Heroes of Vietnam: “I Escaped from a Viet Cong Prison”

Vietnam SIP CoverThis article and other features about America in Vietnam can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Heroes of Vietnam. This edition can be ordered here.

Originally published December 3, 1966.


Lt. Dengler in a hospital bed
Gaunt, hollow-eyed, and shrunk to 93 pounds, Dengler recuperates aboard the carrier Ranger, where he was flown 171 days after leaving the ship for a strike in North Vietnam. (U.S. Navy)

The morning sky was clear over the South China Sea, but the weather turned murky as we approached the coast of North Vietnam. Our group of four Skyraiders had taken off from the USS Ranger 45 minutes earlier — at 9:00 last February 1 — and we were flying in formation at 10,000 feet.

All at once, flak appeared as noisy smudges nearby. Then in my headset, I heard a pilot shout, “I got a target. There it is at nine o’clock.” I looked down and saw it — an anti-aircraft battery at a road intersection. I pulled the stick, rolled on my back and started into my dive.

Suddenly boom, boom, boom. A 57 mm shell knocked off part of my right wing. Another burst hit my engine. It sputtered and quit. I shouted, ‘‘Mayday! Mayday!” into my radio. I leveled out and aimed at the target quickly, then dumped all my ordnance. Miraculously, I hit the target. The anti-aircraft battery had gotten me, but I knocked it out.

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. The only clearing was less than 300 feet long, and the surrounding trees were about 150 feet high and 3 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 [life jacket] 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 started crawling away on my belly.

I knew 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.

The guard knew that we wanted water desperately, so he’d bring some in a pot and place it just out of our reach. Then he’d pour the water on the ground and laugh.

For the rest of the first day, I kept walking, avoiding trails and clearings and occasional animal traps. That night I slipped into my sleeping bag. 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. “Ute, ute,” they shouted. 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 5:00, 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 had a red star on his belt buckle, so I figured he was the leader. 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 thick as your little finger. Then you just continue bleeding.

or the next several days we walked, four or five guards in front of me, another four or five behind me. 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. 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. At first he 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. 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.

Finally, on the morning of the 14th day, we reached the prison camp — it was just a collection of bamboo huts sitting on stilts about four feet high. They shoved me into one of them, clapped handcuffs on my wrists, and stuck my feet into wooden blocks that must have weighed 30 or 40 pounds. It was very dark in there, but the door was open about half a foot. I saw six other prisoners in another hut a few feet away. Several were in bad shape. I could see big sores on their bodies. I shouted to them, and right away a guard came and told me to shut up. When he left, I called softly to the other hut. One guy called back that his name was Duane Martin; he was an Air Force lieutenant, a helicopter pilot, and he had been captured nine months earlier. Some of the others had been there more than two years.

They were really interested in news from outside. What did cars look like now? What was happening in Europe, Cuba, and China? What could you see on television? I told them that President Kennedy was dead. Duane Martin had said that, too, but they hadn’t believed him.

After a week I was moved into the other hut. Until a month ago, the prisoners said, conditions hadn’t been too bad. They’d even been allowed to boil water at night. Then Little Hitler came and everything had changed.

I’ll never forget that guy. He was short — about 5 feet 2 inches — and he wore a blue-and-yellow loincloth. He had dark skin, little squirrelly eyes, and a big belly. He always carried a submachine gun. He did his best to torment us, and he succeeded lots of times. He knew, for example, that we wanted water desperately, so he’d bring some in a pot and place it just out of our reach. Then he’d pour the water on the ground and laugh. Another of his tricks was to stand one of us in footblocks outside the hut and take the man’s handcuffs off. Then he’d tell the other guards that the prisoner refused to wear handcuffs and should be punished. Right away they’d beat him and fire bullets at his feet.

Of all the guards, and there were 10 or 15 at all times, Little Hitler was undoubtedly the worst. Still, he had competition — Crazy Horse, for example. He really did have a face like a horse, and he really was crazy in a brutal way. Then there were Sot and Dam and Windy — he was a sly son of a gun who was always sneaking around corners, trying to catch us doing something. And Jumbo — I shouldn’t forget him — a fat, dreamy-faced guy who didn’t care about anything. It was hot as hell during the day and bitterly cold at night. Nobody had a match or a lighter — we just rubbed bamboo together to make fire.

One morning — I think it was eight days after I was brought to the camp — Crazy Horse entered our hut with a big smile. We were going to be set free, he said, free to go home. We just had to walk to another headquarters.

