Dieter Dengler, Escape from Laos (San Rafael: Presidio Press, 1979), 211pp.
On February 1, 1966 the American pilot Dieter Dengler (1938–2001) took enemy fire and crash-landed his plane in Laos while on a secret mission. After surviving in the jungle on his own he was captured, tortured (hung upside down with an ant nest around his neck, submerged in a well, dragged by an ox through a village), then taken on a three-week jungle trek to a Pathet Lao prison camp called Par Kung. Dengler recalls that it was nothing like he imagined a prison camp might be, but instead a tiny enclave of a few huts exactly twenty-one by twenty-two steps in size. There he met six other POWS, two American and four Asian (which later became a source of tension), who had been imprisoned as long as two and a half years. Later they were transferred to the very similar Hoi Het camp. When starvation threatened both the prisoners and the guards, and the prisoners overheard the guards saying that they planned to shoot them, they made an elaborate plan and escaped. The fellow POWS were separated after the escape, and Dengler and his buddy Duane Martin teamed up. Lice, leeches, ticks, ants ("the true torment of the jungle"), sweltering days and cold nights, torrential rain, dumb mistakes and incredibly good luck, and the human will to survive—these are only part of Dengler's first person narrative. Incredibly, after soldiering on for so long, Dengler and Martin stumbled onto some villagers, scared them, and in the space of a minute they had beheaded Duane. After surviving twenty-three days in the jungle after his escape, hallucinations, wandering in a circle, tumbling over water falls, and eating things you never should eat, Dengler was rescued in an improbable stroke of luck. He lost sixty pounds in the six-month ordeal. In 1997 Werner Herzog made a documentary about Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. More recently Herzog dramatized this survivor's tale in the film Rescue Dawn (2007). This is a gripping book that reminded me of Alfred Lansing's Endurance about Shackleton's Antarctic survival story.