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Dieter Dengler
Dieter Dengler tours the aircraft carrier USS Constellation in San Diego, CA, on December 1, 1996.
Born (1938-05-22)May 22, 1938
Died February 7, 2001(2001-02-07) (aged 62)
Place of birth Wildberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Place of death Mill Valley, California
Buried at Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1957 - 1968
Rank Lieutenant, USN
Unit Attack Squadron 145, USS Ranger (CV-61)
Battles/wars Vietnam War (Flaming Dart I operations)
Awards Navy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart
Air Medal

Dieter Dengler (May 22, 1938 – February 7, 2001) was a German-born United States Navy Naval aviator and pilot during the Vietnam War (and later a private aircraft test pilot and commercial airline pilot). He was one of two survivors (the other being Pisidhi Indradat), out of seven prisoners of war (POW)s, to escape from a Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos. He was rescued after 23 days on the run,[1] and was the first captured U.S. airman to escape enemy captivity during the Vietnam war, after six months of torture and imprisonment.[2]

Family and early life[edit | edit source]

Dieter Dengler was born and grew up in the small town of Wildberg in the Black Forest region of Germany. He was very close to his mother and brothers. Dengler did not know his father, who was killed while serving in the Wehrmacht during World War II. His grandfather was declared a political enemy of the Nazis for being the only citizen in his town who did not vote for Hitler. Dengler later credited his grandfather's resolve as a major inspiration during his time in Laos. His grandfather's steadfastness, despite great danger, was one reason Dengler refused to sign a document decrying alleged American aggression in Southeast Asia, presented to him by the North Vietnamese after his crash.

Dengler's first experience with aircraft came when he was very young. From his bedroom window, he witnessed enemy allied aircraft flying over and bombing his home town in Germany. From that moment, he wanted to be a pilot. He became an apprentice in a local machine shop, but after seeing an ad in an American magazine expressing a need for pilots, he decided to go to the United States. Although a family friend agreed to sponsor him, he lacked money for passage and came up with a plan to independently salvage brass and other metals to sell.

When he turned 18 and upon completion of his apprenticeship, Dengler hitchhiked to Hamburg and set sail for New York City with the dream of becoming a pilot. He lived on the streets of Manhattan for just over a week and eventually found his way to an Air Force recruiter. He was assured that piloting aircraft was what the Air Force was all about, so he enlisted and in June 1957, went to basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. After basic training, Dengler was initially assigned duty as a motor pool mechanic. His qualifications as a machinist led to an assignment as a gunsmith. He took and passed the test for aviation cadets, but his enlistment expired before he was selected for pilot training.

After his discharge, Dengler joined his brother working in a bakery shop near San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco City College, then transferred to the College of San Mateo where he studied aeronautics. Upon completion of two years of college, he applied for the US Navy aviation cadet program and was accepted. After his completion of flight training, Dengler went to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, for training as an attack pilot in the Douglas AD Skyraider. He joined VA-145 while the squadron was on shore duty at Naval Air Station Alameda, California. In 1965 the squadron joined the carrier USS Ranger. In December the carrier set sail for the coast of Vietnam. He was stationed initially at Dixie Station off South Vietnam, then moved north to Yankee Station for operations against North Vietnam.

Shot down[edit | edit source]

A Navy AD Skyraider from VA-15 catches a wire during carrier operations.

On February 1, 1966, the day after the carrier began flying missions from Yankee Station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dengler launched from Ranger with three other aircraft on an interdiction mission against a truck convoy that had been reported in North Vietnam. Thunderstorms forced the flight to divert to their secondary target, a road intersection located west of the Mu Gia Pass in Laos. At the time, U.S. air operations in Laos were classified "secret." Visibility was poor due to smoke from burning fields, and upon rolling in on the target, LTJG Dengler and the remainder of his flight lost sight of one another. Dengler was the last man in and was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He managed to crash-land his Skyraider in Laos.

When his squadron mates realized that he had been downed, they remained confident that he would be rescued.

Evasion, captivity and rescue[edit | edit source]

Capture[edit | edit source]

Dengler had a reputation from his experiences at the Navy survival school, where he had escaped from the mock-POW camp run by SERE instructors and Marine guards two times and was planning a third escape when the training ended.[3] He had also set a record as the only student to actually gain weight (3 pounds) during the course — his childhood experiences made him unafraid of eating whatever he could find and he had feasted on garbage. Unfortunately, immediately after he was shot down, he smashed his survival radio and hid most of his survival equipment to keep the enemy from finding it. The day after being shot down, Lt. Dengler was apprehended by Pathet Lao troops. Bound, he was led through several villages. He escaped once when he failed to signal a passing aircraft, but he was later recaptured while drinking from a spring. In retaliation, he was tortured numerous ways while in captivity.