We started marching. All of us were stumbling along, tied to one another by handcuffs. We should have known that Crazy Horse was lying. We didn’t reach a headquarters, only another prison camp, like the first one but more heavily fortified.

Now we settled into monotonous routine. Every morning we’d wake up with the chickens. One guy would holler, “Kopa-tie-a-chow” — I have to go to the latrine. There was a hole in the ground 30 or 40 yards away. Five or six guards would remove his footblocks and escort him there. But if he stayed there longer than half a minute, the guards would start shooting. We soon decided it was safer to relieve ourselves in bamboo containers inside the huts. One of us would have to empty these containers every second or third day and would run the risk of being shot — but this was better than having all of us shot at every morning.

At about 9:00, the guards would give us rice. Sometimes all seven of us would be allowed to eat this morning meal at a table outside the main hut, and we’d have about 10 minutes to talk before the guards yelled “Kuo-kuo” and shoved us back inside. During the day, the heat was so unbearable that the guards not on duty simply went to sleep. In mid-afternoon they’d wake up, go out to check their traps for animals, and look for edible leaves and bark. Around five they’d let us out again for another 10-minute meal before putting us back in footblocks for the rest of the night.

Lt. Dengler shakes hands with his executive officer.
Welcomed by the squadron executive officer and surrounded by his fellow pilots, Dengler tells of his escape. (U.S. Navy)

The most nerve-racking part of the routine was the singing. Every night the guards would sing the same propaganda songs, over and over. Now and then the guards would push us out of our huts and hang us upside down from trees or shoot bullets at our feet. One time a guard put an M-1 to my head, and I thought he was going to pull the trigger. Then he laughed and took it away.

After the first few weeks at the camp, we developed a routine of our own. Saturday night was our hoot-and-holler time. We tried to pick songs that all of us knew. On Sunday mornings we’d hold church services. We didn’t have a Bible, but some of us remembered Scripture, and we’d talk for an hour or so about God. Then we’d pray. The rest of the week we had nothing to do but sit inside those huts and wait for food or punishment.

Initially we had enough rice. Then, in March, about a month after we moved to the new camp, the food supply dried up. Once every four or five days the guards would go to check their traps. If something had been caught, it had probably been dead for a while; other animals had torn off its legs or head. For some reason, when they caught a pig, the guards would stick the raw meat into a bamboo container and let it rot there for several days. Maggots would crawl all over it, and it would stink so bad that the guards would hold their noses. But we never got sick from eating it. Most of the prisoners were already used to eating intestines, testicles, and eyes. I thought they were crazy at first, but after a while it didn’t bother me either. At mealtime, we’d take turns dipping coconut shells into a pot of cold food brought by a guard. If we had meat, we’d cut it up first to make sure that each of us got his fair share. One afternoon we found a frog under the floor of our hut. We divided it, raw, among the seven prisoners, and I got his heart. It was smaller than a watch stem, but at least it was food. At night the rats came. We caught them in traps baited with rice. The rats were very good eating. We’d cook them to the extent of searing off their fur, then eat the head, legs, tail, skin — everything. The snakes that we caught were small, but most of them had rats in their stomachs. That was a double feast.

We never had any medical attention. One of the prisoners had a badly infected tooth; pus was streaming out, and it hurt him a lot. He found a nail somewhere, placed it against his tooth, and hammered it with a rock. He chopped it off piece by piece, and that relieved the pressure. We all had diarrhea. We ate charcoal, and that would stop it a little bit, but some guys still had to defecate 20 or 30 times a night. Ants and bugs were crawling all around, and I can’t describe the smell.

He found a nail somewhere, placed it against his tooth, and hammered it with a rock. He chopped it off piece by piece, and that relieved the pressure.

There were times when I didn’t want to wake up. I figured the war would last another five years; I’d probably die anyway, so it wouldn’t make any difference. I knew I’d never get home.

From the beginning, we all talked about escape. We decided to wait for the rains which would begin in May. One of the guys made a crude calendar and scratched off the days with a piece of charcoal. D-Day was to be my birthday — May 22. That planning gave us hope and kept us alive.

In March, we started hiding rice in bamboo containers stashed above our heads. Now and then we picked up empty ammunition clips that the guards had discarded and stored them inside our huts. We rubbed bamboo together to make fire, heated the clips until they were soft, then pounded them with rocks into little knives. I tore up part of my sleeping bag and made a rucksack; another guy made a rucksack out of his shorts. I can’t describe the method we used to free ourselves from the footblocks and handcuffs — that information is now being given to other pilots — but I can say that by April we had perfected our technique. The guy who had the calendar kept crossing off the days.

