Lt Dieter Dengler, USN

Escape from Laos

On February 2nd of 1966, US Navy Lieutenant Dieter Dengler was flying his first combat mission over North Vietnam from the carrier U.S.S. Ranger. The Ranger and its warplanes, including the Skyraiders of VA-145, had just repositioned from Dixie to Yankee Station following a short workup off the waters of South Vietnam in the South China Sea. Missions from Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf would be much more demanding and dangerous than those flown in the relatively benign South Vietnamese environment.

The book, "Escape from Laos," is Dengler's account of the events of that day, and of the seemingly endless days and nights following his shootdown, imprisonment, and ultimately, his rescue from the remote jungles of Laos. This excerpt tells of this first (and last) abbreviated mission in the A-1 Skyraider:


On February 1, 1966, our skipper took the first flight in and returned with several panels shot out of his wing, and other pilots, also stationed on the carrier, were shot down. I was glad that I was duty officer and did not have to fly a sortie that first day.

The next day I was scheduled for the 0900 launch. There were four of us-the flight leader and myself, the section leader named "Spook," and his wingman. We spent a nearly sleepless night, and about three hours before the flight we had a thorough briefing. I went up to the flight deck and checked my aircraft to make sure everything was in order. The fuel tanks were full and the safety wires on the bombs were properly installed.

We finally manned our Skyraiders-the Douglas single-engine, propeller-driven bomber usually called the "Spad," but also christened with nicknames such as "Dauntless II," "BT2D-l," "AD," "A-1," or "Able Dog."

I switched my radio to Gray Eagle Approach. "This is Skyraider 04," I said. "Up and ready." By this time the jets had been launched and the four of us taxied forward. I revved up my engine on number three catapult, checked the gauges, put on full power, and saluted. With a jolt the catapult slung me off the carrier toward North Vietnam.

Heavily loaded with bombs and fuel, we flew northwest. In twenty minutes the coast of Vietnam came into sight. The weather over the ocean was fine, but over the coast it was all black. Coastal monsoons, the fierce rains I came to know so well, were blanketing the coast. Since the weather was so bad, we automatically tightened our formation to about three to four feet, wing to wing, but even flying that close I could not see Spook flying lead. We climbed through 700 feet in the soup and I was barely able to see the number two man. We knew there were mountains around us, so the leader was forced to turn back and lead us out toward the ocean, starting his climb immediately. We finally broke out of the clouds but the heavy weather made our primary target, a road with a truck convoy on it, impossible, so we headed for our alternate.

We crossed Vietnam above the clouds and penetrated halfway across Laos, flying over the MuGia Pass. The weather soon got better and we could make out the ground as we neared the alternate target. I had never seen anything like that green jungle, with an occasional row of sharp, white-looking cliffs rising up at least 2,000 feet. It looked exactly as I had read-impenetrable jungle. "If I ever get shot down over this, I will never make it out," I thought to myself.

I changed my altitude and heading every few seconds so that the radar-controlled guns on the ground would not be able to lock onto me. I was getting more and more separated from the rest of the flight as tail end Charlie, even though I had pushed the throttle all the way up. I glanced quickly at my map and at our location, trying to compare the ground to the map, but everything down there looked the same and I couldn't make out where I was. I stuffed the bulky, unfolded map down next to the seat, concentrating on staying with the others. We had flown nearly due west long enough to be over Laos, the flat ground that lay before me now. The air was dry and yellow, reminding me of the smog over Los Angeles. I found out later that it was due to the burning of the fields.

We were nearing our target. With the exception of the red master switch, all the arming switches for my bombs were set. Suddenly I heard Spook on my headset call out, "Zero seven, rolling in." I flicked on my master switch and tried to find the target myself, a road intersection with reported antiaircraft emplacements next to it. Up and to my left I saw Spook's bombs explode, a one-run load. An enormous dust cloud marked where the intersection must have been located. I was at 9,000 feet, much too close to the target to make my run. I had to yaw and steeply bank the aircraft three or four times since the intersection disappeared below the nose of the Spad, when it should have disappeared below the left wing root.

When I thought I was in the right spot, I rolled in to the left to a nearly inverted position. Just then my AD lurched and began to shake violently. I let go of the throttle, knowing that I was hit, and grabbed the stick with both hands, yelling at the top of my lungs. I tried to radio to the rest of the flight but everything was dead--no side-tone, no click, nothing. The nose of my plane had fallen through, pointing nearly straight down. The antiaircraft emplacement came directly into view below me since the dust clouds had drifted away. I took an erratic aim and let go of my load by pulling the emergency release handle. The plane jumped up with the weight of the bombs gone as I pulled hard on the stick to bring the nose up toward the horizon. Two more blinding explosions off my right wingtip threw the aircraft totally out of control. My hands darted all over the cockpit, not knowing where they were going, while I was trying to remember emergency procedures. My engine was dead and I decided to jump.

The AD was not designed with an ejection seat. The canopy had to be blown open with the emergency air bottle. As the aircraft gyrated through the sky, I unstrapped myself, threw the harness out into the wind stream, and lowered the seat. I started to climb onto the seat, staying crouched so the slipstream would not get hold of me. The unguided plane went through its own motions now, knocking me back and forth in the cockpit. Another nearby explosion made the plane shiver from nose to tail, and it was then that I decided to ride her in, no matter what. Haphazardly I strapped myself back in after I had unbuckled all the chute straps, so as not to get entangled or trapped after the crash.

