Birthday: May 22, 1938
Died At Age: 62
Sun Sign: Gemini
Born in: Wildberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Famous as: Aviator
Spouse/Ex-: Irene Lam (m. 1980–1984), Marina Adamich (m. 1966–1970), Yukiko Dengler (m. 1998–2001)
father: Reinhold Dengler
mother: Maria Dengler
children: Alexander Dengler, Rolf Dengler
Died on: February 7, 2001
place of death: Mill Valley
education: College of San Mateo
awards: Distinguished Flying Cross
Who was Dieter Dengler?
Dieter Dengler was a German-born United States Navy aviator who was the first captured U.S. pilot who escaped enemy captivity during the Vietnam war. He had escaped from the Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos after six months of torture and was rescued by American forces after surviving in the jungle for 23 days. His childhood hardship, as well as his training in escaping and survival at the navy SERE survival school, during which he had successfully escaped twice and was the only student to gain weight, helped him survive as a prisoner and make escape plans despite intolerable torture. He was also inspired by his maternal grandfather, Hermann Schnuerle, who was subjected to public humiliation and was sentenced to work in the rock mine for a year for refusing to vote for Adolf Hitler. After his recovery, he resumed service in the navy and later served as a private aircraft test pilot and a commercial airline pilot. He has been the subject of many documentaries, books and films, including the Christian Bale starrer, 'Rescue Dawn'.
Childhood & Early Life
Dieter Dengler was born on May 22, 1938 in Wildberg, in the Black Forest region of Baden-Württemberg, Germany and was raised by his mother alongside his brothers. He did not know his father, who was forced to join the German army when he was an infant and was killed during World War II on the Eastern Front during the winter of 1943-44.
Growing up in extreme poverty, he and his brothers used to collect wallpapers from bombed-out buildings to extract the little nutrients left in the paste and also scavenged the nearby Moroccan camp for leftover food. He also scavenged for scraps and had built a bicycle for himself, becoming the first in the town to own one.
At the age of 14, he started working as an apprentice to a blacksmith, working six days a week building giant clocks and clock faces to repair German cathedrals. Despite the fact that he was regularly beaten by the other boys and the blacksmith was harsh and strict, he thanked him later for teaching him to be “tough enough to survive”.
As a boy, he had determined to become a pilot after witnessing an Allied fighter plane firing its guns and flying very close to the window he was watching from in his hometown. After he saw an advertisement for pilots in an American magazine, he started salvaging scrap metals to sell, and completing his apprenticeship at 18, hitchhiked to Hamburg to set sail for New York City.
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Captivity & Escape
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 aircrafts. They lost sight of one another as smoke rising from the burning fields blocked their visibility, following which Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dengle,r 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.
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 the 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.
Awards & Achievements
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'.
Later Life & Legacy
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 was married three times, to Marina Adamich, Irene Lam and Yukiko Dengler, and had two sons, Rolf and Alexander Dengler. Suffering from ALS, he shot himself on February 7, 2001, following which he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1979, he documented his experience in the book 'Escape From Laos', and later in 2010, Bruce Henderson recorded his story in the nonfiction book, 'Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War'.
Werner Herzog made the 1997 documentary, 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly', based on his life, and in 2006 made it into the film, 'Rescue Dawn', featuring Christian Bale as Dengler.
Dieter Dengler, prepared to do whatever needed to become a pilot, had vomited in his own boot and put it back on to avoid getting a ‘down’ on his record during his inaugural flight. His instructor, who had warned him that three ‘downs’ will expel him from training, took the plane through spins and loops to incite nausea, but could not find evidence of vomit despite getting the smell.