If they want to get you, they will
Contrary to some reports, Colonel Rowe knew of his selection as a target for the NPA and their urban assassins, called “sparrows”. In one of his last letters, he illustrates his precautions against a successful attempt on his life. “I’ve got a hardened vehicle,” he wrote, “and a trained driver for my official travel in the Manila-Clark AFB-Subic area; an AFP guard in the house 24 hours a day; and a stand-by security team should a hit go down at home or in the immediate area.” According to Rowe himself, the Alex Boncayo Brigade (an NPA urban unit operating in Manila, “…has done some very effective work in the past and continues to take out military and police almost at will.” Brig. General Alexander Aguirre (Commander, Task Force Rowe), would later confirm Rowe had indeed been “…killed by sparrows, or armed urban partisans of the NPA.” Defense News would report the arrest of Donato Continente, who alleges being “…a member of the five-man team of communist rebels assigned to kill Rowe.”
On the morning of April 21, 1989, Colonel Rowe and his Filipino driver, Joaquin Vinuya, left Rowe’s home for the JUSMAG compound located in Quezon City. Even though it was Friday he had a heavy schedule, to include an equipment demonstration for the AFP later in the evening. Per Filipino law neither man was armed, although Rowe did have access to weaponry both at his home and in his office. Up until several days prior to his murder there had been a chase car that shadowed the colonel as he traveled between his residence and the Quezon compound. According to sources requesting anonymity, this as well as other chase vehicles assigned to priority personnel believed to be targeted by the NPA, had been recently pulled off. “It was simply a case of misjudgment,” allowed one source.
AFP spokesmen reported the NPA sparrow team followed Rowe’s silver-grey sedan from his home into the city. As was his habit, Colonel Rowe was sitting directly behind his driver and carrying a specially armored briefcase which he used as a secondary shield while traveling around Manila. The automobile itself had been hardened by Rowe. According to Dan Pitzer, often in contact with Rowe, “Nick told me after they’d installed the glass in is car, he’d personally fired a .44 Magnum at the windows with no effect. He believed the interior of the vehicle was as bullet-proof as could be expected.”
At 0715, just two blocks from the JUSMAG compound, the sparrows initiated their attack by driving a stolen vehicle up alongside Rowe’s Mitsubishi Galant, opening fire with at least one and possibly two M16 automatic rifles, as well as a .45 caliber pistol. The gunmen concentrated on the car’s window, firing short bursts of between five to six rounds, attempting to “drill” through the hardened glass. A total of 21 rounds struck the window and car as Rowe’s driver attempted to outmaneuver his assailants.
Vinuya was wounded by flying glass as the interior portion of the windows began to fragment under the concentrated high-velocity impact of the 5.56 rounds. As surmised by Rowe, the hardened vehicle withstood the small arms assault. Only a single bullet found its way into the passenger compartment. This round penetrating a structural portion of the door-frame that could not be armored. It was this bullet that struck Nick Rowe in the back of his neck as he was throwing himself down across the rear seat, killing him instantly.
“You could have fired 1000 rounds at that car, and maybe have gotten one bullet to enter where the one that killed Nick did,” observed one combat veteran who was near the scene. “If the Colonel had continued sitting upright, the bullet would have missed him, had he gotten down on the rear seat a second sooner, the bullet would have missed him. Call it Fate or whatever, they got lucky that morning.”
To his great credit, Vinuya carried out his duties as Rowe’s driver, despite his painful wounds. He piloted the car into the JUSMAG compound where it was quickly secured. Rowe was immediately transported to the AFP Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 0840.