There was a long green mountain ridge to my right. I thought that if I could get over it and into the next valley, as far away as possible from whoever was at the road junction, I would have a chance of escaping. It was risky since I was already low and did not know whether there would be an open clearing on the other side where I could ditch. I wobbled toward the ridge, losing too much altitude, and by now it looked as though I was going to crash into it. Because of the windmilling propeller I could still drop the flaps, allowing the aircraft to balloon over the ridge with only a few feet to spare. I threw out my authenticator, notes, and all my maps over this jungle ridge, while my eyes searched frantically for a place to belly in. There were a few huts down to my left and a tiny clearing about half a mile in front of me. Except for the clearing, it was an unending jungle of trees and was not the valley I had expected. Jumping was out of the question because I was too low.

Amazingly, I could still control the plane. I swung right, then a little to the left, then right again, trying to lose altitude, skidding in a half circle, aiming for the small clearing. The stick had to be kept almost all the way to the right to keep my wings somewhat level. By now I was at about 500 feet and a quarter mile from the clearing-close enough to see that I had made the wrong decision. The clearing was nothing more than a section of cut forest, studded with five-foot-high tree stumps. Later I learned that the villagers built their huts on top of the tree stumps to avoid the floodwaters and also to provide shelter below for their animals.

My mind and hands went confusedly through the crash procedures. My airspeed indicator erratically showed 160 knots-at least 60 knots too fast-but there was no way of slowing the monster down. I had to get the plane into the clearing. The wall of jungle trees at the end of the clearing grew larger and larger as I approached it rapidly. With both hands, I pushed the stick into the right forward comer of the cockpit to lose altitude. A completely bare tree, 150 feet tall with only three or four limbs, loomed directly in my path. I could not fly over it without crashing into the dense jungle beyond, so I bore sighted the lower part of the dead tree. Just then I noticed the white tips of my external fuel tanks sticking out from under the wings. I yanked the emergency tank handle and dropped them off. It was a lucky thing that I had seen them because each carried 100 gallons of gas. The instant the weight was gone, the plane lifted upward, exactly the opposite of what I wanted. The stumps were just below the aircraft now and the tree was dead ahead. Hitting the tree straight on would snap it off and crush me inside the cockpit, so just before I hit I kicked the left rudder with all my strength, yawing the plane to take the full impact on my right wing root.

Tree and plane met with a violent shudder, tearing both apart. The left wing had swung forward and down, its tip snagging the ground, slamming the nose of the plane into the earth. The stick was torn out of my hands as all eight tons of Spad bounced back into the air, then tumbled over and over in a cart wheeling fashion. A stump ripped out the right side of the cockpit where the radios were, barely missing my leg. The force of deceleration pulled my helmet halfway across my face, then ripped it off. The inch-thick windscreen broke from its left corner in slow motion, like safety glass, and I ducked as the flying glass narrowly missed my head. I began to scream when I smelled oil and gas. Then, in a blur, I saw the entire tail section tumble by. I kept on yelling with my eyes closed, pressing my arms in front of my face, through the endless grinding and tearing. Then everything was silent.

What remained of the plane was lying almost completely rolled over. I was wedged between the jammed bars of the canopy rail of the twisted cockpit. Confused and in a daze, I was hanging nearly upside down by my straps. The cockpit was filled with heavy green foliage and thick dust cut off most of the light. The dust filled my mouth and lungs and started me coughing- Seconds after the crash I still expected a fire and an explosion. Frantically, I tugged and pulled to get out, but I could barely move. After that, I don't know what happened.

As if reemerging into life I came to, lying on my back about a hundred feet from the crash. My Mae West was gone-I must have torn it off. Stumbling and falling like a drunkard, I crawled away as fast as I could, occasionally glancing back, expecting the fire that never came. When I reached the edge of the clearing and started into the bush, I stood up and took a quick look at what could still be seen of the fallen and broken bird. A thin veil of dust hung limply around her. There was not a sound.

Lt Dieter Dengler evaded capture for a short time. But soon, he was taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao and was marched for two weeks through the jungle enroute to what turned out to be a prisoner camp where he was interned along with five other prisoners. Their existence was bleak, and when the prisoners learned of a plan that would have them shot in order to make more food available to the guards, they decided to act on an escape plan they had devised. Dengler was the only one of the six escaped prisoners to survive. He managed to evade capture long enough to be rescued- but just barely.

In the morning of July 20th, 1966, Lt Col Gene Deatrick was preparing for a somewhat routine mission that would take him into Laos for an Armed Recce (reconaissance) mission. Deatrick and his wingman, Major "Andy" Anderson were flying A-1 Skyraiders with the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku, Republic of South Vietnam. This sortie was intended to strike whatever enemy targets were found, as the area they were going into was without friendlies. When Deatrick and Anderson spotted Dengler on the ground, a Jolly Green rescue helicopter out of Danang was dispatched to the area escorted by Major Robert Blood and Captain Frank Urbanic.

As fate would have it, two Skyraider pilots from different branches of the service, would forever have their lives intertwined. A recent movie by noted film director Werner Herzog entitled "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" tells Dengler's entire story, from his upbringing in war torn Germany to the circumstances surrounding his rescue. The following sound clip from the movie, is of Dengler and Deatrick relating the details of the rescue. (Used with permission)

NOTE: Dieter Dengler passed away on Feb 7, 2001. He was afflicted with ALS and this disease finally took his life.

Audio recording with Gene Deatrick and Dieter Dengler discussing Dengler's Rescue
(RealAudio 5:26)

Images from the collection of Dieter Dengler


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