Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War by Bruce Henderson is the story of Dieter Dengler, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam conflict. He was shot down during a (secret) mission over Laos, captured, tortured, and imprisoned in a POW camp. He and his fellow prisoners escaped after several months, although Dieter was the only one to survive and be rescued.
Now, I’m not a war buff or an airplane buff or a history buff. But I’d seen the movie Rescue Dawn, which is the adaptation of Dieter’s story (a fabulous movie directed by one of my favorite Germans – Werner Herzog). Because of the movie, I decided I had to read the book. Not only is Dieter’s story amazing, Henderson’s telling is completely engaging. Reading this book was like watching a documentary. It was a fascinating story embedded in history and facts surrounding the circumstances. The prisoner of war portion of Dieter’s story doesn’t even begin until more than halfway through the book (chapter 9 of 14). Leading up to this event, Henderson weaves together Dieter’s history, the history of the type of plane he flew, and the events leading up to the Vietnam conflict.
Some background about Dieter. He grew up in Germany during and after WWII. Living in extreme poverty in post-war Germany, Dieter found ways to help his family survive. He and his brothers would go into bombed-out buildings, tear off wallpaper, and his mother would literally boil it for a meal. Apparently, there were some nutrients in the glue. When the Moroccans, who occupied this part of post-war Germany, would slaughter sheep for their meals, Dieter would sneak over to their lodgings to take the scraps and disgusting parts most people wouldn’t eat and Mom would cook it up for dinner. Dieter was also the first one in his town to have a bicycle. Always resourceful, he built it himself by scavenging from the dump. Dieter was apprenticed to a blacksmith, Mr. Perrot, at the age of 14. Mr. Perrot regularly beat Dieter and the other boys under his tutelage who worked six days a week building giant clocks and faceplates for German cathedrals. Later in life, Dieter actually thanked Perrot “for his disciplined training, and for helping Dieter become more capable, self-reliant, and yes, ‘tough enough to survive.’ “.
Dieter’s dream of flying began during the war when a single-engine fighter flew so close to his house that he could see the pilot in the cockpit and Dieter watched it roar past, “aiming for the train station down the hill, its loud guns spitting out yellow flashes”. From that moment on, his dream to be a pilot never wavered. That wasn’t going to happen for him in Germany, so he decided he would go to America. He was fortunate to have an American relative visit who agreed to sponsor his immigration to America. He had to pay his own way to get to America, so the ever-resourceful Dieter pilfered scrap metal to earn money for his fare to New York.
TRIVIA MOMENT: Hermann Hesse, from the same part of Germany as Dieter, apprenticed as a blacksmith under Mr. Perrot’s “brutally abusive father and used the experience as material for his book Beneath the Wheel.”
Upon arriving in the U.S., Dieter initially joined the Air Force, but didn’t get anywhere near an airplane. Once he was discharged, he moved to San Francisco and eventually earned his citizenship and an associate’s degree. Then he joined the Navy and a cadet flying program at Alameda where his road to being a pilot began.
Henderson’s descriptions of Dieter’s escapades and accomplishments lead to an understanding of how Dieter was singularly prepared to survive torture from his captors and ultimately escape. During POW/survival training, for example, Dieter was able to escape his “captors” several times and was the only one who actually gained weight. Not only was food a reward, but Dieter would escape and forage through the garbage cans for additional scraps of food. (Even during college, he was known to pick food from dumpsters.)
Dieter would do whatever it took to become a pilot. In his inaugural flight at primary flight training, for example, the instructor told Dieter that if he became airsick and vomited in the cockpit, he would receive a “down” on his record. Students were only allowed three downs then they would “wash out” of flight training. Of course, the instructor took the plane through spins and loops, causing Dieter to become dizzy and disoriented. Knowing he was about to vomit and not wanting to receive a “down”, Dieter took off his boot, threw up into it, and put it back on. At the end of the flight, the instructor checked the cockpit and could smell the vomit, but couldn’t find any evidence of it. Yuck, but he didn’t get a “down”.
TRIVIA MOMENT: Hal Griffith, Dieter’s commander on the aircraft carrier Ranger, had Ted Williams (the famous baseball player) as one of his instructors in flight training.
After his capture, Dieter was determined to survive in the same way he was determined to become a pilot. He was undeterred. The Pathet Lao would administer the most creative and horrible forms of jungle torture. In one incident, after he is hung upside down from a tree and beaten to unconsciousness, Dieter awakens to find his face smeared with honey and he’s then lowered into an enormous nest of black ants. In another, his ankles are tied together and his wrists are tied together then he’s tethered to a water buffalo. His captors whip the buffalo to get it running and as Dieter tries to hop along and not fall down, they trip him so that he’s dragged over the dirt and rocks. Once he’s delivered to the North Vietnamese, he’s given food and comfortable sleeping arrangements and then given the opportunity to sign a statement opposing America’s action in Vietnam. Rather than sign, Dieter endures more brutal torture and is then delivered to the POW camp where the conditions are absolutely disgusting. At first the prisoners receive rice every day, but as the North Vietnamese guarding the camp get low on food, the prisoners are basically starved. They literally eat rats that crawl under the huts and putrid maggoty meat discarded by the guards. And not only do they suffer malnutrition, the prisoners contract all kinds of awful jungle diseases. They suffer from multiple forms of malaria, parasites, and who knows what else. When Dieter is finally rescued, he weighs around 95 pounds. It’s amazing he even had the strength to escape.
There is a happy ending to this portion of the story and then kind of a sad ending to Dieter’s story, which you can Google, but I’d rather that you read about it in Hero Found. And see Rescue Dawn too!
My next review will be about I’m Down by Mishna Wolff. This is a memoir about girl who grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Seattle. This gal, however, is white and her parents are white. But her father grew up in this neighborhood and believes he is black. I’m expecting some chuckles from this one.