Remembering Dieter Dengler, (May 22, 1938-February 7, 2001) was a German-born United States Navy aviator during the Vietnam War and, following six months of imprisonment and torture, became the first captured U.S. airman to escape enemy captivity during the war. Of seven prisoners of war who escaped together from a Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos, Dengler was one of two survivors (the other was Thailand citizen Phisit Intharathat). Dengler was rescued after 23 days on the run.
Dieter Dengler was born and raised in the small town of Wildberg, in the Black Forest region of the German state of Baden-Württemberg. He grew up not knowing his father, who had been drafted into the German army in 1939 and was killed during World War II on the Eastern Front during the winter of 1943/44. Dengler became very close to his mothers and brothers. Dieter grew up in extreme poverty but always found ways to help his family survive. He After seeing an advertisement in an American magazine, expressing a need for pilots, he decided to go to the United States. He started salvaging scrap metals to sell, and completing his apprenticeship at 18, hitchhiked to Hamburg to set sail for New York City. Dieter Dengler lived on the streets of Manhattan for over a week, and eventually contacted an Air Force recruiter who enlisted him at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas in June 1957. Despite being promised a piloting job, he was assigned the duty of a motor pool mechanic after completing the basic training, and later got an assignment to work as a gunsmith.
During this time, he had passed the test for aviation cadets, but was not selected for pilot training as he was not a college graduate. He worked with his brother at a bakery shop near San Francisco for some time, and then enrolled into San Francisco City College, but later transferred to the College of San Mateo to study aeronautics.
Upon graduation, he successfully applied for the US Navy aviation cadet program, completed his flight training, and trained as an attack pilot in the Douglas AD Skyraider at the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. He joined the VA-145 squadron while it was on shore duty at Naval Air Station Alameda, California, and in 1965, joined the carrier USS Ranger with his squadron to sail for the coast of Vietnam.
After spending some time at Dixie Station, off South Vietnam, Dieter Dengler moved to Yankee Station for operations against North Vietnam, and on February 1, 1966, flew on an interdiction mission with three other aircraft. They lost sight of one another as smoke rising from the burning fields blocked their visibility, following which Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dengler flew for two-and-a-half hours into enemy territory before being hit by anti-aircraft fire.
As soon as he gained consciousness following the 100ft jump, he ran into the jungle for cover and hid his survival equipments so that enemy troops cannot find those. Despite, he was apprehended the next day by Pathet Lao troops, who marched him through the jungle and tied him to four stakes spread-eagled.
Following a failed escape attempt, he was tortured by being hung upside down with a nest of biting ants over his face and was suspended in a freezing well at night. Once after he refused to sign a document condemning the United States, 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 Dnegler. "I realized right there and then that you don't fool around with the Viet Cong", he said.
He was later brought to a prison camp near the village of Par Kung, where he planned to escape, but the other prisoners could not agree on a date. After being shifted to Hoi Het, the Thai prisoners overheard the guards talking about shooting them and making it look like an escape attempt, following which the prisoners fixed an escape date.
On June 29, 1966, the seven prisoners freed themselves while the guards were eating, and seizing their weapons, escaped from POW camp. The group split to avoid detection, with Dengler accompanying American Air Force helicopter pilot Duane W. Martin.
The two took refuge in an abandoned village, but had to venture into a nearby Akha village in search of food, during which Martin was killed by a villager. Dengler managed to escape into the jungle and was able to signal an Air Force pilot on July 20, 1966, following which he was rescued by a helicopter crew.
Dieter Dengler has received many awards and honors for his heroic escape from enemy captivity, including the 'Navy Cross', Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Air Medal.
After he physically recovered, Dieter Dengler rejoined the navy and was promoted to Lieutenant rank. He later resigned from the navy and joined Trans World Airlines as a pilot. He continued flying almost up until his death. In 2000, Dengler was inducted into the Gathering of Eagles program and told the story of his escape to groups of young military officers. Dengler was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable neurological disorder; on February 7, 2001, he rolled his wheelchair from his house down to the driveway of a fire station and shot himself. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A Navy honor guard was present at the burial as well as a fly-over by Navy F-14 Tomcats. We honor and thank Lt. Dengler for his valiant service and sacrifices for his country. He will never be forgotten. https://fallenyetnotforgotten.com/