1965: Kenneth Roraback and Rocky Versace, Vietnam War POWs

3 comments September 26th, 2015 Headsman

According to a UPI wire story from Saigon which ran in American newspapers beginning Monday, September 27,

The Viet Cong said they executed two American prisoners Sunday … Although the broadcast did not say so, the executions apparently were in retaliation for the deaths Thursday of three anti-American demonstrators. The demonstrators were convicted by a military tribunal of engaging in terrorist activities and put before a firing squad in a soccer stadium at Da Nang.

An earlier execution of a Viet Cong terrorist by the government June 24 brought an announcement from the Communists that they had executed Sgt. Harold G. Bennet[t], a captive from Arkansas.

The two men shot on September 26 — whose names are garbled in the initial news report, since “the names were received phonetically” — were Sgt. Kenneth Mills Roraback and Capt. Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.

In 2002, Versace would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first Vietnam War soldier so decorated on grounds of unwavering defiance as a POW.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,U.S. Military,USA,Vietnam,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1965: Andrew Pixley

Add comment December 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Andrew Pixley was gassed in Wyoming for butchering the two young daughters of a vacationing Illinois judge.

A 21-year-old high school dropout with a few petty thefts to his name, Pixley on the night of August 5-6, 1964 broke into the Jackson hotel room occupied by 12-year-old Debbie McAuliffe, her 8-year-old sister Cindy, and 6-year-old Susan.

Their parents were relaxing in the hotel lounge at the time, but would return to a nightmare scene: Debbie dead in her bed, beaten to death with a rock; Cindy, strangled; and this slight stranger drunk or insensible lying on the floor of their room covered in their daughters’ gore. Both girls also appeared to have been sexually assaulted. (Somehow, the youngest daughter was not attacked.)

Judge Robert McAuliffe seized the stranger, while police — and soon behind them, an angry mob calling for Judge Lynch — followed his wife’s screams to the scene.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” Teton County attorney Floyd King later said. Pixley claimed that the night’s events were a blank in his mind.

Remembered for this one night of madness as one of Wyoming’s most brutal criminals, Andrew Pixley reputedly still haunts Wyoming’s Old Frontier Prison, and gives tour guides at facility (it’s a museum now) the heebie-jeebies.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Murder,Rape,The Supernatural,USA,Wyoming

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1965: Eli Cohen, Israel’s man in Damascus

1 comment May 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Israel’s greatest spy suffered an ignominious public hanging in Martyrs Square, Damascus.


The signage swaddling the body denounces his crimes.

Eliahu Ben Saul Cohen — you can call him Eli(e) — was an Egyptian Jew who got recruited by Israeli intelligence to put his Arabic credentials to use in the cloak and dagger game.

You could say he’d found his calling.

After a spell establishing his cover story credentials in Argentina, he “returned” to Syria posing as a prodigal returning emigrant. There, he became the Zionist Richard Sorge.

Brazenly infiltrating the ascendant Ba’ath party and Syrian elite circles as wealthy businessman “Kamel Amin Thaabet”, Cohen piped years of high-quality intelligence to Israel from the very pinnacle of its enemy’s power structure.

(As described in this account, Eli’s own brother, another Mossad agent, was at one point charged with deciphering the spy’s communiques — thereby accidentally catching up with the family business.)


The trusted Eli Cohen in a snapshot with Syrian officials in the Golan Heights, overlooking Israel.

Cohen’s information on Syrian positions in the Golan has been credited with helping Israel win the Six-Day War in 1967.

But he wasn’t around to see it.

By that time, Syrian and Soviet intelligence had finally traced the damaging radio transmissions to “Kamel’s” apartment. He was purportedly — the matter is disputed, and smacks of hagiography — so influential and well-trusted at that point that he was on the verge of being named Deputy Minister of Defense.

Instead, he had a future in the martyr business.

A few books about Eli Cohen

After Cohen’s January 1965 arrest, events moved with implacable dispatch, and neither spy swaps nor diplomatic arm-twisting would avail an agent so embarrassingly, damagingly accomplished. Thousands turned out to cheer the spy’s public hanging, or gawk at the body as it remained hanging throughout the morning. Thousands more watched the live telecast of the execution.

(Six Syrians drew prison sentences for their parts in Cohen’s spy ring.)

Israel is still on about getting his body back from the Syrians. Whether or not that ever happens, the man lives on as a hero for his side. His story is the subject of the 1987 TV movie The Impossible Spy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Infamous,Jews,Martyrs,Public Executions,Spies,Syria,Torture

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1965: Joseph Bamina, former Burundi Premier

Add comment December 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, 24 Burundians were shot following mass trials in the stormy aftermath of an attempted coup.

Burundi met post-colonial independence deprived by an assassin’s bullet of the popular, unifying figure who might have kept ethnic conflict under control, and many years of living dangerously ensued as Hutu and Tutsi grappled for power.

On October 18, 1965, a group of Hutu officers attempted a coup d’etat against Burundi’s monarchy — and failed.

the events of October 1965 carried momentous consequences. The mutineers took a huge gamble and lost … power became the exclusive monopoly of Tutsi elements.

… In the capital, virtually every Hutu leader was apprehended.

-Rene Lamarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide

While the putschists were unsurprisingly executed, the Tutsi-authored backlash cast a much wider net, ultimately claiming up to 5,000 lives. (It was only a dress rehearsal for a similar scenario — Hutu rebellion triggering massive Tutsi crackdown — that resulted in a full-on genocide in 1972.)

Various executions peppered the weeks after the intended coup; this date’s was one of the last of the particularly noteworthy. The New York Times (Dec. 21, 1965) described those “executed in the Central African kingdom Wednesday after mass trials” as “Joseph Bamina,* a former Burundi Premier … [and] 23 others included two prominent political leaders.”

Burundi did not live happily ever after.

* Lamarchand calls Bamina one of the “hard-core Hutu opposition.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Burundi,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot

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1965: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, In Cold Blood subjects

Add comment April 14th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1965 saw the end of the road (and the end of the rope) for Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the drifters who slaughtered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, and inspired Truman Capote’s magnum opus In Cold Blood.


Hickock (left) and Smith.

These ex-cons — Smith, the smart Korean War veteran; Hickock, the fallen high school jock turned small-time hood — got a tip from a fellow jailbird that Herbert Clutter’s farm had a well-stocked safe.

On November 15, 1959, they raided the farm, tied up and shotgunned the family of four, and made off with … 40 bucks. Alas: no safe.

The horrific, out-of-nowhere brutality of the crime — “apparently the work of a psychopathic killer” — made national headlines and drew Manhattanite Truman Capote out to small town Kansas (along with novelist Harper Lee, whom Capote used to gain the confidence of locals).

The killers were caught on the lam in Nevada, and as the case unfolded,* Capote’s sympathy for Smith unlocked a spellbinding book that put this day’s murderers in the literary canon.

I really admired Mr. Clutter, right up until the moment I slit his throat.”

– Perry Smith

(Perry Smith was first protrayed on celluloid by actor Robert Blake, who would one day stand trial himself for arranging the 2001 murder of his wife. Blake was acquitted.)

In Cold Blood has drawn criticism from the outset: for its accuracy, or for its problematic relationship between author and subject, or for its pride of place in the true crime genre. (Or the “nonfiction novel” genre Capote claimed it created.)

But as literary milestone, its place is secure.

In Cold Blood, in multiple media

* More detail about Smith and Hickock and Capote and the Clutters in this trutv article.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Kansas,Murder,Popular Culture,USA

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1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

10 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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