POW camp[edit | edit source]

Dengler was eventually brought to a prison camp near the village of Par Kung where he met other POWs. The other six prisoners were:

Except for Martin, who was an Air Force helicopter pilot who had been shot down in North Vietnam nearly a year before, the other prisoners were civilians employed by Air America, a civilian airline owned by the Central Intelligence Agency. The civilians had been in Pathet Lao hands for over two and a half years when Dengler joined them. The day he arrived in the camp, Dengler advised the other prisoners that he intended to escape and invited them to join him. They advised that he wait until the monsoon season when there would be plenty of water. Shortly after Dengler arrived, the prisoners were moved to a new camp ten miles away at Hoi Het. After the move, a strong debate ensued among the prisoners, with Dengler, Martin and Prasit arguing for escape which the other prisoners, particularly Indradat, initially opposed. One of the Thais heard the guards discussing the possibility of shooting them in the jungle and making it look like an escape attempt. With that revelation, everyone agreed and a date to escape was set. Their plan was to take over the camp and signal a C-130 Hercules flareship that made nightly visits to the vicinity. Dengler loosened logs under the hut that allowed the prisoners to squeeze through. The plan was for him to go out when the guards were eating and seize their weapons and pass them to Indradat and Promsuwan while Martin and DeBruin procured others from other locations.

Escape[edit | edit source]

On June 29, 1966, while the guards were eating, the group slipped out of their hand and foot restraints and grabbed the guards' unattended weapons, which included M1 rifles, Chinese automatic rifles, an American carbine and at least one submachinegun, as well as an early version of the AK47 automatic rifle, which he used during the escape from the POW camp. Dengler went out first followed by Duane. He went to the guard hut and seized an M1 for himself, and passed the American Carbine to Duane. The guards realized the prisoners had escaped and five of them rushed toward Dengler, who shot at least three with the AK47. Duane shot a popular guard in the leg. Two others ran off, presumably to get help, although at least one had been wounded. The seven prisoners split into three groups. DeBruin was originally supposed to go with Dengler and Martin but decided to go with To, who was recovering from a fever and unable to keep up. They intended to get over the nearest ridge and wait for rescue. Dengler and Martin went off by themselves with the intention of heading for the Mekong River to escape to Thailand, but they never got more than a few miles from the camp from which they had escaped.

With the exception of Indradat, who was recaptured and later rescued by Laotian troops, none of the other prisoners was ever seen again. DeBruin was reportedly captured and placed in another camp, then disappeared in 1968.

Rescue[edit | edit source]

Dengler and Martin found themselves in a jungle filled with leeches, insects and other creatures that made life miserable. They made their way down a creek and found a river, but when they thought they were on their way to the Mekong, they discovered that they had gone around in a circle. They had spotted several villages but had not been detected. They set up camp in an abandoned village where they found shelter from the nearly incessant rain. They had brought rice with them and found other food, but were still on the verge of starvation. Their intent had been to signal a C-130 but at first lacked the energy to build a fire using primitive methods of rubbing bamboo together. Dengler finally managed to locate carbine cartridges that Martin had thrown away and used the powder from them to enhance the tinder, and got a fire going. That night they lit torches and waved them in the shape of an S and O when a C-130 came over. The airplane circled and dropped a couple of flares and they were overjoyed, believing they had been spotted. They woke up the next morning to find the landscape covered by fog and drizzle, but when it lifted, no rescue force appeared.

The following day, they were demoralized after a rescue force did not appear in response to their signal of the C-130 flareship. Martin, who was weak from starvation and was suffering from malaria, wanted to approach a nearby Akha village to steal some food. Dengler knew it was not a good idea, but refused to let his friend go near the village alone. They saw a little boy playing with a dog, and the child ran into the village calling out "American!" Within seconds a villager appeared and they knelt down on the trail in supplication, but the man swung his machete and struck Martin in the leg. He swung again and hit him behind the neck, killing him. Dengler jumped to his feet and rushed toward the villager, who turned and ran into the village to get help. Dengler managed to evade the searchers who went out after him and escaped back into the jungle. He returned to the abandoned village where the two had been spending their time and where he and Martin had signaled the C-130. That night when a C-130 flareship came over, Dengler set fire to the huts and burned the village down. The C-130 crew spotted the fires and dropped flares, but even though the crew reported their sighting when they returned to their base at Ubon, Thailand, the fires were not recognized by intelligence as having been a signal from a survivor.

