Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War
by Bruce Henderson, Harper, New York, $27.99
Dieter Dengler was born and raised to be a prisoner of war.
That opinion isn’t rooted in a belief in fate but in the resourcefulness, toughness and bent for leadership the German-born U.S. Navy flier developed as a young survivor of the destruction and poverty that engulfed the former Third Reich in the years immediately following the end of World War II.
Those years of scrambling for sheep entrails that occupying Moroccan soldiers threw into the bushes to help feed his mother and brothers, and enduring the beatings of a cruel blacksmith who employed him, gave Dengler the wherewithal to survive the 1966 crash-landing of his A-1 Skyraider in the Laotian jungle, successfully escape a POW camp and find his way to freedom.
Hero Found is the riveting tale of this extraordinary escape and the full-tilt life that led up to it. Henderson’s nicely paced narrative is laced with harrowing, humorous yet always illuminating anecdotes that paint a vivid picture of an outsize personality.
Dengler was driven to fly early on, from the day the young boy was enraptured by a low-flying U.S. airplane and the pilot’s white neck scarf flapping in the wind. He vowed to become an American pilot. He overcame language difficulties and a free-spirited mindset to achieve his goal, becoming a naval aviator.
Dengler was a naturally gifted flier but also tough as nails. He escaped twice during a six-day survival and escape training course and actually gained weight by earning extra food or picking through garbage cans. Asked how he’d done it, he credited the survival skills he’d learned as a boy.
Those skills served Dengler well beginning on Feb. 1, 1966, when his Skyraider’s engine blew during a four-aircraft bombing raid on the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route in Laos. Unable to bail out of the gyrating aircraft, Dengler rode it down and crash-landed in a stump-filled field.
On his second day in the jungle, Dengler was captured by the Pathet Lao. It was the beginning of a five-month ordeal of privation and hardship. Within two weeks, he was deposited in a small Laotian POW camp with an assortment of other U.S., Thai and Chinese prisoners. Dengler emerged as a leader and nearly five months later organized a daring escape, burrowing under a fence while the guards ate dinner, grabbing rifles and killing or driving off the guards.
The escapees split up, and Dengler paired up with 1st Lt. Duane Martin, an Air Force helicopter pilot. They fought through the jungle, dodging bamboo vipers and bears, killing lizards for food and surviving the bitter disappointment of mistakenly thinking they’d been spotted by rescuers. During a surprise encounter, a machete-wielding Laotian villager killed Martin, but Dengler escaped.
Emotionally and physically spent, Dengler was at the end of his rope. But as he stood in a river clearing, the pilots of two passing Air Force Skyraiders spotted him, convincing an airborne command aircraft to order up a rescue helo. When lifted out of the jungle, Dengler weighed just 98 pounds and was suffering from malaria, intestinal worms, jaundice and hepatitis.
The pace of this absorbing narrative does suffer in places from the irritating overuse of quotation marks. Henderson, or his editors, have chosen to place quote marks around every recollected fragment in the book, as in: “He said a ‘long prayer,’ then dropped off to sleep,” or, “The heat and dehydration were already driving him ‘nearly mad.’” Such material could easily have been paraphrased and still credited in the source notes. A revision in the second edition would correct that one flaw in this otherwise excellent book.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.