Dieter Dengler: A Navy pilot with an indomitable will to live

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Navy pilot Dieter Dengler is the subject of “Hero Found.” This is the hardcover version. The photograph on the cover of the paperback is slightly different.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

“Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War” by Bruce Henderson (Harper, 2011, $14.99, paperback)

As I was reading “Hero Found,” I couldn’t help but think that this electrifying story had all the cinematic elements that Hollywood loves: American pilot crash-lands his plane during a “secret war,” spends months as a POW, survives torture and starvation, manages to escape and is rescued when he’s nearly on death’s doorstep.

A little investigation revealed that my instincts were correct, and that Hollywood has already been all over Dieter Dengler’s Vietnam War-era exploits.

“Rescue Dawn,” starring Christian Bale as Dengler, and directed by Germany’s Werner Herzog, was released in 2007. It had a $10 million budget and as of 2012, had only taken in $7.1 million worldwide. I have not seen the movie, and judging by the fact that the film didn’t even make back its budget, not that many others did either.

Interestingly, Herzog also made a documentary called “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,”  released in 1997, with Dengler’s full cooperation.

And Dengler himself wrote a book about his ordeal called “Escape from Laos,” released in 1979, which author Bruce Henderson drew on to tell this almost too-fantastic-to-be- believed tale.

Henderson had another advantage as he undertook “Hero Found”: He had served aboard the USS Ranger in 1966, overlapping the time that Dengler was attached to the carrier as an A-1 Skyraider pilot. Henderson’s detailed narrative is a testament to his investigative skills and military knowledge.

The word “legend” was already uttered in the same breath as Dengler’s name, and Henderson was to learn that if anyone were a likely candidate to overcome the life-threatening hardships described above, it would be the unconventional and industrious German-born flier.

When Allied bombers, particularly American planes displaying a bright white star, arrived in 1944 in Wildberg, Germany, Dengler was a rambunctious 6-year-old. That the bombers were devastating his hometown was almost secondary to the gleaming warbirds having captured the youngster’s imagination. From that day forward, “Little Dieter needed to fly.”

In the bombing aftermath and post-war years, times were tough for the Dengler family. His father, Reinhold, 38, was killed by a Soviet grenade as the Germans retreated in Ukraine. In addition to his wife, Maria, and Dieter, Reinhold left behind two other sons.

The family moved in with Maria’s relatives in Calw, only 10 miles away, in southwest Germany.

Food and coal were scarce, but Dieter proved to be a born “scrounger,” skilled at finding something to eat, whether it be berries and mushrooms in the woods or the internal organs of a slaughtered sheep that the occupying force of Moroccans had discarded.

His “MacGyver”-like ingenuity, and a willingness to eat absolutely anything, would later help to save Dengler’s life.

At 14, busy running a gang and not a stellar student, Dieter’s mother apprenticed him to a blacksmith, who regularly beat him.

A way out of this abusive life, and Germany, arrived two-fold: At 16, Dieter saw an ad in a magazine that stated the U.S. military was looking for young men to train as pilots, and an aunt living in New Jersey agreed to be his sponsor in America.

Ever resourceful, for two years Dieter scavenged scrap metal to sell, earning the $520 he needed for the lowest-class, one-way fare to sail to the new world toward his dream.

Within weeks of arriving in the United States in 1957, he had enlisted in the Air Force. Not understanding that only officers could become pilots, Dengler ended up in the motor pool for several years, counting the days, taking classes and becoming an American citizen. And never giving up on his dream of flying.

Honorably discharged in 1961, he headed to California, where his younger brother was a baker. He moved in with Martin and joined him in attending community college, attaining the associate’s degree that would enable him to apply for the Naval Aviation Cadet program.

Dengler’s unwavering determination finally paid off. His aircraft of choice to fly was the A-1 Skyraider (nicknamed “Spad”), a single-engine, propeller-driven attack bomber designed in 1945 and delivered too late to be of service in World War II.

