I grew up believing in heroes. For me, they were always pilots.
I joined the U.S. Navy reserve while still in high school so I could go out to Alameda (Calif.) Naval Air Station for monthly drills and be around airplanes and pilots. After a restless year in college, I volunteered for two years of active duty. That is what brought me in June 1965 to the aircraft carrier Ranger (CVA-61). And while I was serving aboard ship as a weatherman — taking observations, plotting maps, and launching weather balloons — another pilot came into my life.
Things started off badly for Ranger pilot Ltjg. Dieter Dengler, however: shot down over Laos; a violent crash in the jungle; the wreckage of his plane found deep in enemy territory, but there was no sign of his whereabouts. For long months, we heard nothing of him. In 1966, off the steamy coast of North Vietnam, there were many pilots who went missing. Most did not return.
The fate of Dieter Dengler was to be different. In a surreal scene of brotherhood and celebration, he returned to Ranger six months after being shot down — emaciated, ravaged with tropical illnesses but very much alive and joyous to be so. True, Dieter Dengler was but one lost pilot and hero found. Yet 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.