Dieter Dengler: A Brief History

Updated on July 15, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.

Dieter Dengler (Right)
Dieter Dengler (Right)

Introduction

Birth Name: Dieter Dengler

Date of Birth: 22 May 1938

Place of Birth: Wildberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Nazi Germany

Date of Death: 7 February 2001 (Sixty-Two Years of Age)

Place of Death: Mill Valley, California

Cause of Death: Suicide

Place of Burial: Arlington National Cemetery

Spouse(s): Marina Adamich (Married in 1966; Divorced in 1970); Irene Lam (Married in 1980; Divorced in 1984); Yukiko Dengler (Married in 1998)

Children: Alexander Dengler (Son); Rolf Dengler (Son)

Father: Reinhold Dengler

Mother: Maria Dengler

Siblings: Martin Dengler (Brother); Klaus Dengler (Brother)

Occupation: Fighter Pilot; Aircraft Pilot (Private and Commercial)

Military Service: Part of the 145th Attack Squadron (United States Navy); Stationed on USS-Ranger (CV-61)

Highest Rank Achieved: Lieutenant

Awards/Honors: Navy Cross; Distinguished Flying Cross; Bronze Star; Purple Heart; Air Medal

Best Known For: Successfully escaped from a Pathet Lao Prison-camp in Laos; First U.S. Airman to escape enemy captivity during the Vietnam War.

Navy A-1 Skyraider; Same plane flown by Dieter Dengler during the Vietnam War.
Navy A-1 Skyraider; Same plane flown by Dieter Dengler during the Vietnam War. | Source

Dieter Dengler: Quick Facts

Quick Fact #1: Dieter Dengler was born on 22 May 1928 in Wildberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany to Maria and Reinhold Dengler. Dieter never had an opportunity to know his father who was killed during World War Two along the Eastern Front. However, he became quite close to his mother, brothers, and grandparents. The Dengler family was quite poor during Dieter’s early years, forcing the family to resort to scavenging in their pursuit of food during the war.

Quick Fact #2: By the age of fourteen, Dieter began an apprenticeship under a blacksmith in Germany, and helped in the repair of clocks and watches. Although the blacksmith regularly beat young Dieter for the slightest mistakes, Dieter was later thankful for the strict training as it helped him to survive difficult situations in Vietnam.

Quick Fact #3: At the age of eighteen, young Dieter decided to travel to the United States after seeing an American magazine with a recruitment ad for military pilots. To make the journey, Dieter salvaged brass and various metals to raise the required sum of money for boat tickets. After hitchhiking to Hamburg and spending nearly two weeks on the city’s streets, Dieter set sail for New York City carrying few clothes and only a handful of fruit and sandwiches for the long journey ahead. After arriving in New York City, Dieter quickly sought out an Air Force recruiter, where he enlisted and was quickly sent to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Quick Fact #4: After making it through basic training, Dengler spent two years in the Air Force peeling potatoes before transferring to the motor pool to work as a mechanic. Due to his experience as a machinist, he was later assigned as a gunsmith. Although Dengler later passed the aviation test required for pilots, he was barred from pilot-selection due to the fact that he did not have a college degree. He was later discharged from the Air Force where he joined his brother as a baker at a bakery shop in San Francisco. While working with his brother, Dengler pursued his education at San Francisco City College, and later transferred to the College of San Mateo where he completed two years of college, studying aeronautics. Using his newfound college experience to his advantage, young Dengler reapplied to the U.S. Navy’s “Aviation Cadet Program” and was accepted. His dream of becoming a pilot was finally becoming a reality.

Quick Fact #5: After completing flight training, Dengler was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas for training as a fighter pilot. Dengler trained with the Douglas AD Skyraider, and was later assigned to the VA-145 squadron at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. It wasn’t long before Dengler and his squadron were reassigned to join the Carrier USS Ranger, which had been assigned to patrol the coast of Vietnam.

