Photo of the Day

Eugene Deatrick and Dieter Dengler, NAS Miramar, 1968. His inmates included Air Force Lieutenant Duane Martin, and Eugene DeBruin an Air American crewman who bailed out of a burning cargo plane, and others from the Air American crew. They were far from the first American men to be imprisoned in a camp in Vietnam; Ban Houei Het was one of a dozen camps in North Vietnam alone. USN Photo.

Escape from Laos

On February 2nd of 1966, US Navy Lieutenant Dieter Dengler was flying his first combat mission over North Vietnam from the carrier U.S.S. Ranger. The Ranger and its warplanes, including the Skyraiders of VA-145, had just repositioned from Dixie to Yankee Station following a short workup off the waters of South Vietnam in the South China Sea. Missions from Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf would be much more demanding and dangerous than those flown in the relatively benign South Vietnamese environment.

The USS Ranger was a seasoned combat veteran, having been deployed to Vietnam for Flaming Dart I operations. The carrier played a steady role for the remainder of American involvement in the war. The first fighter jets to bomb Haiphong in Operation Rolling Thunder came from her decks.

LT Dieter Dengler was a German-born American citizen who advanced from VT30 to Attack Squadron 122 in late 1964 and then to Attack Squadron 145 onboard the Ranger. Dengler was known to his shipmates as something of a renegade; the ops officer was always after him to get a haircut and Dengler was forever in trouble over his uniform or lack of military manner. In his German accent, he would protest, “I don’t understand.” But Dengler was a good pilot, although his flying career was brief.

U.S. Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler launched from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in an A1H Skyraider as part of a four-aircraft interdiction mission near the border of Laos. Dieter was the last man to roll in on a target when he was observed by the pilot of one of the other aircraft to start a normal recover. Due to limited visibility, the flight lost sight of him.

The other aircraft in the flight could not determine what had happened. They only knew Dengler disappeared. Dengler later stated that ground fire had severely damaged his aircraft, and he was forced to crash land in Laos. Search continued all that day and part of the night without success. The following morning, squadron members again went to search the area where Dengler disappeared and located the aircraft wreckage. Helicopters were called in. From the air, it appeared that no one was in the cockpit of the aircraft. The helicopter crew photographed the area and noted his donut (a round seat cushion) on the ground by the wing. They hoped he was still alive in the jungle somewhere.

Dieter Dengler 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 American aggression in Southeast Asia, presented to him by the North Vietnamese after his crash.

It had all started in war-time Germany, where Dengler grew up. Huddled with his tiny brother in an attic in the Black Forest region, the young Dengler looked out of the window to see an Allied fighter plane flying just a few hundred feet away.

The cockpit was open, and there sat the pilot, his goggles raised on his forehead, black leather gloves gripping the controls. Dengler was captivated.

As a teenager, he emigrated to America, signed up to join the U.S. Air Force as a pilot and was assigned to an aircraft carrier heading for Vietnam. On the morning of February 1, 1966 – just after becoming engaged to his sweetheart, Marina – Dengler launched from the U.S.S Ranger with three other aircraft on a top-secret bombing mission near the Laotian border.

Visibility was poor, and as Dengler rolled his Skyraider in on the target after flying for two-and-a-half hours into enemy territory, he was strafed by anti-aircraft fire.

“There was a large explosion on my right side,” he remembered when interviewed shortly before his death in 2001. “It was like lightning striking. The right wing was gone.

“The airplane seemed to cartwheel through the sky in slow motion. There were more explosions – boom, boom, boom – and I was still able to guide the plane into a clearing.”

He said: “Many times, people have asked me if I was afraid. Just before dying, there is no more fear. I felt I was floating.”

“The airplane seemed to cartwheel through the sky in slow motion. There were more explosions – boom, boom, boom – and I was still able to guide the plane into a clearing.”

