The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War
Title: Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War
Published by: Harper Paperbacks
Release Date: 04/01/2010
In February 1966, U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler was shot down over “neutral Laos,” crashing in the dark heart of territory controlled by the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese army. Dengler found himself on the wrong side of the Annam Cordillera mountain range, with 80 miles or so of inhospitable jungle to traverse before reaching the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin, in which his aircraft carrier Ranger steamed. As news of the shootdown spread aboard the warship, there was widespread agreement that the missing pilot — capable, daring, and prepared — would somehow make it back alive. The German-born pilot was already a legend at the Navy’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) school in the California desert, where he had set a record by breaking out three times from a mock POW camp.
Hero Found is the dramatic true story made famous in acclaimed director Werner Herzog’s feature film, Rescue Dawn, and documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, of this extraordinary Navy pilot who led a mass escape from a POW camp deep inside Laos, becoming the longest-held American to escape captivity during the Vietnam War. It is a tale of courage and survival against impossible odds.
Listen to Bruce being interviewed about Hero Found by NPR’s Diane Rehm
“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… poignant in its details. An engaging tale of a harrowing POW experience.”
“Bruce Henderson has done it again: vividly portraying young men at war and showing us the stuff from which Homeric heroes are made. Absorbing and thrilling.”
—Vincent Bugliosi, author of Reclaiming History and Helter Skelter
“In Hero Found, Bruce Henderson’s writing is meticulous and compassionate, the kind of writing that comes from observing a moment in history up close, wondering about it for decades, and then returning to the scene to understand it once and for all.”
—Amanda Ripley, Time magazine and author of The Unthinkable
“This account of one of the most remarkable and thrilling episodes of the Vietnam War has been written with the understanding and feel of a shipmate of Dengler’s aboard the carrier Ranger. But there is no gold plating or false heroics. In his tough and gritty narrative, Henderson has deftly captured the pungent environment of the Navy’s carrier pilots at war. Among the very best of its genre.”
—Admiral J. L. Holloway, USN (Ret), Chief of Naval Operations, 1974-1978
“Hero Found tells the compelling larger-than-life story of Dieter Dengler, a true U.S. Navy hero. Having flown many combat missions from the deck of Ranger during the Vietnam War, I found this page-turner to be extremely credible and well researched. At its heart, Hero Found is the inspirational story of the valor and heroism of Dengler, a man on a mission, whose quest was to remain ‘alive and free.'”
—Vice Admiral Dennis V. McGinn, USN (Ret)
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.