originally published August 6, 2014
The air was as thick as a steak and almost as full of blood. Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dieter Dengler stared at each of his fellow P.O.W.s and wondered which of them would be up for the escape. There were three men from Thailand, one Chinese man, and an American “kicker” named Eugene DeBruin, all of whom had been working for the CIA’s Air America, covertly delivering food and supplies to refugees in the early stew of the Vietnam War. The other man was First Lieutenant Duane W. Martin, the only other American serviceman among them.
The Chinese man, Y.C. To, was suffering from a fever – he wasn’t likely to keep up. But postponement of the escape was not an option; one of the Thais had overheard a guard mutter something about taking the seven men out to the jungle and shooting them, making it look like they’d been trying to flee. Now the flee would have to be.
Dieter was the one who drew up the scenario. He’d slip out of his restraints while the guards were eating, grab some weapons, then let the bullets fly. Dieter had trained for this. He was ready.
As a boy in Wildberg, Germany, Dieter had always dreamed of being a pilot. He’d never met his father, and was raised under the tutelage of his grandfather – the lone citizen of his hometown who had not voted for the Nazi Party. Dieter packed up what little he had and made for New York City, where he lived on the gritty streets for a week before popping into the local Air Force recruiting station.
The Air Force trained Dieter on a myriad of mechanical doodads, but they never taught him how to fly. After his discharge, he had to learn it on his own in California. The US Navy took him in, and in 1965 he was dispatched to Vietnam to fight in the war that most folks back home had yet to begin understanding, let alone loathing. He took off on his first mission on February 1, 1966. He was shot down in Laos that day, and was able to scavenge and survive for about 24 hours before soldiers of the Pathet Lao took him prisoner.
Slipping out of the restraints was easy. Scootching under the walls of the hut made him feel slightly like a freshly-pressed lasagna noodle, but it was done. Dieter grabbed an M1, a submachine gun and some Chinese rifles for his companions, keeping the prototype AK-47 for himself. As the guards clued in to the escape, Dieter mowed down three of them straight away. The others were either gunned down or they fled. Not one P.O.W. was wounded.
Mission accomplished? Sure. Except they were still trapped in a hostile jungle behind the Laotian border. The septet split up: DeBruin took the slow route with To, the weakened Chinese man. The two were never heard from again, though there was a rumor that DeBruin had been recaptured. The three Thai men decamped in search of rescue, but apart from Pisidhi Indradat, who was later re-captured and re-rescued, their fates are unknown.
That left Dieter and First Lieutenant Duane Martin. Martin outranked Dieter, but Dieter was the brains behind the escape; he had successfully escaped a simulated P.O.W. camp twice in the Navy’s survival school back home. His skills had clearly translated into reality. The two decided to move forward as a team.
Dieter and Duane found a river and followed it, hoping it would lead them to the Mekong, which would lead them south into the part of Vietnam where everyone didn’t necessarily want to kill them. The river was a bust; it just led them in a circle. They squatted in an abandoned village, subsisting on the handfuls of rice they’d swiped from the prison and the scraps of food they could find in the jungle. They were gut-punched by furious rains, nibbled upon by non-finicky leeches and swatted by insects larger than a human palm.
They lit torches to signal a passing C-130, which dropped down a pair of signal flares in response. Still, no rescue squad showed up the next day. They were getting desperate, and Duane was fighting back the symptoms of malaria. Spotting a Akha village – they’re a hill-dwelling tribe that would not necessarily be aligned with the Khmer Rouge or any other anti-American forces – Duane thought it would be wise to sneak in and grab some food. Dieter disagreed, but wasn’t about to let Duane make the move on his own.
Once spotted by the villagers, Dieter and Duane knelt on the ground in supplication. The first villager to approach them wasn’t in the mood to be welcoming; he swung his machete deep into Duane’s leg. The next swing cut through his neck. Dieter made a move on the villager, but more help was arriving. It was once again time to flee.
Back at the abandoned village, Dieter was losing hope. Another C-130 flew overhead, and Dieter burned the village to the ground in an attempt to signal for help. The C-130 saw the flames, but when they returned to base at Ubon, Thailand, intelligence advised that the flames were not necessarily a signal for help. Once again, no rescue team was dispatched.
Dieter grabbed one of the parachutes the first C-130 had dropped. A few days later, his frantic waving of the white ‘chute sent the message he needed. Pilot Eugene Peyton Deatrick of the 1st Air Commando Squadron saw him. Dieter was saved.
Deatrick was advised to abort the rescue, as no known airmen were supposed to be in that little corner of Laos. Deatrick insisted, and the helicopter crew that finally dropped in to pluck Dieter from the briny jungle treated him first as a possible Viet Cong soldier, stripping him and searching for weapons and traps. When they reached the hospital in Da Nang, his identity was confirmed.
Both the Air Force and Navy wanted dibs on debriefing Dieter and nursing him back to health. The Navy actually sent in a team of SEALs to kidnap Dieter and bring him to Navy facilities. Dieter made a full recovery and went on to become a TWA pilot, finally living out his childhood dream of taking to the air, but with the added bonus of not having anyone try to shoot him down. He lived to the age of 62, when the tribulations of ALS pushed him to take his own life.
Dieter Dengler was special breed of cat, willing to slap his life on the table for a nation that wasn’t his, all in the hopes of commanding an airborne steel tube majestically through the clouds. He endured torture, malnutrition, parasites and horror that words can only dance around yet never penetrate, and emerged on the other side as an unquestionable hero.