But the rains didn’t come in May. The rice supply was almost gone; the guards caught fewer and fewer animals in their traps, and they began to get hungry too. In June we learned that Little Hitler had told the other guards that if they shot us in the back and dragged our bodies into the bush, they’d have all the food to themselves.

Now we couldn’t afford to wait for the rain. Our only chance for survival was to break out right away and try to make air contact. The guards were letting us out of the huts to go to the latrine once a week; our muscles were so stiff that we could hardly walk. If we delayed the escape any longer, we’d be much too weak.

About 5:00 each afternoon, the guards would walk to the kitchen, pick up their food in turtle shells, then walk back to their hut. Suppose one of us could wiggle through a hole in the floor of the hut and drop to the ground 3 feet below. He might be able to burrow under the 10-inch logs which surrounded the stilts and sneak across the open space to the guards’ hut. If he could grab a weapon, he could hold them up when they returned from the kitchen.

We didn’t have much time. I carved a hole in the floor of the hut, dropped to the ground, and dislodged one of the 10-inch logs with a rock and a bamboo stick. Another guy cut a hole in the wall so he could watch the kitchen. We didn’t have watches, but we could time ourselves by counting “one potato, two potato, three potato.” How long would it take us to get our knives and rice supply and rucksacks out of their hiding places? How long for us to get out of footblocks and handcuffs? How long for me to sneak out of the back of the hut, crawl across 15 yards of open space, and snatch a weapon? The guy with the charcoal added it up. Two minutes and seven seconds, he said.

The food supply was so critical that Little Hitler, Crazy Horse, and three or four others went to get rice in a village a few miles away. Only 10 guards remained. When the guards went to eat, I crept underneath our hut, edged past the logs again, and dashed across the open space. Two minutes and seven seconds — exactly what the guy had predicted. As soon as I reached the porch, the other prisoners started coming through the hole. I grabbed two M-1s, a carbine, and a couple of Chinese rifles. I loaded them quickly, passed them out to the other guys, and turned to face the kitchen.

All of a sudden, bang, bang, bang. The guards were running out — really coming at us. I felt the bullets fly by my head. We yelled, “Ute, ute” for them to stop, then returned their fire. Seven guards fell dead in their tracks. Three of them fled into the bush.

None of us had been hurt in the exchange of fire; still, we were in trouble. We knew there was a village only a mile or so from the camp. If these three guards had gone to get help, search parties would be after us in half an hour. We had rifles and machetes. Now one guy went back to the hut to get our signaling devices, rucksacks, and food.

Five minutes later we were moving out on the trail. Duane and I knelt down to pray. “Dear God, please let us get home. Help us now because we just can’t do it by ourselves.” Then two of the guys headed east, and we never saw them again. The other five of us walked south to the closest ridge. My feet were swollen and bleeding.

We spent the night near a creek. It rained, and leeches swarmed all over our bodies; we were too exhausted to care. We got up again at dawn and decided to split into groups of two and three. Duane and I would stay together. We gave the other guys 24 rounds of ammunition in return for one of their machetes. Then we shook hands and wished them luck.

We had no idea at all of our position, so we decided to follow the creek. It was rising now because of the rain; in some places it was only 5 feet wide; in others, more than 100 feet and very deep. On the third or fourth day, we built a raft of banana trees. It took us eight hours. We floated along for several hundred yards. Then we heard a waterfall. We jumped and swam as fast as we could to the shore. The raft swept over the falls and splintered.

We still had our machete, but we didn’t dare cut a trail. If we couldn’t go straight through a section of bush, we’d go around it or try to bend it or crawl under it on our stomachs. My arms were numb. The skin had been ripped from my feet and legs, and I could see bone.

Both of us were so damned weak. We kept passing out. At night we’d put our arms around each other and hug each other just to keep warm. We realized now that we might not make it. I promised Duane that if I ever got out, I’d visit his wife and family. He said he’d do the same for me.

Then Duane got malaria; his fever was very high, and he couldn’t walk. I helped him along, and finally we came to a deserted village. I laid him in a hammock. We were too weak to walk. Our food supply was almost gone, and our clothes were ripped to shreds. We didn’t have strength enough to carry our weapons and ammunition, so we had left them in the bush.