Quick Fact #6: After arriving in Vietnamese waters, Dengler and his squadron were assigned to an “interdiction mission” to destroy a North Vietnamese truck convoy. Their primary target was a roadway located just west of Mu Gia Pass in Laos. After flying for nearly two and a half hours non-stop to the target, Dengler and his squadron engaged the target area. Unfortunately for Dengler, however, his Skyraider was struck by anti-aircraft fire, destroying his right wing and forcing Dengler to make a crash landing in a clearing nearby. After making contact with the ground, Dengler was thrown approximately 100 feet from his plane, rendering him momentarily unconscious. Miraculously, Dengler was able to regain consciousness long enough to run toward the nearby jungle, and evaded capture for the time being.

Dieter Dengler after being rescued from the POW camp. Notice Dengler's poor condition and health in this photo, due to both mistreatment and starvation.
Dieter Dengler after being rescued from the POW camp. Notice Dengler's poor condition and health in this photo, due to both mistreatment and starvation. | Source

Quick Facts Continued...

Quick Fact #7: Relying on his survival skills learned during flight training, Dengler immediately destroyed his survival radio (to keep enemy patrols from picking up on his emergency frequency), and hid his survival pack. Despite evading enemy forces for more than a day, however, Dengler was later apprehended by Pathet troops from Laos. In their march back to camp, Dengler was tortured relentlessly, undergoing extreme physical and mental duress from his captors. This included being hung upside down over a nest of ants, submersion into water, and being dragged behind a water buffalo. Although Pathet officials offered him decent treatment (and possible release) if he would sign a document condemning the United States in the war against Vietnam, Dengler refused to sign and was subjected to additional tortures. These included having bamboo spikes inserted under his fingernails, as well as being cut mercilessly across his body. At one point, one of his captors even twisted a piece of rope around his hand so tightly that he was unable to use his hand for nearly six months.

Quick Fact #8: Dengler was later handed over to the North Vietnamese, and was brought to a POW camp near Par Kung. Here, Dengler was introduced to six additional prisoners that included two Americans, Duane W. Martin and Euguene DeBruin. Upon arrival, Dengler immediately began to work out plans for escape, inviting the others to join him in the planning. Understanding the dangers of the jungle that surrounded them, however, Dengler’s fellow prisoners advised him to await the arrival of monsoon season in order to have plenty of drinking water during the escape. After being moved to another camp at Hoi Het, the group began preparations for their escape.

Quick Fact #9: Despite poor treatment and a lack of food, a strong debate emerged between the prisoners, as a few of the POWs felt it was best to stay (rather than escape). As food began to run out in the camp, however, their situation grew worse and worse, as the prisoners were forced to eat snakes and rats found around their prison-hut for nourishment (due to dwindling supplies in the area from American bombing). Once it became clear that the guards planned to kill all of the prisoners, all talk of staying in the camp ceased, as each of the prisoners determined it was time to leave immediately. On 29 June 1966, the group made their move during lunch as each of the guards were eating. Slipping out of their prison-hut and handcuffs, Dengler and the prisoners captured the guard’s unattended weapons, killing at least four. Splitting up into groups, Dengler and Martin escaped by themselves, heading toward the Mekong River which led to Thailand. Due to harsh conditions, the pair never made it more than a few miles from the camp though. Out of the seven prisoners that escaped, only Phisit and Dengler managed to live through the ordeal; with Phisit being recaptured by the Vietnamese and later freed by Laotian troops.

Quick Fact #10: Braving treacherous water, leeches, mud, and starvation, Dengler and Martin managed to evade capture for several days after escaping. In a tragic encounter with a local village, however, Martin was killed by the villagers, leaving Dengler alone as he narrowly escaped from the angry locals. After spending twenty-three days in the jungle, Dengler was finally able to signal an Air Force Pilot flying overhead with an old parachute found near an abandoned village (20 July 1966). Air Force Skyraiders, led by Eugene Peyton Deatrick, spotted Dengler shortly after, and initiated a rescue mission to bring him in. A helicopter crew pulled Dengler from the jungle, returning him to the hospital in Da Nang, where his identity was confirmed.

