Lieutenant Dieter Dengler Was The Only American To Ever Break Out Of A Laotian War Camp And Live
In June of 1966, rescue crews picked up Dieter Dengler from the jungles of Laos. He’d been imprisoned since February when his plane went down over the same country.
His story was so incredible, Hollywood twisted it into a movie starring Christian Bale, called Rescue Dawn. The movie is entertaining, but not 100% accurate. This is how it really happened.
Colonel Eugene Deatrick almost missed the man waving to him from the jungle. At first, Deatrick thought it was a native, but something made him circle back to check it out. The man had spelled out the letter S.O.S. on the ground. He was ragged and thin, but still waving for help.
Deatrick couldn’t pick up the man, but he could radio for help. The military scrambled two helicopters to the scene, where they winched him into one of the Hueys. At first, they weren’t sure who this man was. The man whispered, “I am an American pilot. Please take me home.”
After some checking, they verified his identity. They had missing pilot Lieutenant Dieter Dengler on board. Until that moment, officials had assumed he was dead.
Dengler fell in love with the idea of becoming a pilot as a kid when he watched an allied pilot fly past from his bedroom window in Germany. In his youth, he learned survival skills in the wake of WWII. When he was a teenager, he emigrated to the United States, then signed up for the Airforce.
When Dengler’s Skyraider went down, he’d launched from the U.S.S. Ranger with three other aircraft. They were on a bombing mission over Laos, a country the United States denied being in.
He didn’t die when his plane hit the ground, but that may have been easier than what he would face in the coming months. The crash threw him from the plane, leaving him unconscious for minutes before coming to. He immediately hid in the jungle.
Dengler had an injured leg, but he survived for two days before capture. The Pathet Lao found him. They were the Laotian version of the Viet Cong (VC), the communist forces hiding in South Vietnam.
Dengler’s training as a youth and in the Navy honed his skills for escape. In fact, he had a reputation for it. These skills were what allowed him to first escape his Laotian captors, who punished him severely for embarrassing them.
They marched him from village to village, torturing and beating him along the way. Four months into it, they handed him over to the Viet Cong.
As the VC marched him to where they would hold him, a man robbed Dengler of his wedding band. He told his captors of the theft, and they respond by cutting off the finger of the man who stole it, returning the ring to Dengler.
Of that situation, Dengler said, “I realized right there and then that you didn’t fool around with the Viet Cong.”
Finally to his new prison, Dengler found six other captors. Two were Americans, four were Thai.
“They had been there for two and a half years,” said Dengler. “I looked at them, and it was just awful. I realized that was how I would look in six months. I had to escape.”
The VC locked the captors together at night. Two of them had fashioned keys to unlock themselves, but they kept the information from Dengler for two weeks. He still had a faint German accent. They needed to know he wasn’t a spy.
For weeks, the men perfected their escape plan. They’d stored rice to survive on and fashioned a model of the camp from which to plan. They knew where every guard was, where every gun was. They even knew how long it took for reinforcements to arrive from the neighboring camp.
Their best time to escape was when the guards were eating their evening meal. They knew that would give them two and half minutes to get out and overtake the camp.
The day before the escape, the guards caught Dengler stealing a corncob from one of the camp’s pigs. The guards gave the pigs back the corn then one of them beat Dengler for taking their food.
On the day of the escape, they each had a job. Dengler was to enter the nearest guard hut. There would be 3-4 rifles in there he could distribute to the others.
Another American prisoner, Gene, was to grab the machine gun from another hut and offer backup if necessary. They wanted to minimize the sound to prevent reinforcements. There was no room for error.
The original plan was to split into two groups, the Americans, and the Thais, but one of the Thai men was not well. Y.C., the oldest of the group had contracted something that caused his legs to swell. Whatever it was, it made him weak and he couldn’t run.
The Thai prisoners were afraid he would slow them down, so Gene agreed to escape with Y.C. By that point, they’d spent years together. He couldn’t leave him.
Dengler made it to his hut as planned, got the rifles and handed them out. He caught up with Gene en route to the machine gun while the other two prisoners headed to the dining hut with their rifles.
The guards must have figured out something was up. They started yelling and running, but towards Dengler, not the way the prisoners expected. A bullet whizzed past Dengler’s head from a guard who’d missed his target. He nailed that guard with one shot.
Then he shot the guard who beat him for the corn cob, killing him with one bullet. Then he took out another. As he took aim on the rest, they fled into the jungle. He hit one more as they ran, but one got away.
Dengler pled with Gene to run with him, but he would not leave behind Y.C.
“See you in the States,” said Gene as he left to help his friend.
Dengler took off with the other American, Duane, into the forest.
He and Duane spent three weeks evading capture and surviving in the forest, trying to find a way to Thailand, via the Mekong river. After floating through rapids for days, they made landfall at a settlement.
The villagers who greeted Duane and Dengler were not happy to see them. Dengler watched Duane from a distance as he pled to the villagers for help. When they cut off his head with a machete, Dengler took off.
Five days later, he heard a plane overhead; Colonel Deatrick’s airplane.
At the hospital in Da Nang, the CIA held and interrogated Dengler, but the pilots who saved him would have none of that. They sprung him from the hospital, putting him in a helicopter which would lead him home. The same naval carrier from which he took off, the U.S.S. Ranger, received him with a hero’s welcome.
Of his time in Vietnam, Dengler said, “Men are often haunted by things that happen to them in life, especially in war. Their lives come to be normal, but they are not.”
Dieter Dengler died at age 62 from a form of ALS. The military buried him with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.