimple there. Later, it would slowly come back out. It was caused by vitamin deficiency.
They served us nuoc mam sauce and plenty of rice. Sometimes it would be a mixture of half-rice and half-salt. They used to give us these old dried fish with worms crawling out of the mouth and eyes. When I relieved myself I could see the worms in my excrement.
When I saw the VC eating some peppers, I knew what to do. I asked them what it was they were eating and they told me that they were called ‘ot‘ and did I want some. After I ate them, I put on a good show and acted like it was real hot. I threw myself on the floor and started asking for some water. My cage was now surrounded by VC, and they were all laughing. They gave me more, so I ate it. Besides being a vegetable, I knew it was the hottest remedy available, and it would clean out my system and kill all the worms.
Once I went on a hunger strike because of the food they regularly fed us. I told them, ‘I know you can give us better food than this.’ The commissioner came over and wanted to know what I was doing. He pointed to the rice and said, ‘What’s that?’ I answered him sarcastically, saying, ‘You mean you’ve lived in Vietnam all your life and don’t know what it is? It’s rice!’ He said, ‘We’ve worked so hard to bring the rice to you, and you’re throwing it away.’ I told him, ‘I can’t eat rice anymore. That’s why I’m throwing it away. I’m going to die.’ That evening we got a decent meal with meat in the rice. It could have been one of those giant rats that they killed or maybe a wild hog, we didn’t know. We knew that they ate a lot of different meat. They had elephant meat, snake, wild deer, chicken and a lot of vegetables besides. An army just can’t fight on a diet of only rice, they’d never make it. Sometimes when the breeze was blowing in from the mess hall toward the cage, you could smell something good cooking. When you’re hungry, that’s when your sense of smell gets real sensitive.
I learned some useful words in Vietnamese when I was a POW. I’m hurt, I’m sick, I want water, I need medical help. The guards didn’t lend themselves that much to helping us learn, and the interpreter was more interested in learning English. On work details I would see the VC picking up things from the ground, and I knew that they were getting edible things. Soon I was attempting the same thing. I would motion to them and ask, ‘To?’ and they would say, ‘No can to, dao.’ That meant I would get sick if I ate whatever it was. I learned what was good and what was harmful. Later on, that knowledge would be helpful.
I had a hunch that someday they would take the chains off of us while we were in the cage, and so I had been looking for a weak spot in the cage. One day I found it. Newer cages had been built, and I knew that more prisoners would be coming into camp. They drew our cages closer together and took off our chains to use on two new arrivals, a Marine captain named Cook and an Army private first class named Crafts.
I pried this one bar in the cage until I could loosen it and pull it upward and tie it with a little cord that I had. It gave me a little space that I could crawl over, and when I got out of the cage, I could push the crossbar down with my feet and just go around it.
We had only a rough concept of what the date was. The new prisoners helped us figure it out, and we fashioned a calendar. I had wanted to escape on July the Fourth, but it was actually on the July 8 that I left.
Smitty, my cellmate, knew that he would be seriously handicapped if he tried to escape, since he had no boots. He knew he wouldn’t get far with the plastic slippers that he wore. We both knew that the guards were going to be checking. He stayed awake all night to make sure the lamp would stay lit and the guards wouldn’t have to come in.
We had our mosquito nets pulled down, and I left an extra pair of black pajamas bundled up on my cot to give the illusion that I was still there. It was monsoon season and raining hard. The guard’s post was nearby, and it was hard to see if he was inside because of the way the building was shaped. I was so glad that I kept my old boots. I had rice, a piece of mirror and some tobacco paper to spell out ‘POW’ on a black plastic sheet. I asked Smitty again to stay awake and keep the lamp lit, and then I left.
Thunder and lightning lit the trail where we used to go on work details–that’s where I headed. After going out around 300 meters, I slipped into the jungle. There was a wall there where we used to take our breaks and look for patches of the sky. I knew my boots were leaving tracks, but they couldn’t be traced with all the water coming down.
I must have walked about 45 minutes through the downpour when I realized that I had made a 360-degree turn and was now back in the camp area. That really broke my heart. I was thinking, maybe I should get back in the cage and try some other time. I knew it would go real hard on me if I was detected. I decided to try again. I knelt to pray and think before going on. It went through my mind, ‘Think of escape and evasion tactics,’ and it seemed like the Lord was listening. I saw the little leaves as they were falling down from the storm, floating away. Then it hit me. That’s it–follow the water! I followed one little stream as it led into a bigger one, and then finally I came into a running brook that poured into a big fork of the Saigon River. I jumped in and swam with the current. I knew there would be nobody there to stop me in that kind of weather, and I tried to get as much distance as possible.
When I got out of the water I was loaded with leeches. I thought I had millions. I ran into the woods and began to pluck out the bloodsuckers. They were everywhere! I decided to stay in the woods and walk along the river. What I wanted to do was get my bearings when I came to a spot where I could see the sun. I had to go south or southeast–that’s the only way the river flowed. I knew I couldn’t stay too near the river because that’s where they would be looking for me.
I saw this little trap for small animals like muskrats and knew that people were nearby. By the second day I could hear search parties looking for me. I would hide whenever I heard them. I climbed trees at night to get away from tigers and other animals. I walked through this arroyo and I thought, ‘Nice sand, good ground like the arroyos in the U.S. southland. This is good–now I can make some time.’ But I had gone only a few yards when I saw some tiger tracks. I decided to change course.
