Back when I first published this back in 2012, I had just finished the audio book of one of the best histories of an individual from the Vietnam War, Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War.
A lot of talk is made about POWs from Vietnam, but one thinly known fact is that of all the POWs taken by the Laotian Communists, none - zip, zero, nada - were returned to the USA. All were in one way or another killed - except one; and he earned it in the finest traditions of the Naval service.
On February 1, 1966, U.S. Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler launched from the aircraft
carrier USS RANGER in an A1H Skyraider as part of a four-aircraft
interdiction mission near the border of Laos. Dieter was the last man to
roll in on a target when he was observed by the pilot of one of the other
aircraft to start a normal recover. Due to limited visibility, the flight
lost sight of him.
The other aircraft in the flight could not determine what had happened. They
only knew Dengler disappeared. Dengler later stated that ground fire had
severely damaged his aircraft, and he was forced to crash land in Laos.
Search continued all that day and part of the night without success.
The following morning, squadron members again went to search the area where
Dengler disappeared and located the aircraft wreckage. Helicopters were
called in. From the air, it appeared that no one was in the cockpit of the
aircraft. The helicopter crew photographed the area and noted his donut (a
round seat cushion) on the ground by the wing. They hoped he was still alive
in the jungle somewhere.
Dengler had successfully evaded capture through that night, and later said
that he even saw the rescue aircraft as they searched for him. He had tried
without success to raise them on his emergency radio. Dengler was finally
captured by Pathet Lao troops, who tortured him as they force-marched him
through several villages. Eight days later, Dengler escaped, but was
recaptured within a short time.
Ultimately, Dengler found himself in a camp in Laos held with other American
POWs. One of them, 1Lt. Duane W. Martin, had been aboard an HH43B "Huskie"
helicopter operating about 10 miles from the border of Laos in Ha Tinh
Province, North Vietnam, when the HH43B went down near the city of Tan An,
and all four personnel aboard the aircraft were captured. It is not clear if
the four were captured by North Vietnamese or Pathet Lao troops or a
combination of the two. Duane W. Martin was taken to a camp controlled by
Pathet Lao. Thomas J. Curtis, William A. Robinson and Arthur N. Black were
released in 1973 by the North Vietnamese, and were in the Hanoi prison
system as early as 1967.
When Duane Martin arrived at the camp, he found himself held with other
Americans. Some of them had been held for more than two years. (Note: This
would indicate that there were Americans in this camp who had been captured
in 1964. The only American officially listed as captured in Laos in 1964 is
Navy Lt. Charles F. Klusmann, who was captured in June 1964 and escaped in
August 1964. Source for the "two years" information is Mersky & Polmer's
"The Naval Air War in Vietnam", and this source does not identify any
Americans by name who had been held "for more than two years." Civilian
Eugene DeBruin, an acknowledged Laos POW who has never been returned, had
been captured in the fall of 1963. Dengler has stated that a red-bearded
DeBruin was held in one of the camps in which he was held. All previous Laos
loss incidents occurred in 1961 and 1962.)
Throughout the fall of 1965 and into spring and summer of 1966, the group of
Americans suffered regular beatings, torture, harassment, hunger and illness
in the hands of their captors. According to an "American Opinion" special
report entitled "The Code" (June 1973), Dengler witnessed his captors behead
an American Navy pilot and execute six wounded Marines. (Note: no other
source information available at time of writing reveals the names of these
On June 29, 1965, after hearing the prisoners were to be killed, Martin and
Dengler and unnamed others (Eugene DeBruin was apparently part of this
group, but was recaptured, and according to information received by his
family, was alive at least until January 1968, when he was taken away with
other prisoners by North Vietnamese regular army troops) decided to make
their escape in a hail of gunfire in which six communist guards were killed.
Dengler was seriously ill with jaundice, and Martin was sick with malaria.
Dengler and Martin and the others made their way through the dense jungle
surviving on fruits, berries, and some rice they had managed to save during
They floated down river on a raft they had constructed, eventually coming to
an abandoned village where the men found some corn. After a night's rest,
Dengler and Martin made their way downstream to another village. This
settlement was occupied, however, and the two Americans were suddenly
attacked by a villager with a machete. Dengler managed to escape back into
the jungle, but Martin was beheaded by the assailant. It had been 18 days
since their escape.
Dengler made his way alone, and on the 22nd day, with his strength almost
gone, he was able to form an SOS with some rocks, and waited, exausted to be
rescued or die. Luck was with him, for by late morning, an Air Force A1E
spotted the signal and directed a helicopter to pick up Dengler. He weighed
98 pounds. When he had launched from his aircraft carrier 5 months earlier,
he had weighed 157 pounds.
The larger story has so much more depth.
In addition to the book linked to at the beginning of the post, LT Dengler, USNR (Ret.) also wrote his own book that I have on order, Escape From Laos.
As outlined here - there was a movie made from the book; in a fashion, but it is best to skip it.
In 1997, Werner Hertzog - yes that Werner Hertzog - produced a documentary about him titled, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
We lost Dengler in 2001 as a byproduct of his struggle with ALS - what a loss it is.