Vietnam veteran Henderson (Down to the Sea: An Epic Story of Naval Disaster and Heroism in World War II, 2007, etc.) tells the story of Navy pilot Dieter Dengler and his escape from a Laos prison camp during the war.
When Dengler’s plane was shot down in February 1966, his chances for survival were slim. Quickly captured, he endured torture, starvation and beatings from Pathet Lao guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers before eventually escaping from a POW camp. Dengler’s story has been told before, most notably in the 2007 film Rescue Dawn, a fictionalized account by Werner Herzog, who also directed a 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. But Henderson has his own connection to the material. He and Dengler both served on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger during the war, and the author personally conducted interviews with Dengler in 1997 and 1998. (Dengler died in 2001.) Henderson provides an account of the German-born Dengler’s prewar years, including a memorable moment when a very young Dengler was enthralled by the sight of a low-flying American fighter plane during World War II, and vowed that he would one day fly such planes. During his Navy training, he escaped a simulated POW camp—twice—experiences that served him well in Laos. Dengler’s actual POW experiences are the centerpiece of the book, and, thanks to Henderson’s storytelling skill, these scenes often read like a first-rate suspense novel, particularly after Dengler meets a group of other POWs and they formulate plans for a daring escape. The author’s portrayal of Dengler’s post-rescue life, though brief, is poignant in its details. He bought his own restaurant in San Francisco, following through on a desire to “never be hungry again” after the starvation he had endured. Later, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he e-mailed a friend, “I have looked death in the eye, so it is easier for me to handle.”
A short but engaging tale of a harrowing POW experience.