The Vietnam War was one of the bloodiest wars in American history. Besides being costly for the combatants, the morality behind the war was deeply divisive to the nation.
Many American soldiers were captured and interned at P.O.W. Camps. The stories of these camps and the horrors that prisoners had to endure within them still haunt this page of American history.
The New York Times describes prisoners held by the Vietcong as being subjected to starvation and horrible tortures that tested their sanity.
One such prisoner was Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in February of 1966. The story of his capture and eventual escape has featured in documentaries and dramatizations and has become a memorable chapter in this turbulent period of history.
Lieutenant, Junior Grade Dengler
Forbes reports that as a boy, Dieter Dengler had witnessed the Allied bombings of his village in Germany. When he grew up, he saw an ad in an American magazine looking for pilots to join the Air Force.
Inspired to take flight, he immigrated to America with the help of a friend. He joined the Air Force, where he learned that he would require extensive training and a college degree before he would be allowed to fly.
Worried that his visa would expire before he was assigned to a flying class, he decided to attempt to pass the Navy flight course at Pensacola, Florida. When he passed, he was trained and sent off to fight in Vietnam.
Shot Down Over Laos
In February of 1966, he was involved in a bombing run near the border between Laos and Vietnam. The P.O.W. Network states that he was the last pilot to roll in on a target. Another pilot saw him initiating a normal recover before he lost sight of him due to low visibility conditions.
Squadron members searched for the rest of the day and came upon the wreckage of Dengler’s A-1 Skyraider the following morning. Dengler was nowhere to be found.
After destroying some of his equipment and burying the rest, Dengler lived on the run for two days in the Laotian wilderness before being captured and taken to a small camp in eastern Laos.
The Daily Mail reports that his torture started after a failed escape attempt. He would be tied up and hung by his ankles with a nest of biting ants all over his face. During the night, he would be suspended in a freezing well so that he would drown if he fell asleep. He was also tied to water buffalo and dragged through villages.
He later described in an interview for the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly how he was questioned by Pathet Lao officials and asked to sign a document condemning the “murderous” policies of America. When he repeatedly refused, the torture intensified.
Wedges of bamboo were driven into the flesh beneath his fingernails, and incisions were made on his body and were allowed to become infected. One guard apparently affixed a rope tourniquet to Dengler’s arm and tightened it using a piece of wood until the nerves were severed.
Shortly afterward, he was handed over to the Viet Cong. He described an incident in which a man stole his engagement ring from his finger. When he complained to the guards, the man was found and his finger was chopped off with a machete.
Dengler was imprisoned along with Duane Martin and Gene DeBruin, two American prisoners. Thai prisoners Prasit Thanee, Prasit Promsuwan, and Phisit Intharathat were also being held at the camp.
The prisoners were held for months, and each of their limbs was tied to bamboo stakes in the ground to stop them from escaping. Weeks passed, and they soon succumbed to malnutrition, malaria, and a host of other maladies.
Eventually, Dengler and the other prisoners, starving from lack of food and eating rats to survive, decided to escape before they became too weak, as Forbes reports.
They waited until the guards were unarmed and distracted in the kitchen. They then squeezed out of their bamboo hut and Dengler made his way to a nearby porch, where he obtained some weapons and ammunition.
He apparently heard gunshots and returned fire, shooting a guard. It is believed that Gene DeBruin stayed behind to help a sick Chinese operator and was never seen again.
Dengler and Duane Martin made it into the jungle. After a few days in the wet Vietnamese wilderness, they spotted a U.S. Helicopter but were unable to signal it. When they attempted to find food in a local village, they were seen by a local boy with a machete and driven back into the woods.
They were attacked by a villager, who severed Martin’s head. Dengler retreated into the jungle and successfully shook off his pursuers.
He eventually saw a C-130 flying overhead, and he was sure this time that the pilot had seen him. He survived by following a search party that was looking for him and eating food that they had left behind.
He collapsed in a river and was spotted by Col. Eugene Deatrick, who was flying in a biplane. A helicopter was sent in to investigate, and, after six months of hardship and torture, Dengler was finally rescued.
He went on to become a civilian pilot and wrote an autobiography about his experiences entitled Escape From Laos. His experiences were also made into a documentary by German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, entitled Little Dieter Needs To Fly.
Herzog went on to make a dramatized film of the events, starring Christian Bale and entitled Rescue Dawn. The movie depicted Gene DeBruin as a creepy antagonist, a depiction which some find disagreeable.
Herzog has stated in a documentary about the making of the film that he probably would have included Gene’s heroism in the story if he had known about it beforehand. The families of the prisoners have compiled a book, entitled Rescue Dawn: The Truth, in an attempt to clarify liberties Herzog took with the narrative.