Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Series-Disabled Legend Dieter Dengler

Dieter Dengler was born on 22 May, 1938 and died on 7 February, 2001 of ALS, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. An exemplary guard of honor was present at the burial as well as a fly-over by Navy F-14 Tomcats. Dieter was a United States Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. Dieter was 1 of the 2 survivors (the other being Pisidhi Indradat), out of 7, to escape from a Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos. Dieter was rescued after 23 days on the run.

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

Dieter Dengler’s first experience with aircraft came when he was very young and witnessed enemy allied aircraft flying over his town from his bedroom window. From that moment, he wanted to be a pilot. Dieter 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 scheme to steal and scrounge brass and other metals to sell.

When he turned 18 and upon completion of his apprenticeship, he hitchiked to Hamburg and set sail for New York City with the dream of becoming a pilot. Dieter lived off the streets of Manhattan for just over a week and eventually found his way to an Air Force recruiter. Dieter 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, Dieter Dengler was initially assigned duty as a motor pool mechanic. Dieter’s qualifications as a machinist led to an assignment as a gunsmith. Dieter took and passed the test for aviation cadets, but his enlistment expired before he was selected for pilot training.

After his discharge he joined his brother in a bakery shop near San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco City College, then transferred to San Mateo College where he studied aeronautics. Upon completion of 2 years of college, he applied for the US Navy aviation cadet program and was accepted. After completion of flight training he went to Corpus Christi, Texas for training as an attack pilot in the Douglas AD Skyraider. Dieter joined VA-145 while the squadron was on shore duty at Alameda, California. In 1965 the squadron joined the carrier USS Ranger. In December the carrier set sail for the coast of Vietnam, stationed initially at Dixie Station off of South Vietnam, then moving north to Yankee Station for operations against North Vietnam.

A Navy AD Skyraider from VA-15 catches a wire during carrier operations. The day after the carrier began flying missions from Yankee Station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dieter Dengler launched from Ranger with 3 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, Lt. Dengler and the remainder of his flight lost sight of one another. Dieter Dengler was the last man in and was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Dieter managed to crash-land his Skyraider in Laos.

When his squadron mates realised that he had been lost, they remained confident that he would be rescued. Dieter Dengler had a reputation from his experiences at the Navy survival school, where he had escaped from the mock-POW camp run by Marine guards 3 times. Dieter had also set a record as the only student to actually gain weight 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. When a rescue helicopter came near the next day, he had no means with which to signal it. Dieter tried not to be seen as much as possible but the day after he was shot down he was spotted by Pathet Lao guerrillas and captured. At the prison camp to which he was taken, he met Duane W. Martin, Eugene DeBruin, Prasit Thanee, Y.C. To, Pisidhi Indradat, and Prasit Promsuwan.

The day after he was shot down, Lt. Dengler was apprehended by Pathet Lao troops. They bound his hands and marched him through the jungle, stopping at various villages along the way. At one point, he escaped and climbed a karst tower in hopes of signaling a passing aircraft. Lack of shelter from the sun and thirst forced him to climb down to seek water, and his captors found him as he was drinking from a spring. In retaliation, they devised various methods to torture him, including hanging him upside down while putting ant nests on his face until he passed out, inserting bamboo shoots under his fingernails and skin, and suspending him in a well.

Dieter Dengler was eventually brought to a prison camp near the village of Par Kung where he met other POWs. The other 6 prisoners were:

Pisidhi Indradat (Thai)
Prasit Promsuwan (Thai)
Prasit Thanee (Thai)
Y.C. To (Chinese)
Duane W. Martin (American)
Eugene DeBruin (American)

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 2 1/2 years when Dieter Dengler joined them. The day he arrived in the camp, Dieter 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 Dieter Dengler arrived, the prisoners were moved to a new camp 10 miles away at Hoi Het. After the move, a strong debate ensued among the prisoners, with Dieter 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. Dieter 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.

