Hundreds of American men were imprisoned during the Vietnam war, but only one—Dieter Dengler—managed to escape and find his way to freedom. While the others either died in the camps or were set free when the war was over, Dengler went down in history as a truly badass veteran.
Dengler's Skyraider Is Shot DownWikimedia Commons
On February 1, 1966 Dengler was shot down while flying a Navy AD Skyraider over Laos during a secret bombing mission. Dengler was a skilled flyer, which is probably why he survived the crash, but visibility was poor and he had been flying over enemy lines for nearly three hours. In an interview in 2001 shortly before his death, Dengler recounts the crash saying, "There was a large explosion on my right side…it was like lightening striking. The right wing was gone. The airplane seemed to cartwheel through the sky in slow motion. There were more explosions…and I was still able to guide the plane into a clearing…I felt I was floating."
The Pathet Lao POW Camp, Ban Houei Hetpeteralanlloyd.com
Dengler crash landed and was thrown from the plane. He was unconscious for some time, but he eventually ran into the dense jungle of North Vietnam, and struggled to signal the rescue flyers just above him. Within two days, Dengler was captured by Vietnamese soldiers and shuffled between villages before ending up at the Pathet Lao POW camp called Ban Houei Het.
Dengler Quickly Deteriorates In The Camppeteralanlloyd.com
Dengler joined six other American soldiers who were already imprisoned at the camp. Although he looked forward to connecting with other Americans after a brutal trip through the jungle, what he saw when he arrived was horrifying. One man was walking around carrying his intestines, and another had no teeth and severe gum infections. At night, the prisoners were all shacked together and as many of them had dysentery, they also had to lie in excrement all night.
Dengler And Fellow Inmate Eugene DeBruin, After The WarWikimedia Commons
His inmates included Air Force Lieutenant Duane Martin, and Eugene DeBruin an Air American crewman who bailed out of a burning cargo plane, and others from the Air American crew. They were far from the first American men to be imprisoned in a camp in Vietnam; Ban Houei Het was one of a dozen camps in North Vietnam alone.
The 'Hanoi Hilton' Held Several American PrisonersWikimedia Commons
During the war, some American prisoners spent years in nearly uninhabitable cells. Prisoners were often subjected to horrific conditions as well as unbelievable torture. Many camps were situated around the city Hao Lo, and one camp in particular became famous for its ironic name, the Hanoi Hilton. This prison camp was packed with rats, shackled prisoners, and rooms specifically built for torture.
'Little Vegas' Is Opened To Acomodate New PrisonersWikimedia Commons
Although American POWs were in bad shape by the time they reached placed like the Hanoi Hilton, they tried to keep their sanity by clinging to little pieces of home. This section of the prison camp was opened in 1967 to accommodate a growing number of American prisoners. POWs dubbed it "Little Vegas," and named the corridors after landmarks from the Vegas strip. Many of the pilots in the camp trained at the Nellis Air Force Base, which is just outside of Vegas.
Vietnamese Soldiers Torture American Prisonersflashbak.com
The Vietnamese tortured and interrogated American soldiers. They bound soldiers with ropes, beat them with irons, and placed them in prolonged solitary confinement. Dengler and the other prisoners at Ban Houei Het were no exception. On his way to the camp, Dengler's extremities were tied to stakes so he couldn't move. The mosquitos would attack his face all night, and sometimes they were so bad he couldn't open his eyes in the morning.
An Example Of How American Soldiers Were Dragged Through The Streetspeteralanlloyd.com
The real torture began when Dengler tried and failed at his first attempt at escape. He successfully made it out of the camp, but was recaptured at a watering hole. After that, the prison guards were brutal and wanted to get revenge. Dengler was hung upside down by his ankles, had a nest of ants placed on his face, and was left overnight in a freezing well. At times, he was also dragged through the town by a water buffalo while guards laughed and whipped him.
Vietnamese Soldiers Escalate The Torturebeyondthekillingfields.com
The prison guards gave Dengler one option to make the torture stop. All he had to do was sign a document condemning his home country, but he refused to do it. The torture continued to get worse; bamboo shoots were inserted into his fingernails and cuts on his body. They also wrapped his arm in a tourniquet and twisted it until he had nerve damage so bad he couldn't move his hand for six months. After just a few days observing how awful life was in the camp, Dengler started plotting his escape plan. With no end to the war in sight, he knew there was no way he could endure the conditions in the camp.
Two Soldiers Descend Into The JungleKeystone-france/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Dengler's plan was to capture the guards while they were at lunch. He noticed they always put their guns down to get food, and he would have a full two minutes to get out of his handcuffs and grab the guns. When the day finally came, Dengler was successful in getting the guns but his accomplices fled the scene. The only one who came along with him was Martin, and he began vomiting from intense nerves. Dengler proceeded to shoot five guards and escape into the jungle with Martin. All in all, seven men escaped from the prison, but Dengler was the only one who survived.
Dengler And Martin Brave The Nam Theun Riverinternationalrivers.org
Once they were out of the camp and in the jungle, they had to face another enemy: the landscape. The jungle was dense and unforgiving; they didn't have any shoes, just the sole of an old tennis shoe they took turns wearing. Dengler and Martin built a raft and tried to float downriver into Thailand overnight. But in the morning, they were covered in leeches and could hardly move. When they reached a riverbank, natives confronted them and promptly chopped off Martin's head with a machete. Dengler escaped into the jungle yet again, and started helplessly crawling around the jungle.
Dengler's Story Is Adapted In A Book, Then A FilmBruce Henderson
After five days deliriously walking around the jungle, Dengler hear an American airplane and successfully caught the pilot's attention. Dengler was picked up and taken to a hospital in Vietnam where CIA agents interrogated him to make sure he wasn't a deserter. Eventually, Dengler was given a hero's welcome home, but he spent several years terrorized by what he saw during the war. At one point, his night terrors were so violent he had to be strapped to the bed. Eventually, Dengler made peace with his past and author Bruce Henderson documented Dengler's journey in a book titled, "Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War." Later, Dengler's story was adapted into a film, "Rescue Dawn."