Deatrick has long marveled at the fact that had he stuck to his original flight schedule on the morning of July 20, 1966, Dieter would not have been at the river to be sighted at that earlier hour. "If God put me on the earth for one reason," Deatrick says, "it was to find Dieter over there in the jungle." As it was, Deatrick describes it as "a million-in-one chance."[4]

-Excerpt from Dengler biography regarding the role of pilot Eugene Deatrick

Photo taken of Dengler in the hospital after his rescue. At 5 feet nine inches (175 cm), Dengler weighed only 98 pounds (44.45 kilos)[5]

When a rescue force again failed to materialize, Dengler decided to find one of the parachutes from a flare for use as a possible signal. He found one on a bush and placed it in his rucksack. On July 20, 1966, after 23 days in the jungle, Dengler managed to signal an Air Force pilot with the parachute. A 2-ship flight of Air Force Skyraiders from the 1st Air Commando Squadron happened to fly up the river where Dengler was. Eugene Peyton Deatrick, the pilot of the lead plane and the squadron commander, spotted a flash of white while making a turn at the river's bend and came back and spotted a man waving something white. Deatrick and his wingman contacted rescue forces but were told to ignore the sighting, as no airmen were known to be down in the area. Deatrick persisted and eventually managed to convince the command and control center to dispatch a rescue force. Fearing that Dengler might be a Viet Cong soldier, the helicopter crew restrained him when he was brought aboard.

According to the documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Dengler said one of the flight crew who was holding him down pulled out a half eaten snake from underneath Dengler's clothing and was so surprised he nearly fell out of the helicopter. The person who threw Dengler to the floor of the helicopter was Air Force Pararescue specialist Michael Leonard from Lawler, Iowa. Leonard stripped Dengler of his clothes, making sure he was not armed or in possession of a hand grenade. When questioned, Dengler told Leonard that he escaped from a North Vietnamese Prisoner of War camp two months earlier. Deatrick radioed the rescue helicopter crew to see if they could identify the person they had just hoisted up from the jungle. They reported that they had a man who claimed to be a downed Navy pilot who flew a Douglas A-1H Skyraider.

It wasn't until after he reached the hospital at Da Nang that Dengler's identity was confirmed. A conflict between the Air Force and the Navy developed over who should control his debriefing and recovery. In an apparent attempt to prevent the Air Force from embarrassing them in some way, the Navy sent a team of SEALs into the hospital to literally steal Dengler. He was brought out of the hospital in a covered gurney and rushed to the air field, where he was placed aboard a Navy carrier delivery transport WC-8 from VR-21 and flown to the Ranger where a welcoming party had been prepared. Dengler's deprivation from malnutrition and parasites caused the Navy doctors to order that he be airlifted to the United States.

Later life and death[edit | edit source]

Eugene Deatrick and Dieter Dengler, NAS Miramar, 1968. (USN Photo)

Dengler remained in the Navy for a year, was promoted to Lieutenant, and was trained to fly jets. When his military obligation was satisfied, he resigned from the Navy and applied for a position as an airline pilot with Trans World Airlines. He continued flying and survived four subsequent crashes as a civilian test pilot.[6]

In 1977, during a time when he was furloughed from TWA, Dengler returned to Laos and was greeted as a celebrity by the Pathet Lao. He was taken to the camp from which he had escaped and was surprised to discover that at one point he and Martin had been within a mile and a half of it. His fascination with airplanes and aviation continued for the remainder of his life. He continued flying almost up until his death. He took advantage of an early-retirement offer as a pilot for TWA sometime prior to 1985, but continued flying his meticulously restored Cessna 195, putting it on static display at numerous California air shows. In 2000, Dengler was inducted into the Gathering of Eagles program and told the story of his escape to groups of young military officers.[7] Dengler was diagnosed with ALS, an incurable neurological disorder; on February 7, 2001, he rolled his wheelchair from his house down to the driveway of a fire station and shot himself.[8] He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.[9] An exemplary guard of honor was present at the burial as well as a fly-over by Navy F-14 Tomcats.[10]

Dengler was married three times: to Marina Adamich (1966 – March 1970), to Irene Lam (September 11, 1980 – April 3, 1984) and to Yukiko Dengler (1998 until his death February 7, 2001). Dengler is also survived by two sons, Rolf and Alexander Dengler, and two grandsons.

