Dieter Dengler was the only United States military pilot to survive capture by communist forces in Laos and successfully escape. Dengler was born in Wildberg, Germany, in 1938. As a young boy in the small town in the Black Forest, he watched fighter aircraft flying at eye level past his home as they strafed and bombed. The family left the bombed-out town and moved to Calw, where his grandfather operated a bakery. Growing up in his war-torn native country, he saw a small advertisement in an American magazine; it showed small airplanes with the legend, "We need men to fly these planes." His brother translated the words and Dengler decided to become a pilot! He worked hard to save money to get to the United States; his dream was unattainable in post-war Germany. He ran away from home and, in 1957, made it to America.
He enlisted in the Air Force and served four years. In college, he studied aeronautics and, in 1963, began naval flight training. He received his wings and a commission as an ensign in 1964 at NAS Pensacola, Florida. After training in the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, Dengler went to an attack squadron. In VA-145, he flew from the USS Ranger. On 2 February 1966, he was part of a four-ship flight of "Spads," as pilots called their A-1s, enroute to interdict enemy movements in Vietnam. Weather forced the formation to an alternate target in Laos. As he rolled in to drop his bombs, Dengler's "Spad" was hit by 57-mm antiaircraft fire. He crash landed the crippled aircraft and hid for two days before capture by Pathet Lao troops.
Eight days later, Dengler escaped but was recaptured and severely beaten. He was imprisoned in a small compound with six other prisoners, including an Air Force helicopter pilot, Duane Martin. As living conditions worsened, the prisoners realized that the guards planned to kill them. Dengler and his compatriots stole some weapons and shot their way out. The group separated, but Dengler and Martin remained together and, shoeless, made their way through the jungle. Faced with torrential rain, cold, leeches, and malaria, they grew weaker. Stumbling onto some villagers, Martin was killed. Dengler, delusional and terrified, escaped! Days later, an Air Force A-1 pilot spotted him on a rock in a stream. Dengler frantically waved a piece of white parachute.
Rescued by helicopter, he weighed 97 pounds! Dengler's will to survive earned him a Navy Cross and other medals. He left the Navy in 1968 and flew as a flight engineer with Trans World Airlines for several years. He wrote Escape from Laos in 1979. He enjoys traveling, remodeling houses, and restoring and flying old aircraft. Recently, he visited his crash site in Laos and found the engine of his A-1. Dengler and his wife, Yukiko, live in California.
For most veterans of the war in Southeast Asia, 20 July 1966 was just another day in America's longest war; for two Douglas A-1 "Spad" pilots, it was a day that their lives intersected in a miraculous series of circumstances. For Dieter Dengler, a young Navy lieutenant, five months of imprisonment followed by three weeks evading in the jungles of Laos ended. For Gene Deatrick, a veteran Air Force lieutenant colonel, it was another day in his command of an A-1squadron in South Vietnam. Dengler crawled through the dense jungle near the end of his endurance, then, tumbled into a shallow river. Struggling to stay afloat, he found the strength to climb onto a large flat rock. He heard a rumbling noise-it was a plane! Deatrick was in a banking turn when he saw a flash of white below. He went back for another look and saw the form of a man. His wingman urged him to forget it, but Deatrick summoned rescue helicopters. The lead "Jolly Green" lowered a tree-penetrator 200 feet into a narrow canyon. Dengler, weak and confused, fumbled with the device and then finally climbed onto it and was hoisted to safety!