Flight of terror
How a brash Navy pilot orchestrated Vietnam War's most famous escape
"Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War," by Bruce Henderson; HarperCollins, New York; 320 pp.; $27.99
Growing up cold and hungry in 1940s Germany, Dieter Dengler learned to lie, cheat and scrounge through trash for his next meal. He fantasized about flying as a child, while watching a fighter plane blast past his house, and soon followed his dream to America, where he enlisted in the Navy, embraced Bay Area's hippy culture and became a rule-breaking, carousing "vagabond on wheels."
As a young cadet, Dengler made a name for himself as both a social charmer and a skilled survivor. While going through the Navy's six-day survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) course, he frustrated his superiors and twice escaped from the mock POW camp. His legend quickly spread.
All these skills served Dengler well in 1966, the year the scrappy, free-spirited vagabond found himself bound, beaten, malnourished and surrounded by enemy soldiers deep inside a Laotian jungle.
Dengler is the title character in "Hero Found: The Greatest P.O.W. Escape of the Vietnam War," the latest offering by Menlo Park resident and Stanford University professor Bruce Henderson. For Henderson, whose previous books covered naval, space and North Pole voyages, "Hero Found" hits close to home. A former Navy man, he served with Dengler on the aircraft carrier "Ranger" off the coast of North Vietnam and befriended him after both men concluded their Navy service.
The main story takes a while to launch. The famous escape that Henderson teases in the subtitle doesn't occur until the second half of the book. Before that, Henderson serves up heaps of details about Dengler's scrappy childhood in Calw, Germany, where he relied on his stealth and wits to get his next meal; his voyage to America; his frivolous youth in the Bay Area and his enlistment in the U.S. Navy.
Along the way, Henderson takes detours to give readers "Top Gun"-style scenes of pilots in training and describes in great detail the Navy's facilities, ships and planes, including the Ranger and the A-1 Skyraider, a powerful but slow-moving plane commonly referred to as the "Spad." His tone is invariably respectful and his descriptions occasionally border on wistful, as when he describes the giant Spad as having the "deep, throaty sound of a World War II plane."
"Being a holdover from another time and place was part of the plane's charm, contributing to tradition and nostalgia — not only for Dieter but for the other pilots who signed up to fly Spads and the crews who maintained them," Henderson writes.
But Henderson saves his most nostalgic descriptions for the men who flew these planes.
"A 'typically cocky Spad jockey' possessed an abundance of 'style and derring-do,' and became accustomed to landing at a new base, shutting down the roaring engine that drove a 14-foot propeller and smelled of burning oil, only to have gawkers who saw 'sleek jets every day and couldn't care less' come over and stare at the A-1 asking endless questions,'" Henderson wrote, citing Navy Magazine.
As a Navy insider, Henderson has no problem perpetuating the popular characterization of ace pilots as smooth daredevils who don't always play by the rules but whose intransigence should be forgiven because of the heroism inherent in their job description. He acknowledges in his introduction that his heroes have always been pilots and, throughout the book, interrupts his main narrative to describe episodes in which Navy pilots get killed on duty in the early days of the Vietnam War.
The crafty and confident Dengler perfectly embodies the Navy-pilot mystique. In the first half of the book, he is outwitting his superiors, juggling girlfriends and stealing gasoline and automobile parts from cars parked on the street. But when faced with extreme adversity in the second half of the book, he rises to the challenge and orchestrates an improbable escape from a Laotian POW camp.
The book, as the title suggests, ends well, though Dengler's gruesome plight is not for the squeamish. Surviving both inside and outside the prison camp proves a tall order even for the master escapist. After his Spad is shot down and he finds himself captured by the Communist group Pathet Lao (and later by North Vietnamese soldiers), Dengler endures forced marches and bouts of malaria, routine beatings and starvation. Once in enemy custody, he and his fellow prisoners (including two American soldiers and civilian pilots from Thailand and China) are forced to subsist on putrid meat, often covered in maggots. They pry a rat from the jaws of a snake, scrape undigested grasses from the intestines of a dead deer, and stash away what little rice they get from their captors.
Things don't get easier when Dengler and his exhausted camp mates flee the enemy camp. Wounded, starving and increasingly disheartened, he and a fellow fugitive roam the jungle of Laos, float on a makeshift raft and get lost and demoralized. Dengler rummages for food, battles jaundice, malaria and hepatitis and flees from hostile villagers who are armed with rifles and machetes. By the time he is rescued and brought back to the Ranger, he weighs 98 pounds and, according to doctors, one day away from death.
Henderson was one of hundreds of shipmates aboard Ranger who welcomed an emaciated Dengler with a roaring ovation. The emotion of that moment, in July 1966, has apparently stayed with Henderson, whose own uncle went missing more than two decades earlier as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Henderson never questions his protagonist's status as a "hero" or judges any of Dengler's actions, before or after the capture. The young German's years of cheating, scheming, lying and carousing don't reflect any character flaws; they merely serve to prepare him for the terrifying journey ahead.
Not surprisingly then, "Hero Found" reads more like a tribute to Dengler and, more broadly, to Navy pilots, than a dispassionate account of his escape. Henderson channels his experience in the Navy and his admiration for pilots into a gripping and compassionate war story, one that displays in gory details the horrors of 20th-century warfare. When Dengler returns to the Ranger, he is welcomed as a hero both for surviving an impossible trek through the Laotian jungle and for bringing hope to a group of soldiers who are just coming to terms with the danger of their mission.
Dengler's survival emerged a bright light amid the darkness and confusion of the early Vietnam War — a fact that wasn't lost by the Navy's public-relations machine. Shortly after he returns, Dengler collects medals, earns a standing ovation from a group of U.S. Senators, and tours classrooms, military groups and civic clubs to talk about his journey.
For Henderson, the story can't be told often enough. After leaving the Navy, he became a journalist, reconnected with Dengler and wrote a newspaper story about Dengler's escape — a story that he expands in the new book. He acknowledges that Dengler was "but one lost pilot and hero found," but points out that "for his fellow fliers and shipmates, and for me personally, his story of unending optimism, innate courage, loyalty, and survival against overwhelming odds remains our best and brightest memory of our generation's war."
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.