Dieter Dengler (* May 22, 1938 in Wildberg (Black Forest); † February 7, 2001 in Mill Valley, California) was an American fighter pilot of German descent. Dengler gained notoriety for his escape from a Laotian prisoner-of-war camp in 1966 during the Vietnam War, about which he wrote the book Escape from Laos. This escape also formed the basis for Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary film Escape from Laos (English: Little Dieter Needs to Fly) and his 2006 feature film Rescue Dawn, in which Dengler is portrayed by actor Christian Bale.
Dieter Dengler experienced Allied air raids in his hometown in 1945, which triggered in him the desire to become a pilot himself. His father was killed in action on the Eastern Front in 1943/44, and his grandfather Hermann Schnürle was a political opponent of the Nazi regime whose steadfastness served as a role model for him during his imprisonment in Laos. Dengler emigrated to the United States in 1957 and joined the U.S. Air Force. He received his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He was assigned as a mechanic, and although he passed the entrance test for pilot training, he was rejected because only graduates with college degrees were admitted. After his discharge, Dengler worked for his brother in a bakery near San Francisco and enrolled at City College of San Francisco and later at the College of San Mateo, majoring in aviation. After graduating from the two-year college, he applied for the U.S. Navy aviation cadet program and was accepted. After graduating from flight training, Dengler went into training at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas as a fighter pilot in a Douglas-AD Skyraider. He was part of Attack Squadron 145 (VA-145) and was stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda in California. In 1965, the squadron was part of Squadron CVW-14 on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-61) and was off the coast of Vietnam in December 1965.
On 1 February 1966, a mission was conducted from Yankee Station over North Vietnam against an enemy supply convoy. However, due to poor weather conditions, the secondary target, a secret reconnaissance mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail west of the Mụ Giạ Pass in the Truong Son Mountains, was chosen instead. He was shot down in Laotian territory and became a prisoner of war of the Pathet Lao. On February 14, 1966, he was sent to the prison camp near Par Kung. There he refused to sign a document against the US presence in Southeast Asia and was tortured. His fellow prisoners were Thais Phisit Intharathat, Prasit Promsuwan, Prasit Thanee, Chinese Y. C. Um, and the U.S. men Duane W. Martin and Eugene DeBruin. Except for Dengler and Martin, the other prisoners were recruited by Air America, which was funded by the US intelligence agency CIA. They were later transferred to the Hoi Het prison camp.
On June 30, 1966, he and his six fellow prisoners managed to break out. In doing so, they managed to take the guards by surprise and shot them with captured weapons. After a 23-day escape through the jungle, he was rescued by a helicopter on July 21, 1966. Of his fellow prisoners, only Phisit Intharathat survived, and he was recaptured a short time later.
Dengler was awarded military honors several times and was later employed in civil aviation at TWA. He was married three times and has two sons.
After several years of suffering from the incurable nerve disease ALS, he drove his wheelchair into the local fire road below the Mountain Home Inn he managed and shot himself on February 7, 2001, 35 years and six days after he was shot down over Laos.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
- Navy Cross
- Distinguished Flying Cross
- Purple Heart
- Air Medal
- Prisoner of War Medal
- Bruce Henderson: Hero Found. The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War. HarperCollins, New York NY 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-157136-7.
- Dieter Dengler: “Escape from Laos”
- Article about Dieter Dengler in the San Francisco Chronicle from July 30, 2010
- Dieter Dengler, Lieutenant United States Navy, Arlington National Cemetery Information
– Album with pictures, videos and audio files
|SHORT DESCRIPTION||German-born fighter pilot|
|DATE OF BIRTH||22. May 1938|
|PLACE OF BIRTH||Wildberg (Black Forest)|
|STERBEDATUM||7. February 2001|
|DESTINATION||Mill Valley, California, United States|