He said: “Many times, people have asked me if I was afraid. Just before dying, there is no more fear. I felt I was floating.” Thrown 100ft from the plane in a crash-landing, Dengler lay unconscious for a few minutes before running into the jungle to hide. Dengler had successfully evaded capture through that night, and later said that he even saw the rescue aircraft as they searched for him. He had tried without success to raise them on his emergency radio.

 For two days, he lived on the run in the jungle, strapping his injured left leg with bamboo, before being found by the local Pathet Lao, the Laotian equivalent of the communist Viet Cong, who tortured him as they force-marched him through several villages. Eight days later, Dengler escaped, but was recaptured within a short time.

They took him captive and marched him through the jungle. At night, he was tied spread-eagled on the ground to four stakes to stop him escaping. In the mornings, his face would be so swollen from mosquito bites he was unable to see.

Far worse was to come.

One of the most dangerous work environments in the world

Ultimately, Dengler found himself in a camp in Laos held with other American POWs. One of them, 1Lt. Duane W. Martin, had been aboard an HH43B “Huskie” helicopter operating about 10 miles from the border of Laos in Ha Tinh Province, North Vietnam, when the HH43B went down near the city of Tan An, and all four personnel aboard the aircraft were captured. It is not clear if the four were captured by North Vietnamese or Pathet Lao troops or a combination of the two. Duane W. Martin was taken to a camp controlled by Pathet Lao. Thomas J. Curtis, William A. Robinson and Arthur N. Black were released in 1973 by the North Vietnamese, and were in the Hanoi prison system as early as 1967.

When Duane Martin arrived at the camp, he found himself held with other Americans. Some of them had been held for more than two years. (Note: This would indicate that there were Americans in this camp who had been captured in 1964. The only American officially listed as captured in Laos in 1964 is Navy Lt. Charles F. Klusmann, who was captured in June 1964 and escaped in August 1964. Source for the “two years” information is Mersky & Polmer’s “The Naval Air War in Vietnam”, and this source does not identify any Americans by name who had been held “for more than two years.” Civilian Eugene DeBruin, an acknowledged Laos POW who has never been returned, had been captured in the fall of 1963. Dengler has stated that a red-bearded DeBruin was held in one of the camps in which he was held. All previous Laos loss incidents occurred in 1961 and 1962.)

A Skyraider carrying an impressive load prepares for a ‘shot’

After Dengler was marched over several days from village to village—managing to escape once before being recaptured—he was finally imprisoned in a jungle-shrouded POW camp guarded by Pathet Lao on February 14. Six other prisoners were already there: Air Force 1st Lt. Duane Martin, a rescue helicopter pilot shot down in September 1965; another American, Eugene “Gene” DeBruin, an Air America crewman who had bailed out of a burning cargo plane in September 1963; and four other Air America crewmen from the flight, Thai civilians Prasit Promsuwan, Prasit Thanee and Phisit Intharathat, and To Yick Chiu, a Hong Kong native the men called Y.C.

Dengler, who had learned survival skills as a youth in wartime and postwar Germany and who was a Navy legend for his extraordinary escape and evasion skills, immediately began planning an escape. Some four months later, after being relocated to another camp and following meticulous preparation, Dengler and the others were ready, targeting July 4 for their mass escape. In mid-June, however, after the prisoners overheard the guards planning to kill all of them and return to their villages because a drought had caused a severe shortage of food and water, the POWs decided they could not wait any longer to make their breakout.

A-1H 134-605 from VA-152 over her carrier.

An AD-7 142-101 off the waist cat.

After an early escape attempt, Dengler had been picked up by his guards at a jungle water hole. This was when the torture began.

“I had escaped from them, they wanted to get even,” he said. They would hang him upside down by his ankles, with a nest of biting ants over his face, until he lost consciousness. At night, they suspended him in a freezing well so that if sleep came, he feared he would drown. Other times, he was dragged by water buffalo through villages, his guards laughing as they goaded the animal with a whip.

Bloodied and broken, he was asked by Pathet Lao officials to sign a document condemning America, but still he refused, so the torture intensified.

