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LT Dieter Dengler was a German-born American citizen who advanced from VT30 to Attack Squadron 122 in late 1964 and then to Attack Squadron 145 onboard the RANGER. Dengler was known to his shipmates as something of a renegade; the ops officer was always after him to get a haircut and Dengler was forever in trouble over his uniform or lack of military manner. In his German accent, he would protest, "I don't understand." But Dengler was a good pilot, although his flying career was brief.
On February 1, 1966, U.S. Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler launched from the aircraft carrier USS RANGER in an A1H Skyraider as part of a four-aircraft interdiction mission near the border of Laos. Dieter was the last man to roll in on a target when he was observed by the pilot of one of the other aircraft to start a normal recover. Due to limited visibility, the flight lost sight of him.
The other aircraft in the flight could not determine what had happened. They only knew Dengler disappeared. Dengler later stated that ground fire had severely damaged his aircraft, and he was forced to crash land in Laos. Search continued all that day and part of the night without success.
The following morning, squadron members again went to search the area where Dengler disappeared and located the aircraft wreckage. Helicopters were called in. From the air, it appeared that no one was in the cockpit of the aircraft. The helicopter crew photographed the area and noted his donut (a round seat cushion) on the ground by the wing. They hoped he was still alive in the jungle somewhere.
Dengler had successfully evaded capture through that night, and later said that he even saw the rescue aircraft as they searched for him. He had tried without success to raise them on his emergency radio. Dengler was finally captured by Pathet Lao troops, who tortured him as they force-marched him through several villages. Eight days later, Dengler escaped, but was recaptured within a short time.
Ultimately, Dengler found himself in a camp in Laos held with other American POWs. One of them, 1Lt. Duane W. Martin, had been aboard an HH-43B "Huskie" helicopter operating about 10 miles from the border of Laos in Ha Tinh Province, North Vietnam, when the HH43B went down near the city of Tan An, and all four personnel aboard the aircraft were captured. It is not clear if the four were captured by North Vietnamese or Pathet Lao troops or a combination of the two. Duane W. Martin was taken to a camp controlled by Pathet Lao. Thomas J. Curtis, William A. Robinson and Arthur N. Black were released in 1973 by the North Vietnamese, and were in the Hanoi prison system as early as 1967.
When Duane Martin arrived at the camp, he found himself held with other Americans. Some of them had been held for more than two years. (Note: This would indicate that there were Americans in this camp who had been captured in 1964. The only American officially listed as captured in Laos in 1964 is Navy Lt. Charles F. Klusmann, who was captured in June 1964 and escaped in August 1964. Source for the "two years" information is Mersky & Polmer's "The Naval Air War in Vietnam", and this source does not identify any Americans by name who had been held "for more than two years." Civilian Eugene DeBruin, an acknowledged Laos POW who has never been returned, had been captured in the fall of 1963. Dengler has stated that a red-bearded DeBruin was held in one of the camps in which he was held. All previous Laos loss incidents occurred in 1961 and 1962.)
Throughout the fall of 1965 and into spring and summer of 1966, the group of Americans suffered regular beatings, torture, harassment, hunger and illness in the hands of their captors. According to an "American Opinion" special report entitled "The Code" (June 1973), Dengler witnessed his captors behead an American Navy pilot and execute six wounded Marines. (Note: no other source information available at time of writing reveals the names of these seven Americans.)
On June 29, 1965, after hearing the prisoners were to be killed, Martin and Dengler and unnamed others (Eugene DeBruin was apparently part of this group, but was recaptured, and according to information received by his family, was alive at least until January 1968, when he was taken away with other prisoners by North Vietnamese regular army troops) decided to make their escape in a hail of gunfire in which six communist guards were killed. Dengler was seriously ill with jaundice, and Martin was sick with malaria. Dengler and Martin and the others made their way through the dense jungle surviving on fruits, berries, and some rice they had managed to save during their captivity.
They floated down river on a raft they had constructed, eventually coming to an abandoned village where the men found some corn. After a night's rest, Dengler and Martin made their way downstream to another village. This settlement was occupied, however, and the two Americans were suddenly attacked by a villager with a machete. Dengler managed to escape back into the jungle, but Martin was beheaded by the assailant. It had been 18 days since their escape.
Dengler made his way alone, and on the 22nd day, with his strength almost gone, he was able to form an SOS with some rocks, and waited, exausted to be rescued or die. Luck was with him, for by late morning, an Air Force A1E spotted the signal and directed a helicopter to pick up Dengler. He weighed 98 pounds. When he had launched from his aircraft carrier 5 months earlier, he had weighed 157 pounds.
Dengler returned to California, and wrote a book, "Escape From Laos" on his experiences while a POW.
He succumbed to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in 2001 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.