During the first couple of days, fruit was abundant. I would fill my pockets. There was one that looked like a small orange or nectarine, also some like kiwi fruit and some mangos. I knew what mangos were, since I had eaten them all my life.
I had only a stick to defend myself with. On the third day out I was feeling dehydrated. I was lost and wanted to do some navigating. That evening, I heard a round go off in the distance and decided to travel in that direction. It had been cloudy when I started off that morning. By afternoon, when the sun came out, I realized that I had been traveling in the wrong direction.
On the fourth day, I just packed up what I had been carrying with me in a tree and began walking. I came across a puddle of water and was glad, since I had run out. I noticed that the water was loaded with mosquito larvae, but I drank it anyway.
I kept on going, and around 10:30 or 11 a.m. I saw an American plane–it may have been a Cessna L-19–flying real low at treetop level. I could read the U.S. Army markings on it. I began walking in that direction it was headed.
I came to a hardtop clay road, and I thought how it might be the same one that I had taken north toward Song Mau. I could see an abutment on the road, and when I got closer I saw some markings, something about a corps of engineers. That was the first sign of civilization I had seen since my capture. I sat back down in the jungle and I thought, ‘I can’t blow it now.’
First I saw a dump truck coming down the road. There were no soldiers riding on it, so I thought it must be a civilian truck. I stayed in the jungle to study things and kept going until I neared a rubber tree plantation. Keeping near the road, I moved ahead, hiding behind trees, until I saw a little Vietnamese flag and a gate with some gun emplacements and bunkers.
I figured that I had made it to safety, but I wanted to be careful. Then I saw a little moped coming. I was getting ready to knock this guy off his moped just in case he wasn’t friendly when I noticed a small car following it with a Red Cross symbol on its bumper. I jumped into the road and started waving a branch to signal him. He spoke to me in French, asking if he could help me. I knew a little French, and I told him I was an American and I needed help. I was real nervous that he would turn in the opposite direction, but he reassured me. He asked again, ‘Vous ette un Americain?’ and I answered, ‘Oui, je suis un Americain. He gave me a ride to the Vietnamese compound and hollered at the guard to let them know who I was. He took me right to the village chief’s house. The village chief spoke good English. I told him I had been captured at Hiep Hoa.
He told me that there was no American compound at Hiep Hoa, and I answered, ‘maybe not, but there was one when I got captured.’ He said that I didn’t look American, so I showed him my tattoos. I looked out the window and saw some berets. I told him, ‘If you don’t believe me, ask the Green Beret over there.’ He asked the Green Beret to come in. When he saw me, he cried, ‘Ike, is that you?’ I answered, ‘Yeah, it’s me.’
They took me to the Special Forces camp at Minh Tranh. Sergeant First Class Rocky Laine and some of the other fellows I knew were there. They were all happy to see me and got me a hot shower and a new uniform. They served me a big breakfast plate of eggs and ham. I couldn’t eat it. My brain was saying I want it, but my stomach was rejecting it. I got real sick, and they took me to the Third Field Hospital in Tan Son Nhut for a checkup.
The helicopter that took me to the hospital was actually on a mail run to Da Nang when the guys diverted it. The pilot took me to Da Nang, and I saw Sergeant Thompson, an old friend of mine. He hugged me before I was rushed out. Once I arrived at the hospital, Colonel Mike De La Peña came to see me within half an hour.
I can only describe the whole episode as something that occurred in a dream. That’s the only way I know how to put it. In my hospital room, Colonel De La Peña was standing over me like a father figure and there were tears in his eyes. I guess that’s when everything finally caught up to me, because I broke down, too.
After being debriefed, Isaac Camacho was promoted to master sergeant, and he later received a field promotion to captain. Authorities told him not to speak about his encounter with the Cubans. He was shipped to Okinawa, where it was determined that his stomach had shrunk to the size of a 6-year-old’s during his 20 months of captivity. One doctor warned him that he would probably have stomach problems for the rest of his life.
As the first GI to escape from a VC POW camp, Camacho returned home to a hero’s welcome. He was congratulated by El Paso Mayor Judson Williams, Congressman Richard White and President Johnson. The El Paso Times reported that his mother said, Thank my good God! My prayers have been answered! He is my only boy, my only son, I have always been proud of him. I am the happiest mother in the world. I prayed day and night for 20 long months.
Camacho’s former commanding officer wrote a letter urging that he be awarded the Medal of Honor. But that never happened, perhaps because of a lack of witnesses. For his gallant defense at Hiep Hoa, however, Camacho did receive the Silver Star. In 1999 he was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Many people still feel that he should have received the Medal of Honor for the bravery he displayed in support of his comrades.
After all he has been through, Isaac Camacho is remarkably upbeat when he looks back on his experience. Speaking of a visit he had from George Smith, his friend who was in captivity with him, Camacho said: I always say that I’m in debt for the way he sacrificed for me. That gave me all night to get away. We had a blast talking in El Paso. He told me about the reaction of the guards the morning after I escaped.
That was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life, Smith said. They checked out the cage inside and out. They just couldn’t see how the hell you got out! They had about five or six guys down in the hole to see. Even the commissioner went down in the hole to see if you were there. They didn’t even know which guard to blame because they had all been on duty and changed posts. They got the smallest guy in the camp and tried to force him through the bars to see if his head could squeeze through, and of course it couldn’t. They never once knew where the exit was. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t.
This article was written by Eddie Morin and originally published in the June 2000 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!