Tiny wedges of bamboo were inserted under his fingernails and into incisions on his body to grow and fester. ”

They were always thinking of something new to do to me,” Dengler recalled. “One guy made a rope tourniquet around my upper arm. He inserted a piece of wood, and twisted and twisted until my nerves cut against the bone. The hand was completely unusable for six months.” After some weeks, Dengler was handed over to the even fiercer Viet Cong.

As they marched him through a village, a man slipped Dengler’s engagement ring from his finger. Dengler complained to his guards. They found the culprit, summarily chopped off his finger with a machete and threw him aside, handing the ring back to their horrified captive. “I realised right there and then that you didn’t fool around with the Viet Cong,” he said.

Finally, Dengler arrived at his destination: a prisoner of war camp. “I had been looking forward to it,” he said. “I hoped to see other pilots. What I saw horrified me. The first one who came out was carrying his intestines around in his hands.”

There were six other captives: four Thais and two fellow Americans, Duane Martin and Eugene DeBruin. One had no teeth – plagued by awful infections, he had begged the others to knock them out with a rock and a rusty nail in order to release pus from his gums.

“They had been there for two and a half years,” said Dengler. “I looked at them, and it was just awful. I realised that was how I would look in six months. I had to escape.”

As food began to run out, tension between the men grew: they were given just a single handful of rice to share while the guards would stalk deer, pulling the grass out of the animal’s stomach for the prisoners to eat while they shared the meat.

The prisoners’ only “treats” were snakes they occasionally caught from the communal latrine, or the rats that lived under their hut which they could spear with sharpened bamboo.

Nights brought their own misery. The men were handcuffed together and shackled to medieval-style foot blocks. They suffered chronic dysentery, and were made to lie in their excrement until morning.

After several months, one of the Thai prisoners overheard the guards talking. They, too, were starving and wanted to return to their villages. They planned to march the captives into the jungle, and shoot them, pretending they had tried to escape.

Dengler convinced the others that now was the time to make their move.

A Skyraider comes aboard with an A-3 Skywarrior and A-1H 139-680 in the foreground. [Official Navy photograph]

The day before the POWs planned to escape, and be “alive and free—or dead,” Dieter received a beating from the Pathet Lao. His offense: He had used two sticks to drag over to the door of the hut a small corncob that had been thrown to a young pig the guards were fattening. The kernels had already been devoured, leaving only the shriveled cob—filthy with the pig’s manure. But Dieter was starving, and he intended to eat it. Before he could begin, the guard they called Moron ran over, yelling and pointing his rifle. He entered the hut, slapped the foot-blocks on Dieter, and dragged him outside. A group of guards had gathered in the yard. As if prosecuting a court case, Moron waved the corncob as evidence, then flipped it to the pig. For Dieter, the symbolism was clear: Prisoners are less than pigs. Then Moron began beating him with his rifle butt. Other guards joined in. When they threw him back into the hut, where all the prisoners had been herded during the beating, a bloodied Dieter stared stony-faced into the yard, saying nothing to the others.

Prasit broke the silence, telling Dieter not to forget when he killed the guards to kick them in the heads “so they’ll rot in hell.”

For weeks they had been updating their scale model of the camp, marking where all the guards and guns were located from morning until evening. Taking turns peering out between the cracks of their huts, the prisoners had observed every detail, no matter how small, and came to know their captors’ routines as well as their own. They had even been able to determine about how long it would take for reinforcements to reach the camp from the nearest village. One morning the guards spotted strange footprints, and one of them took off to get help; he was back with armed reinforcements in six hours.

They had considered and rejected a nighttime escape, primarily because it was impossible to venture far in the jungle in the dark and they knew the guards would be on their trail come daylight. The best opportunity for escape remained the period of time that the guards put down their weapons to go to the kitchen around 4 p.m. to pick up their evening meal. The prisoners repeatedly timed the interval; the trip to and from the kitchen generally took 2½ minutes. In that time, the prisoners would have to slip from their huts, get outside the stockade, secure the guns, and be ready to overtake the guards in camp.

