Dieter Dengler

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Dieter Dengler, a German-born US Navy aviator, was the first captured American pilot to flee enemy custody during the Vietnam War. He had escaped from the Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos after six months of torture and had survived in the forest for 23 days before being rescued by American forces. His adversity as a youngster, as well as his training in fleeing and surviving at the navy SERE survival school, where he successfully fled twice and was the only student to gain weight, enabled him survive as a prisoner and devise escape plans in the face of horrific torture. His maternal grandfather, Hermann Schnuerle, was also an inspiration, as he was publicly humiliated and imprisoned to a year in a rock mine for refusing to vote for Adolf Hitler. He returned to the navy after his recuperation and eventually worked as a private aircraft test pilot and a commercial airline pilot. Many documentaries, books, and films have been made about him, including the Christian Bale starrer ‘Rescue Dawn.’

Childhood and Adolescence

Dieter Dengler was born on May 22, 1938, in the German town of Wildberg, in the Black Forest region of Baden-Württemberg. He was reared by his mother and brothers. He had never met his father, who was forced to join the German army as an infant and was killed on the Eastern Front during World War II in the winter of 1943-44.

He and his brothers used to scavenge the nearby Moroccan camp for leftover food while growing up in great poverty, collecting wallpaper from bombed-out buildings to extract the few nutrients left in the paste. He also scavenged for scraps and built a bicycle for himself, making him the town’s first bicycle owner.

He began working as an apprentice to a blacksmith at the age of 14, working six days a week to repair German cathedrals by creating huge clocks and clock faces. He commended the blacksmith later for teaching him to be “tough enough to survive,” despite the fact that he was often beaten by the other boys and the blacksmith was harsh and rigorous.

After seeing an Allied fighter plane firing its cannons and flying very close to the window he was observing from in his hometown as a child, he decided to become a pilot. He began salvaging scrap metals to sell after seeing an advertisement for pilots in an American magazine, and after completing his apprenticeship at the age of 18, hitchhiked to Hamburg to set sail for New York City.

Dieter Dengler enlisted in the US Navy after living on the streets of Manhattan for nearly a week and eventually contacting an Air Force recruiter at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. Despite being promised a piloting position, after finishing basic training, he was sent to work as a motor pool mechanic, and afterwards as a gunsmith.

He had passed the test for aviation cadets during this time, but because he was not a college graduate, he was not selected for pilot training. He worked at a bakery near San Francisco alongside his brother for a while before enrolling in San Francisco City College and later transferring to the College of San Mateo to study aeronautics.

He was accepted into the US Navy aviation cadet program after graduation, finished his flight training, and trained as an attack pilot in the Douglas AD Skyraider at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

He joined the VA-145 squadron while it was stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda, California, and in 1965, he and his squadron boarded the carrier USS Ranger to sail for the Vietnamese coast.

Captivity and emancipation

Dieter Dengler deployed to Yankee Station for operations against North Vietnam after spending some time at Dixie Station off the coast of South Vietnam. On February 1, 1966, he flew on an interdiction mission with three other planes. They lost sight of one another when smoke from burning fields obscured their vision, so Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dengle flew into enemy territory for two and a half hours before being hit by anti-aircraft fire.

As soon as he regained consciousness after the 100-foot jump, he dashed into the woods for shelter and hid his survival gear from hostile troops. Despite this, Pathet Lao troops arrested him the next day, marching him through the woods and tying him to four stakes spread-eagled.

He was tormented by being hung upside down with a nest of biting ants over his face and dangled in a freezing well at night after a failed escape attempt. Tiny wedges of bamboo were put beneath his fingernails when he refused to sign a declaration criticizing the United States.

He was eventually sent to a prison camp near Par Kung, where he planned to flee, but the other inmates couldn’t agree on a date. The Thai detainees overheard the guards discussing shooting them and making it look like an escape attempt after being transferred to Hoi Het, and they set an escape date.

The seven convicts escaped from the POW camp on June 29, 1966, when the guards were eating and collecting their guns. Dengler accompanied American Air Force chopper pilot Duane W. Martin as the group split to escape notice.

The two sought refuge in an abandoned village, but were forced to travel to a neighbouring Akha village in search of food, where Martin was killed by a resident. Dengler escaped into the forest and was rescued by a helicopter crew on July 20, 1966, when he was able to alert an Air Force pilot.

Achievements & Awards

Dieter Dengler was awarded the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal for his brave escape from enemy custody.

Legacy & Later Life

Dieter Dengler rejoined the navy and was promoted to Lieutenant after his physical recovery. He then left the navy to work as a pilot for Trans World Airlines.
Marina Adamich, Irene Lam, and Yukiko Dengler were his three wives, and he had two kids, Rolf and Alexander Dengler. He shot himself on February 7, 2001, while suffering from ALS, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

He wrote a book about his experience called “Escape From Laos” in 1979, and Bruce Henderson wrote a nonfiction book called “Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War” in 2010.
Based on his life, Werner Herzog filmed the documentary ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’ in 1997, which was adapted into the film ‘Rescue Dawn’ in 2006, starring Christian Bale as Dengler.

Dieter Dengler had vomited in his own boot and put it back on to prevent a ‘down’ on his record during his debut flight, as he was determined to do whatever it took to become a pilot. His teacher, who had warned him that three ‘downs’ would result in him being kicked out of training, put the plane through spins and loops to induce nausea, but despite smelling vomit, he couldn’t find any.

Estimated Net Worth

Dieter Dengler’s net worth is believed to be $ USD 8 million, with his primary source of income being as an aircraft pilot and military officer. We don’t have enough information about Dieter Dengler’s cars or lifestyle. These details will be updated as soon as possible.