On 29 June, 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. Dieter Dengler went out first followed by 2 of the Thais. Dieter went to the guard hut and seized an M1 for himself, and passed 2 Chinese automatic rifles to the Thais. The guards realised the prisoners had escaped and 5 of them rushed toward Dieter Dengler, who shot at least 3 with the M1. One of the Thais shot a popular guard in the leg. 2 others ran off, presumably to get help, although at least 1 had been wounded. The 7 prisoners split into 3 groups. DeBruin was originally supposed to go with Dieter 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 bridge and wait for rescue. Dieter 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 were ever seen again. DeBruin was reportedly captured and placed in another camp, then disappeared in 1968.

Dieter 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. Dieter 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 demoralised 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. Dieter 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 “Amelican!” 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. The man swung again and hit him behind the neck, killing him. Dieter Dengler jumped to his feet and rushed toward the villager, who turned and ran into the village to get help. Dieter Dengler managed to evade the searchers who went out after him and escaped back into the jungle. Dieter returned to an abandoned village where the had been spending their time and where he and Martin had signaled a C-130. That night when a C-130 flareship came over, Dieter 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 recognised by intelligence as having been a signal from a survivor. When a rescue force again failed to materialise, Dieter Dengler decided to find 1 of the parachutes from a flare for use as a possible signal. Dieter found 1 on a bush and placed it in his rucksack. On 20 July, 1966, after 23 days in the jungle, Dieter Dengler managed to signal an Air Force pilot with the parachute. A 2-ship flight of Air Force Skyraiders from the 1st Air Commando Group happened to fly up the river where Dieter 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. Peyton 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. Peyton Deatrick persevered and eventually managed to convince the command and control center to dispatch a rescue force. Fearing that Dieter 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”, Dieter Dengler said one of the flight crew who was holding him down pulled out a 1/2 eaten snake from underneath Dieter Dengler’s clothing and was so surprised he nearly fell out of the helicopter. The person who threw Dieter Dengler to the floor of the helicopter was Air Force Pararescue specialist Michael Leonard from Lawler, Iowa. Leonard stripped Dieter Dengler of his clothes, making sure he was not armed or in possession of a hand grenade. When questioned, Dieter Dengler told Leonard that he escaped from a North Vietnamese Prisoner of War camp 2 months earlier. Peyton 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 Dieter Dengler’s identity was confirmed. 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 Dieter Dengler. Dieter 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.

Dieter Dengler remained in the Navy for a year, 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. Dieter continued flying and survived 4 subsequent crashes as a civilian test pilot.

In 1977, during a time when he was furloughed from TWA, Dieter Dengler returned to Laos and was greeted as a celebrity by the Pathet Lao. Dieter 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. Dieter’s fascination with airplanes and aviation continued for the remainder of his life. Dieter continued flying almost up until his death, as a pilot for TWA until his retirement at age 59, then privately. In 2000, Dieter Dengler was inducted into the Gathering of Eagles programme and told the story of his escape to groups of young military officers. During his life, Dieter Dengler had 3 wives, Marina Adamich (1966 – March 1970), Irene Lam (11 September, 1980 – 3 April, 1984), Yukiko Dengler (until his death). Dieter Dengler is also survived by 2 sons: Rolf and Alexander Dengler, and 1 grandchild.

Military Honours:
Dieter Dengler is a recipient of the following medals:

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

Dieter Dengler was the subject of Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”. Herzog went on to direct a dramatised version of the story, “Rescue Dawn”, which stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler. The film was shown at festivals throughout the end of 2006 and received a limited theatrical release in the USA on 4 July, 2007 before a 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, Dieter Dengler, and Pisidhi Indradat, the other survivor of the group.

Herzog acknowledged that DeBruin acted heroically during his imprisonment, refusing to leave while some sick prisoners remained, but Herzog was 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. Family members, however, said that Herzog was uninterested in speaking with them prior to the completion of the movie.

Dieter Dengler documented his experience in the book “Escape From Laos”. Amazon also has a short on the subject.

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