An Example Of How American Soldiers Were Dragged Through The Streets. Dengler later wrote of being kicked, battered with rifle butts and dragged behind water buffalo. He also said his captors hung him upside down from a tree, covered him with honey and broke a nest of ants on his face.

Everyone in the escape plan had assigned tasks. Dieter was to be the first out of the walled compound, then enter the nearest guard hut, where three or four rifles were usually left inside. He was to gather the guns and arm Phisit and Prasit as they emerged from under the fence. The three of them were the most capable with weapons.

Neither Duane nor Gene was eager to participate in a shootout, and Y.C. couldn’t handle a rifle. Gene had a backup role with a weapon, however. He was to head for a guard hut on the back side of the compound to retrieve a Thompson submachine gun. As Dieter swung around behind the stockade and proceeded toward the kitchen, Gene was to remain on the porch of the hut with the submachine gun and provide supporting fire only if needed. At the kitchen, the Thais were to order in Laotian for the unarmed guards to surrender.

With Dieter guarding the back door, they hoped to round up the guards without firing the guns, since the sounds of a shootout would reverberate throughout the valley for miles, alerting all villagers and Pathet Lao alike to trouble at the camp. While Dieter, Thanee and Phisit secured the guards, Gene and Prasit would set up a hand-grenade booby trap on the trail leading up from the village, then hide nearby and ambush anyone heading for the camp. Meanwhile, Duane and Y.C. would search the huts. They would place the guards in foot-blocks and handcuffs and lock them in the prison huts until they decided what to do with them. Then, they could hold the camp and signal aircraft nightly until being spotted and rescued. If shots were fired in the taking of the camp, however, everyone knew that all bets were off, as enemy reinforcements could be expected within hours.

Weeks earlier, the prisoners had loosened a large support pole in the American hut by pouring water and urine at its base and working it back and forth until they could lift it out. After loosening some logs close to the floorboards, they now had a way to quickly exit the hut. Then, they put everything back and “covered up all traces” of their advance preparation. Dieter had also dug a hole underneath the fence next to the hut, and then covered it up with leaves and bamboo. He had accomplished all this when the prisoners were still being let out for long periods in the morning and when the guards in the gun towers were napping or otherwise inattentive, as they often were.

Lt Col Gene Deatrick

Some hours after the beating over the corncob, the prisoners were let out into the compound. They sat at their wooden picnic table in the center of the yard, slurping down watery rice broth, which had become their only daily meal. The camp dog—as skinny as them and probably not long for the world given the guards’ own extreme hunger—lingered under the table looking for scraps. There were none, of course, but the prisoners were always willing for the dog to lick any sores on their feet and legs, as they had found its saliva aided the healing process. Gesturing to the guards that he had to take a leak, Dieter slipped behind the hut to see if the logs were still loose. They moved easily. Also, the hole under the fence looked as if it had not been discovered. Having lazy guards who did not bother to walk the fence line was an advantage.

On escape day, the hours dragged toward the guards’ evening meal.

As the hour approached 4 p.m. on June 29, 1966, Phisit again turned “worried and cautious,” sending word that maybe the escape should be put off again. “Not on your life,” Dieter answered back.

In the Asian prisoners’ hut, which was closest to the kitchen, Thanee was counting the guards as they arrived for food. He passed the information to Y.C., squatted in the doorway. In English, Y.C. called out in a hushed voice to Duane, stationed in the doorway of the American hut, and Duane passed the word to Dieter and Gene.

“Guards entering kitchen.”

“Guards don’t have weapons.”

They waited for the final count.

“All in the kitchen, but one’s missing,” Duane said urgently.

They speculated he might have gone to check the animal traps in the woods.

“Hell, let’s go,” Dieter said.

Duane and Gene agreed.

It’s on,” Duane called out in a stage whisper to the other hut.

