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RESCUE DAWN

Dieter Dengler's Oddysey
In the winter of 1966, US Navy Pilot Dieter Dengler launched from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in an agile Skyraider plane to fly along the tricky, sinuous border between North Vietnam and Laos. It was the very first mission Dengler would fly in Southeast Asia and it was about to become one of the greatest epics of survival in history. 

When Dengler was shot down that day over the Ho Chi Minh Trail and his fellow squadron members saw the twisted wreckage of his plane, they knew his chances were grim. Dengler had crashed into a Laotian jungle sweltering with heat, teeming with poisonous insects and snakes, surrounded by unfriendly villages and ringed by utterly impassable limestone hills. Even if he'd managed to survive the plane's fiery explosion and the endemic dangers of the jungle, he'd be an immediate target for Pathet Lao soldiers, the local equivalent of the Viet Cong, who considered a captured American a rare prize. The facts were not promising – indeed, those few Americans who had already been captured by the Pathet Lao in the early 60s had not been heard from again. (To this day, about 500 Americans remain missing or otherwise unaccounted for in Laos.) 

At the time, the United States did not even acknowledge that it was conducting military operations in Laos, so Dengler was literally lost to the world. No one knew where he was and no one was likely to even attempt to rescue him. He quite likely would have died there, if it were not for the fact that he took matters into his own hands – buoyed by an internal light no matter how dark the external circumstances. 

Part of Dengler's defiant attitude towards his desperate situation – which put practical plans before fatalism at every turn – lay in his already astonishing personal history of survival, which began in childhood. Born in 1930s Germany, he had grown up in the remote Black Forest, amidst the horror of World War II. His father died fighting in Russia and Dieter's own house was severely damaged by bombs. Even so, Dieter became obsessed with the Allied Aircraft that buzzed his bedroom at night. Though he knew the planes he admired could easily kill him, they were so magical in flight that he determined he would do whatever he had to do to one day learn how to fly. 

Later, young Dieter suffered terribly from hunger and bewilderment in Germany's grueling, surreal post-War conditions, but by then an unremitting determination towards survival had become deeply ingrained. He never reclaimed his childhood. By his teens, he was working full-time as a tool-and-die maker and blacksmith, beaten by his boss on a regular basis. Dieter was not yet an adult, but he had already seen the worst of humanity, which perhaps cushioned the shock of what was to come in Laos. He would later say that his experiences in Germany were his first lessons in survival. 

Finally, at the age of 18, lured by the promise of an Air Force recruiting ad he saw in a magazine, Dieter arrived in America with empty pockets. He joined the Air Force right away, but as an uneducated immigrant, found himself not in pilot school but assigned to such mundane tasks as peeling potatoes. Still undeterred, he worked his way through college earned a spot as a Naval pilot. In the Navy, he was known for his playful sense of humor– marked as a renegade from the start. 

But once Dengler crashed he would have to carefully await his opportunities to use his maverick spirit. Now that he was the Pathet Lao's prized possession, Dengler was initiated into a daily ritual of interrogation and forced marches from village to village. Ultimately, he was brought to the a small prison camp where he was found two other American POWs – helicopter pilot Lt. Duane Martin and Eugene DeBruin, a civilian who worked for the CIA's covert airlines, Air America. Dengler was elated to at last have companions, but horrified by their det

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