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…
The year was 1966. Dengler had been missing, presumed dead, for six months, and subjected to barbaric torture at the hands of his captors.
On February 1, 1966, the day after the carrier began flying missions from Yankee Station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dengler launched from the Ranger with three other aircraft on an interdiction mission against a truck convoy that had been reported in North Vietnam. Thunderstorms forced the pilots 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. 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 in Laos.”
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 100 ft from the plane in a crash-landing, Dengler lay unconscious for a few minutes before running into the jungle to hide.When his squadron mates realized that he had been downed, they remained confident that he would be rescued.
Immediately after he was shot down, Dengler smashed his survival radio and hid most of his other survival equipment to keep Vietnamese or Lao search parties from finding it. The day after being shot down Dengler was apprehended by Pathet Lao troops, the Laotian equivalent of the communist National Liberation Front.
He was marched through the jungle, was tied on the ground to four stakes spreadeagled in order to stop him escaping at night. In the morning his face would be swollen from mosquito bites and he was unable to see. After an early escape attempt he was recaptured while drinking from a spring. According to Dengler he was tortured in retaliation:
“I had escaped from them, [and] they wanted to get even.”
He was hung upside down by his ankles with a nest of biting ants over his face until he lost consciousness, suspended in a freezing well at night – so that if sleep came, he might drown. On other occasions he was dragged through villages by a water buffalo, to the amusement of his guards, as they goaded the animal with a whip. He was asked by Pathet Lao officials to sign a document condemning the United States, but he refused and as a result he was tortured as tiny wedges of bamboo were inserted under his fingernails and into incisions on his body which grew and festered.
“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 Vietnamese. 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 handed the ring back to Dengler.
“I realized right there and then that you don’t fool around with the Viet Cong”, he said.
Dengler had trained in escaping and survival at the navy SERE survival school, where he had twice escaped from the mock-POW camp run by SERE instructors and Marine guards and was planning a third escape when the training ended. He had also set a record as the only student to actually gain weight (three pounds) during the SERE course; his childhood experiences had made him unafraid of eating whatever he could find and he had feasted on food the course instructors had thrown in the garbage.
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After several months in a PoW camp, one of the Thai prisoners overheard the guards talking about shooting them in the jungle and making it look like an escape attempt. They too, were starving and wanted to return to their villages. 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 flare-ship that made nightly visits to the area. 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 Phisit Intharathat and Promsuwan while Martin and DeBruin procured others from other locations.
“I planned to capture the guards at lunchtime, when they put down their rifles to get their food. There were two minutes and twenty seconds in the day when I could strike.” In that time Dengler had to release all the men from their handcuffs.
On June 29, 1966 while the guards were eating, the group slipped out of their hand-cuffs and foot restraints and grabbed the guard’s unattended weapons which included M1 rifles, Chinese automatic rifles, an American carbine and at least one sub-machine gun as well as an early version of the AK47 automatic rifle, which Dengler used during the escape from the POW camp. Dengler went out first followed by Martin.
He went to the guard hut and seized an M1 for himself and passed the American carbine to Martin. The guards realized the prisoners had escaped and five of them rushed toward Dengler, who shot at least three with the AK47. Phisit killed another guard as he reached for his rifle. 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.
“Seven of us escaped,” said Dengler. “I was the only one who came out alive.”
With the exception of Phisit, 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.
Escape proved to be hazardous. 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 wore alternately, 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 to 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. 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 their powder 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.
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. With the next swipe, Duane’s head came off. Dengler jumped to his feet and rushed toward the villager, who turned and ran into the village to get help.
“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.”
Dengler recalls, 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.”
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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 flare-ship came, 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.
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. Source of this story wiki
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. 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 a cockpit, surrounded by pillows. “It was the only place I felt safe,” he said.
Dengler’s deprivation from malnutrition and parasites caused the Navy doctors to order that he be airlifted to the United States