Dieter pulled out the loosened pole and logs, and climbed out the opening. Burrowing under the fence like a crazed groundhog, Dieter squeezed through and headed for the nearest guard hut. He leapt onto the porch, and crept across the bamboo flooring that creaked with his every step. Inside, he found two Chinese-made rifles and a U.S. M-1 carbine with a full 15-round magazine. While with the Air Force shooting team he had spent many hours on the range firing M-1s; he would keep this lightweight, semi-automatic weapon for himself. On the way out, he picked up a full ammunition belt with extra magazines.

As he came off the porch, other prisoners were emerging from under the fence. Gene was already making his way down the fence line toward the rear of the compound. Phisit and Prasit came toward Dieter, who gave them the loaded Chinese rifles and some ammo. The two Thais headed off in the direction of the kitchen with Duane following.

Dieter caught up with Gene. As they rounded the corner under the now-empty gun tower, Gene peeled off for the hut where the guard on tower duty routinely left the Thompson submachine gun before going for food. As soon as Dieter rounded the far corner of the stockade, he could see the guards milling about inside the open-walled kitchen hut.

The next instant, the guards “realized something was going on” and began yelling at each other and scrambling from the kitchen. They did not run toward the front of the stockade—the direction from which the Thais should have been coming—but toward Dieter.
“Yute! Yute!” yelled Dieter. He pressed the butt of the M-1 tightly between his chest muscle and the front ball of his shoulder, tilting his head so that his closest eye looked straight down the top of the barrel. His index finger rested lightly on the trigger.

At that moment a shot rang out. Dieter felt the speeding bullet whiz past his head. He spotted a guard in the kitchen with a rifle pointed his way. So much for the theory that the guards had no weapons! Dieter squeezed the trigger and dropped the guard with one shot.

Amid excited screams, the horde of guards closed on Dieter, who felt “all alone…out in the open.” He wondered what happened to the Thais armed with the Chinese rifles and Gene with the submachine gun.

Running for Dieter at full speed with a machete held menacingly over his head was Moron. From a few feet away, Dieter fired point-blank at the bare chest of the guard who had beaten him for taking the pig’s corncob. The force of the blast lifted Moron off the ground, threw him back several feet and spun him around. His limp body fell to the ground “dead right on the spot” with a sizable exit hole in the center of his back.

Dieter swung around to see another guard with a machete trying to outflank him. Although the M-1 fired only once each time the trigger was pulled, by rapidly squeezing and releasing the trigger he got off a fast-rate of fire. The guard collapsed on the ground, holding his side and shrieking. With no hesitation, Dieter fired again to “finish him off.”

The remaining guards were trying frantically to reach the jungle.

“Where the hell—is everybody?” Dieter yelled.

Then, like a backwoods Kentuckian on a squirrel hunt, he steadied himself and opened fire. He hit one more guard through the neck as he ran away. Needing to reload, Dieter slammed home a new magazine. He shot another guard just as he entered the jungle. The guard dropped from sight, then sprang up holding one arm. Dieter kept “banging away” at the guard as he vanished ghost-like into the thick vegetation.

Duane came running up carrying a carbine he had found in a guard hut. “The clip—the clip,” he stammered, explaining it had fallen out every time he tried to release the safety to fire the weapon.

Dieter showed him he was pressing the clip release, not the safety.

At least one guard had gotten away. There was also still the missing seventh guard, who could be nearby. In spite of all the dead guards sprawled on the ground who would never again abuse POWs, the outcome was disastrous given that the plan had been to capture the guards without firing a shot or letting anyone get away to return with reinforcements. The prisoners’ bold plan to hold the camp and make air contact was no longer viable. They had no choice now. They would have to gather whatever supplies they could find and head into the jungle.

Dieter and Gene had an emotional farewell. Gene had found the submachine gun in the guard hut, although when he stepped outside the shooting was over. He now had the weapon slung over one shoulder. As they shook hands, Dieter looked into Gene’s face and wanted to say something about how he should come with him and Duane instead of remaining behind near the camp. But he knew Gene had his mind made up, and would not leave his sick friend behind. Unable to find the words he wanted to say to his fellow American, Dieter shook Gene’s hand warmly.