Like all other pilots, the newly golden-winged Dengler had to complete a SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) course, intended to teach personnel the skills they might need in the event that they bailed out of their planes and/or became prisoners of war.

The struggles and lessons of Dengler’s youth had already imbued him with supreme confidence, so his ability to avoid SERE capture surprised him not in the least. (In later years he would return to help teach other pilots survival skills.)

As 1966 dawned, Dengler was on the USS Ranger en route to Vietnam. Never without a Plan B, he supplemented the equipment, meds and food included in standard survival gear. He customized his specially purchased Swiss climbing boots with $100 in the tongue of each shoe, and an extra Navy ID and Geneva Convention card hidden in each sole.

He also carried his old German passport and documents identifying him as a machinist, along with civilian clothes, reasoning that if he were captured, he would assume the guise of a German citizen working in Indochina.

By the end of January, he and the other pilots were flying bombing runs over North and South Vietnam.

Dengler’s life changed forever on February 1. Orders were to fly into Laos and disrupt the communist Pathet Lao’s attempts to supply the North Vietnamese via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The American public knew nothing of this “secret war,” though the CIA-run Air America operation had been under way for almost a decade, and U.S. military air power utilized since April 1965.

After bombs away over the Laotian jungle, the right engine on Dengler’s Spad was shot off. He blew the aircraft’s canopy and prepared to jump, but found himself pushed back into his seat as the plane shuddered and dived. At this point, he elected to crash land. Miraculously, he walked away from the debris, bruised and badly shaken, but with his survival instincts in high gear.

The next day, a Navy search party located the wreckage, but there was no sign of Dengler. Within a few days, he was captured by the Pathet Lao, and managed to escape briefly. When recaptured, he was marched barefoot through the jungle until the guerrillas met up with the North Vietnamese.

Two weeks into his ordeal, in his first POW camp, he discovered that he was in the company of an American Air Force helicopter pilot, Duane Martin, who’d been shot down five months earlier, and five Air America employees: three from Thailand, one from Hong Kong and another American, Gene DeBruin, a former air force enlisted man, who’d been prisoners since September 1963.

Dengler immediately began talking about escaping, the sooner the better. The other prisoners scoffed, especially when it was pointed out that without a source of water, dehydration would swiftly cause his demise. They cautioned him to wait for the monsoon season.

So the days were spent planning, noting in minute detail the guards’ movements and schedules, and stocking what few provisions they could from their dwindling, inadequate daily meals for the attempt ahead.

Despite the prep, the June 29 escape did not go as planned. Because of illness, one team stayed behind. The three Thai men grabbed most of the provisions, including the all-important boots, and took off on their own. Dengler did most of the break-out shooting and then made for the jungle with Martin, heading west toward Thailand.

For nearly three weeks, Dengler and Martin were on the run, getting weaker and sicker by the day, existing on the remains found at abandoned campsites and taking great risks in stealing from villagers. An accidental meeting with a local resulted in Martin’s death, and Dengler was literally running for his life.

When he reached a river, he wrote SOS on a rock, and suspected he was close to death.

Then he caught the break that would save his life. Air Force Lt. Col. Eugene Deatrick, on a bombing run over Laos, saw the SOS and put into motion the chain of events that led to Dengler’s rescue.

When hospitalized in Da Nang, Dengler weighed 98 pounds. He was suffering from severe malnutrition, two types of malaria, hepatitis, fungus and jaundice.

Dengler was discharged from the Navy in February 1968. For a time he owned a restaurant in northern California, and for 10 years, he flew as a flight engineer for TWA.

Despite living a comfortable life in a free country, he never gave up the practice of stockpiling food and having a survival plan, until he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000, that is.

Even then he didn’t relinquish control. When he could no longer tolerate the ravages of the disease, he took his own life, at age 62, in February 2001.

The next month, Dieter Dengler, recipient of the Purple Heart, Air Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and Navy Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor), was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

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