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1966_12_03--27-33--I_Escaped_From_a_Red_Prison

As I came out of my bombing run I knew I was going to crash. The plane was hardly controllable, and the jungle flashing past beneath me was getting closer. I thought that I still had enough altitude to make it over the ridge ahead, and I hoped then to find a clearing. As I skimmed over that ridge I realized I was in trouble: The only clearing was less than 300 feet long and the surrounding trees were about 150 feet high and three feet thick. I pulled back a little on the'stick, and the plane began to shudder. I hit a tree, and my right wing sheared off; the plane veered wildly as my left wing hit another tree. The fuselage flipped over two or three times. There's no padding at all in the cockpit, but I was strapped in tight. I lifted my legs and put my hands in front of my face. I must have been knocked unconscious during the crash, because I remember only struggling to open the jammed canopy and then being on my back 100 yards from the plane. A big plume of smoke was rising into the sky. I tried to get my senses together. My knee was blue, and it hurt like hell. My Mae West was gone, my helmet was gone, and blood was running down my neck. My first thought was to get far away from the crash. I crawled across a little creek and must have traveled about half a mile when I heard voices. I hobbled into some bushes, and slowly the voices faded away. I broke off some little sticks and bound them to my knee with elastic bandages to make a splint. Then I checked my survival gear. I was still wearing my heavy green flight suit, and a nylon sleeping bag that I had made on the carrier was taped to my back. I had a .38 revolver, a brand-new radio, a compass, a plastic map, a canteen, a few cakes of soap, some fishhooks and a mirror. I also carried some high-protein foods— pepperoni sausage and nuts—as well as medicine. Right away I took my malaria pills. Then I began to think about getting rid of some of the stuff. All of a sudden somebody opened up with an automatic weapon. Bullets hit right and left—two or three feet from me. I dived under a bush and tried to camouflage myself by pulling that green sleeping bag over my lead. I didn't want those guys to get my radio—all they'd have to do was turn on the beeper, and a helicopter would come hovering in to get nailed with a machine gun. I stowed all my gear—radio, gun, the whole works—in a hole in a tree and piled some leaves over it. Then I started crawling away on my belly. I suppose I should have gone back to pick up my gear, but I decided against it. Perhaps I was overconfident because, as a boy in Germany, I'd always had to fend for myself. Then, too, I had "escaped" four times in Navy survival training. I said, "Man, I've got it knocked—I don't need this, I don't need that. I'll make it on my own." I knew that my target had been in North Vietnam very near the Laotian border, but I didn't know where I had come down. If I headed east through North Vietnam I might reach the ocean. But then what? I didn't have a signaling device anymore, so nobody would pick me up. But suppose I went the other way, to Laos? The jungle there would be thicker and easier to hide in. I still had my compass, and I decided to head west. For the rest of the first day, I kept walking, avoiding trails and clearings and occasional animal traps. At night I slipped into my sleeping bag. It was hot and miserable, with bugs everywhere, and I couldn't sleep. At dawn I started moving again, and soon I got careless. Back in the States they'd told me "always avoid clearings, trails and water holes." Now I said the heck with that. Why should I walk in the bush when the trail is easy going? They caught me 15 minutes later. A couple of guys jumped out of the bush and started yelling and screaming. They wore sunglasses and Amer- ican-style uniforms—khaki trousers and rubber boots. "Ute, ute," they shouted. I didn't know who they were and couldn't understand them, but I stopped. I guessed they were Pathet Lao troops— pro-Communist Laotians. One of them held an M-1 at my head while the other searched me. They tied my hands and hit me in the head a couple of times with their fists. Then they took away my watch, my compass and my ID cards. For the rest of that afternoon they ran me along the trail. About five o'clock we reached a clearing where they tied me to a tree. Then a pleasant- faced man in a brown uniform walked over to inspect me. He wore a sidearm, and he had a red star on his belt buckle, so I figured he was the leader of this gang. The guards had given this man my Geneva Convention card and my regular ID card, and he was trying to read them upside down. For a moment I had a crazy impulse to laugh. But four or five guards had rifles pointing at me. The officer and his men talked for a while. Then they drove big stakes into the ground and spread-eagled me between them. I spent the night trying to shoo away the mosquitoes by moving my head. Then the leeches started crawling up my legs. A leech is about as long as a needle and not much thicker. Sometimes when it drops off, it's sucked so much blood that it's as thick as your little finger. Then you just continue bleeding. For the next several days we walked, four or five guards in front of me, another four or five behind me. They had tied my hands, but I was still able to eat a handful of rice in the morning, another handful in late afternoon. We walked for hours yet probably made only eight miles a day. The trails twisted up and down so many hills that we had to zigzag constantly in the relentless heat. Occasionally we stopped at small villages. Men, women and children came out of their huts and clustered about me. Most of the women were barebreasted. They were very polite, and sometimes they'd give me water. But I knew they were afraid of me. If I moved, they'd jump back. The men wore loincloths, and some of them carried knives. They screamed at me and waved their fists, and I could see hate in their eyes. On the afternoon of the fifth day we went into a huge cave where soldiers were milling around some Russian jeeps. For the first time since my capture I was able to communicate with someone. One of the Laotian officers started speaking French. I remember some French from my school years, so we could at least understand each other. At first this officer was friendly. He had a camera and took my picture. For nearly a week I'd been eating nothing but rice. He gave me some sugar and a couple of eggs, and he told me that I could write some letters. Then he pulled out a piece of paper and asked me to sign my name. It was typed and phrased in perfect English and it said, in effect, that the Americans were dropping bombs on innocent women and children and that, although I personally opposed this policy, I was forced to fly on these missions by the U.S. Government. I wouldn't sign that paper. The friendly officer said something to the guards, and they beat me on the head with bamboo sticks, then pummeled my face and ears with their fists. "Bai-bai. Guen, guen," they said. Sign that paper and we will let you go. Next morning the officer shoved that paper in my face again. When I refused to sign it, he told the guards to bring a water buffalo to the mouth of the cave. They tied my hands, then my feet, and ran the rope 15 or 20 feet to the buffalo's collar. Laughing, they prodded the animal until it trotted. I was dragged headfirst over sharp roots sticking out of the trail. My clothes were tattered; the skin on my legs was shredded, and I was bleeding a lot. I got madder than hell and called them a lot of dirty names. Then I passed out. This went on for nearly two days. I can't remember how many times I passed out, but I know that I never signed their paper. Finally, on the afternoon of the seventh day, they gave up and marched me away. Just to make sure that I didn't try to run off, the guards made me hang my shoes around my neck. And without shoes, an American just can't walk in that jungle. The heat was almost unbearable. It hadn't rained for months, and everything was dry. Finally we came to a muddy water hole, and they let me drink. For some reason they hadn't taken away my halazone tablets yet, so I borrowed a bottle from one of the guards, put the tablets in the water and waited for a few minutes before I swallowed the stuff. Throughout the march I always had 14 or 15 guards around me—Pathet Laos wearing peaked leather caps, blue trousers and shoes. One of them carried an old Russian grease gun; another had a carbine; the rest had Chinese rifles. They gave me rice, occasional pieces of chicken and some edible fern that they steamed. We kept moving, but I had no way of knowing where I was being taken. Whenever we stopped, the guards always tied me down to a tree or a hut. And there was always somebody watching me. All the guards smoked—either barnboo pipes or cigarettes rolled from banana leaves. And one of these guards kept a mirror inside his Leaving Vietnam, Dengler flashes a grin as he clambers from a plane taking him to a reunion on the carrier offshore. 28


1966_12_03--27-33--I_Escaped_From_a_Red_Prison
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