“Go on, go on,” Gene implored. “See you in the States.”

Dieter and Duane took off toward the west and Thailand, although in an hour they had “no more reference” to direction due to the dense foliage, and could not see more than five feet in any direction. In their weakened states and unaccustomed to exercise, they started “vomiting right away.” They were soon held up by a solid wall of bramble brush. The camp dog had followed them, barking, and they were afraid he would end up giving them away. The dog had his own escape plans, however, and before disappearing into the woods he found a dug-out corridor under the thicket; Dieter and Duane crawled through after him. A short time later they reached a ridge. Exhausted, they fell to the ground. When they had recovered, Duane wanted to offer a prayer. They came up on their knees, with eyes closed and hands folded before them.

“God, please help us now. Please let us live.”

Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler, 28, after being rescued, becoming the first serviceman to escape from North Vietnam. (AP)

Duane and Dengler had escaped into the wild; their fellow prisoners were never seen again. “Seven of us escaped,” said Dengler. “I was the only one who came out alive.”

But escape brought its own torments. Soon, the two men’s feet were white, mangled stumps from trekking through the dense jungle. They found the sole of an old tennis shoe, which they alternated wearing, strapping it onto a foot with rattan for a few moments’ respite.

In this way, they were able to make their way to a fast-flowing river. “It was the highway to freedom,” said Dengler, “We knew it would flow into the Mekong River, which would take us over the border into Thailand and safety.”

 The men built a raft, and floated downstream on ferocious rapids, tying themselves to trees at night to stop themselves being washed away in the torrential water. By morning, they would be covered in mud and hundreds of leeches.

So weak that they could barely crawl up the river bank, the men eventually reached a settlement – but the villagers who greeted them were far from welcoming.

The pair knelt on the ground and pleaded. Dengler said: “One man had a machete in his hands. He swung and hit Duane’s leg, and blood gushed everywhere. With the next swipe, Duane’s head came off.”

“I reached for the rubber sole from his foot, grabbed it and ran. From that moment on, all my motions became mechanical. I couldn’t care less if I lived or died.”

Miraculously, it was a wild animal who gave him the mental strength to continue. “I was followed by this beautiful bear. He became like my pet dog and was the only friend I had.” These were his darkest hours. Little more than a walking skeleton after weeks on the run, he floated in and out of a hallucinatory state.

“I was just crawling along,” he said. “Then I had a vision: these enormous doors opened up. Lots of horses came galloping out. They were not driven by death, but by angels. Death didn’t want me.”

It was five days later, on July 20th 1966, that Dengler heard an American airplane overhead and, summoning up his last reserves of strength, waved the parachute from an old flare that he had stumbled upon in the jungle to attract the pilot’s attention. The signal was spotted by Colonel Deatrick: Dengler’s ordeal was at an end.

On the morning of July 20th, 1966, Lt Col Gene Deatrick was preparing for a somewhat routine mission that would take him into Laos for an Armed Recce (reconaissance) mission. Deatrick and his wingman, Major “Andy” Anderson were flying A-1 Skyraiders with the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku, Republic of South Vietnam. This sortie was intended to strike whatever enemy targets were found, as the area they were going into was without friendlies. When Deatrick and Anderson spotted Dengler on the ground, a Jolly Green rescue helicopter out of Danang was dispatched to the area escorted by Major Robert Blood and Captain Frank Urbanic.

Flying low over the dangerous and impenetrable Laotian jungle on a bombing mission against the Viet Cong, U.S. Air Force Colonel Eugene Deatrick saw a lone figure waving to him from a clearing below.

He continued on his flight path, but ten minutes later – puzzled that a native in this hostile terrain would try to attract his attention – he decided to turn back for another recce.

This time, he saw the letters SOS spelt out on a rock. Beside them stood an emaciated man dressed in rags, waving the remains of a parachute over his head and signalling desperately.

Deatrick radioed headquarters, who told him that no Americans had been shot down in the area, and instructed him to carry on. But the man continued waving, mouthing over and over again: “Please don’t leave.”