Awards and decorations[edit | edit source]

Dengler is a recipient of the following medals:

Navy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Width-44 purple ribbon with width-4 white stripes on the borders Purple Heart
Air Medal
Prisoner of War Medal (retroactive)

In film and literature[edit | edit source]

Dengler made an appearance as one of the contestants on the January 30, 1967 episode of the television game show I've Got a Secret. His secret, as told to host Steve Allen, was that he had escaped from a POW camp in Laos. Dengler said that his weight had dropped to 93 pounds by the time he was rescued. During this appearance, both of Dengler's hands were bandaged in large casts. He explained that he had recently cut his tendons by accidentally falling through a sheet of plate glass.

In early 1968, Dengler was a contestant on the nighttime edition of the comedy game show Hollywood Squares.

Dengler appears in the 1988 documentary We Can Keep You Forever[11] about the POW/MIA issue generally. The documentary was written and directed by Christopher Olgiati. Gerry DeBruin, brother of Eugene DeBruin, is also interviewed. Information in the documentary appears at greater length in the 1990 book The Bamboo Cage: The Full Story of the American Servicemen Still Missing in Vietnam by Nigel Cawthorne.

Dengler was the subject of Werner Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Herzog went on to direct a dramatized version of the story, Rescue Dawn, which stars Christian Bale as Dengler. The film was shown at festivals throughout the end of 2006 and received a limited theatrical release in the USA on July 4, 2007, before the general release later that month. The film was released as a DVD in November 2007.

The movie Rescue Dawn was subjected to severe criticism by members of the family of Eugene DeBruin and Pisidhi Indradat, the other survivor of the group.[12]

Herzog acknowledged that DeBruin acted heroically during his imprisonment, refusing to leave while some sick prisoners remained, but Herzog claimed to be unaware of this fact until after the film had been completed. Herzog states that this narrative aspect probably would have been included had he learned it earlier. DeBruin family members, however, said that Herzog was uninterested in speaking with them prior to the completion of the movie.[13]

Dengler documented his experience in the book Escape From Laos.[14]

Bestselling author Bruce B. Henderson, who was serving on the same ship as Dengler at the time he was shot down, tells Dengler's life story in a 2010 nonfiction book, Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War.[15]

See also[edit | edit source]

  • German American

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Rescue Dawn: The Truth Retrieved January 13, 2008.
  2. Time magazine October 14, 1966
  3. Henderson, Bruce (2010). Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War. New York: Harper. ISBN 978-0-06-157136-7. 
  4. Bruce Henderson (29 June 2010). Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War. HarperCollins. pp. 260–. ISBN 978-0-06-157136-7. http://books.google.com/books?id=rkbY0FblIsAC&pg=PA260. Retrieved 16 July 2012. 
  5. Bruce Henderson (29 June 2010). Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War. HarperCollins. pp. 234–. ISBN 978-0-06-157136-7. http://books.google.com/books?id=rkbY0FblIsAC&pg=PA234. Retrieved 22 October 2012. 
  6. "Rescue Dawn". 2007. 
  7. Dengler Gathering of Eagles 2000 Biography Retrieved June 3, 2008.
  8. Sense of History Drives Writer to Tell POW Tale San Francisco Chronicle
  9. Non-official Arlington National Cemetery Information on Dengler Retrieved January 29, 2008
  10. Photo of F-14 Flyover at Dengler Funeral Retrieved January 29, 2008
  11. Released on VHS videocassette
  12. "Rescue Dawn: The Truth". Family, Friends of Gene DeBruin Critical of Herzog Film. http://www.rescuedawnthetruth.com. 
  13. Herzog, Werner, The Making of a True Story, documentary feature on the American DVD release of Rescue Dawn
  14. Dengler, Dieter (1979). Escape from Laos. Presidio Press. ISBN 0-89141-076-7. 
  15. Henderson, Bruce B. (2010). Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War. New York: Harper. ISBN 978-0-06-157136-7. 

External links[edit | edit source]

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