Quick Fact #11: While recovering, a team of Navy SEALs were sent to Da Nang to snag Dengler before he could be debriefed (and subjected to long hours of questioning by the Air Force). The SEALs hid Dengler under a covered gurney, where he was promptly rolled out to the airfield and put aboard a helicopter. The helicopter quickly raced toward the awaiting USS Ranger, where a large welcome party had been prepared in Dengler’s honor. He was later airlifted to the United States for malnutrition and parasitic infections.

Quick Fact #12: Although Dengler recovered from the ordeal physically, mental strain from being tortured and subjected to captivity remained with him for the rest of his life. Dengler remained in the Navy for a year and was promoted to Lieutenant before resigning. He later became an airline pilot for Trans World Airlines, as well as a test pilot. After being diagnosed with ALS in 2001, however, depression got the best of Dengler. Due to mental anguish, Dengler decided to roll his wheelchair to a local fire station close to his home, and shot himself in the head. He was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Dieter Dengler in later life. In this picture, Dengler is taking a tour of the USS Constellation.
Dieter Dengler in later life. In this picture, Dengler is taking a tour of the USS Constellation. | Source

Fun Facts About Dengler

Fun Fact #1: Dengler was married on three different occasions to Marina Adamich (1966-1970), Irene Lam (1980-1984), and Yukiko Dengler (1998 until his death). He is survived by two sons and three grandsons

Fun Fact #2: During his brief time in the Navy, Dengler was awarded numerous medals for heroism. These included the Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, and Air Force Good Conduct Medal.

Fun Fact #3: In 1967, Dengler was a contestant on the gameshow “I’ve Got a Secret.” In the show, Dengler revealed that during his captivity, his weight had dropped to an astounding 93 pounds.

Fun Fact #4: In addition to documenting his experience in the book, Escape From Laos, Dengler’s story was retold through numerous documentaries on Vietnam, as well as the movie Rescue Dawn, featuring Christian Bale as Dengler.

Fun Fact #5: During Dengler’s rescue, one of the flight crew members going through Dengler’s belonging pulled out a half-eaten snake from his pocket. According to Dengler, the crew member was so surprised (and scared) that he nearly fell out of the helicopter.

“When something is empty, fill it. When something is full, empty it. When you have an itch, scratch it.”

— Dieter Dengler

Quotes by Dieter Dengler

Quote #1: “When something is empty, fill it. When something is full, empty it. When you have an itch, scratch it.”

Quote #2: “I love America. America gave me wings.”

Poll

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Conclusion

In closing, Dieter Dengler’s tragic experience during the Vietnam War is a story of both courage and heroism in the face of adversity. Dengler’s ordeal illustrates the power of the human spirit when faced with seemingly impossible odds. Although Dengler’s life was tragically cut short by suicide in the early 2000s, his heroism and patriotism continue to live on in the memories of those who knew him best. As with all veterans who undergo life-changing experiences in the fight for freedom, Dengler’s story should never be forgotten.

Works Cited:

Articles / Books:

Wikipedia contributors, "Dieter Dengler," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dieter_Dengler&oldid=900701920(accessed June 14, 2019).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Larry Slawson

    Comments

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      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        Thanks everyone! Yeah, I had never heard of him until watching the movie "Rescue Dawn" with Christian Bale. Definitely a true hero.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 months ago from Sunny Florida

        This information about Dengler is all new to me. This is a very interesting article, and I enjoyed it.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        4 months ago from UK

        I had not heard of Dieter Dengler before. What a heroic/tragic life. You have written a great biopic.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        Thank you Eric! I'm glad you enjoyed :)

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        I fully enjoyed this. Thank you.

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