Eventually, at Deatrick’s insistence, two rescue helicopters were scrambled. Dropping a cable down to the frantic figure, they winched him on board. Fearful that he could be a Viet Cong suicide bomber, the crew pinned the six stone man to the helicopter deck and searched him – his backpack turned out to contain only a half-eaten snake.

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.

Almost beyond speech, the man whispered: “I am an American pilot. Please take me home.”

Contacting control command, the helicopter eventually received verification: they had found Lieutenant Dieter Dengler, the only American ever to break out of a prisoner of war camp in the Laotian jungle and live to tell the tale. A conflict between the Air Force and the Navy developed over who should control his interrogation 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 and flown to Ranger where a welcoming party had been prepared. Deprivation from malnutrition and parasites caused the Navy doctors to order that he be airlifted to the United States.

 

Deatrick has long marvelled 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.”

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

At night, however, he was tormented by awful terrors, and had to be tied to his bed. In the end, his friends put him to sleep in an cockpit, surrounded by pillows. “It was the only place I felt safe,” he said.

The year was 1966. Dengler had been missing, presumed dead, for six months, and subjected to barbaric torture at the hands of his captors.

But, plotting his getaway in the tiniest detail over several months, he at last escaped his prison by sheer force of will, surviving in the world’s fiercest wilderness with primal tenacity as death stalked his every step.

Emerging back into civilisation, he captivated the American nation with his astonishing story and film star looks – a lone ray of hope in the horrors of the Vietnam War.

After returning to the United States, Dieter Dengler was sent to the U.S. Navy Hospital in San Diego for recovery. The doctors said he was so malnourished that he was close to death when he was rescued and would probably have lasted only one more day. He weighed only 90 pounds, down from his normal 160. He also had malaria, worms, fungus and many other infections.

Dengler is a recipient of the following medals:

Navy Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart
Air Medal
Prisoner of War Medal (retroactive)

Vowing to never be hungry again, he bought and operated a German-style restaurant on Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco. In a house he built next to it, he hid a large supply of food staples under the kitchen floorboards. After selling his restaurant, Dieter become an airline pilot after his release from the Navy in 1968, he went to work with TWA as a flight engineer and, in the late 1970s, made a return to Laos on a POW fact-finding mission.

Dieter Dengler retired to Sausalito, California, and died in February 2001 of ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Dengler wrote about his captivity and flight in the book Escape from Laos, which was published in 1979 by Presidio Press. A movie version of Dengler’s life, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, was made by German filmmaker Werner Herzog and screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1997. The movie later appeared on Cinemax and was nominated for an Emmy in 1999.

According to the Arlington National Cemetery website, nearly 600 Americans, including Duane Martin and Gene DeBruin, remain imprisoned, missing or otherwise unaccounted for in Laos. Although the U.S. maintains that only a handful of these men were POW status, over 100 were known to have survived their loss incident. The Pathet Lao stated during the war that they held “tens of tens” of American prisoners but added that they would be released only from Laos, meaning that the U.S. must negotiate directly with the Pathet Lao. Because the Pathet Lao was not part of the agreements that ended American involvement in Southeast Asia, no negotiations have ever been conducted with Pathet Lao for the prisoners it held.

Lt Dieter Dengler

Dieter Dengler, Lieutenant, United States Navy

Bio, Dengler, Dieter – POW Network

Dieter Dengler, Lieutenant, United States Navy

Dieter Dengler’s Great Escape from Laotian POW Camp | HistoryNet

Dengler identified as the 1st to escape North Vietnam in 1966 – NY …

“Rescue Dawn,” Eugene DeBruin and Dieter Dengler – Bruce …

Valor awards for Dieter Dengler – Military Times Hall of Valor

Dieter Dengler Lieutenant O-3, U.S. Navy – Veteran Tributes

Tortured with razor-sharp bamboo and fed alive to ants: The story …

Dieter Dengler – Wikipedia

 


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