Next morning — this was the 14th day after our escape — I left Duane in his hammock and went back into the bush to find the ammunition we had discarded. I slept in the woods that night and then crawled back to the village. Duane was still there. And this was the greatest thing. He laughed, and I laughed, and we hugged each other. He was so happy that I’d found three rounds of ammunition, and I was so happy that he was still alive. We broke off the tips of the bullets, poured out the powder and rubbed the bamboo sticks together. Pffft — at last we had fire.

When the guards went to eat, I crept underneath our hut, edged past the logs again, and dashed across the open space.

We boiled some leaves and tapioca; it was the first hot meal we’d had in months, and it really cheered us up. We kept the fire going then and tied some rags to bamboo sticks for signaling devices.

Late that night, we heard a plane. It circled over the village and dropped a couple of parachute flares. “Hey, he saw us,” Duane cried. “He’s gonna get us in the morning.” We stayed awake all night talking about what we’d eat tomorrow.

The plane never came back. We waited all that day before giving up. At dawn next morning — the 17th day after our escape — we stumbled away from the village. Suddenly, a black-haired guy in a loincloth started running toward us. He carried a long machete — curved at the end. “Amerikali, Amerikali,” he yelled. We nodded our heads and mumbled, “Sentai, Sentai” (“hello, hello”). But the man kept running. I jerked back and tried to stand up.

His knife was already moving through the air. Thuk, thuk. The first blow hit Duane on the leg; the second cut into his shoulder just below the neck. He screamed, and I threw up my hands as if to say “No.” I knew Duane was dead, but I couldn’t grasp it; I just stood there with my mouth wide open. Then he swung at me. The tip of his knife missed my throat by half an inch. I don’t know where I got the strength, because I moved, man, I really moved. I turned around and hit that bush and ran up a gully, and my legs didn’t hurt anymore.

That night I crawled back to the village. I thought it was their village, and I wanted to burn it down. I was angry and a little bit off in the head. I sat in front of a fire and threw everything on it. I didn’t care if they caught me.

Then I heard a plane. It circled over the village and dropped about 20 parachute flares. Next morning I waited and waited, but the plane did not return. “God,” I said. “What’s the matter with those guys?” I knew they wouldn’t save me now. I picked up one of the parachutes and tore the panels out. That afternoon, I crawled up to a nearby ridge. I saw a little hut there, and I said, “That’s where I’m going to die.” I prayed. “God, forgive me for the bad things I’ve done in life. I just can’t fight it anymore. Please let me die. I don’t want to wake up.”

But I did wake up. I was really thirsty, and I said, “To hell with it. Those guys aren’t gonna lick me.”

I stuffed the parachute panels into my rucksack and fell down the ridge. The skin had ripped off my feet and they were just bones. But there was no particular pain. I thought of all the things I’d missed. I wanted to go deep-sea fishing. I wanted to ski and build a chalet in the California mountains, and I wanted to buy a Porsche. All these hopes were gone. I remembered that once — back at Lackland Air Force Base six years before — I had thrown away a piece of bread. I swore that I’d never do that again.

Lt. Dengler, in uniform, smiles with his parents.
Reunited with his mother and brother Klaus, both just arrived from Germany, Dengler recently appeared fully restored to health. His weight virtually doubled since rescue. (U.S. Navy)

Next morning — this was the 22nd day after our escape — I took the parachute panels out of the rucksack, tied them end to end and laid out an SOS by the river. I wrapped another panel around a bamboo stick. Then I passed out again. When I came to, I thought I heard a plane. I gathered all my strength, started waving that bamboo stick and — zoom — the plane was past me and gone. But he came back several times and wiggled his wings. I was so happy that I started crying and shouting and rolling around on my back. Then I collapsed.

Suddenly I heard the helicopter, 200 feet above my head. The steel rope began falling slowly toward me. And there was the rescue harness; a slender device with three little arms folded into its side. I had to press the arms down to make a seat, but I couldn’t unzip the plastic cover. I clawed at the harness and finally wrenched one arm free and gave a little signal. I was hanging sideways; I didn’t know if I could hold on much longer. I said, “God, don’t let a bullet hit me now. Not after all this hell I’ve been through.” Then I saw a leg and green pants standing in the chopper door. An American leg! I grabbed onto it and cried.

I went back into shock at the hospital in Đa Năng. I weighed only 93 pounds. I couldn’t move my arms or legs or head. Yet everything was pleasant and nice. I thought that this was all a dream; I thought this was how it was after death.

Back in San Diego they treated me for kidney disease and liver disease. They fixed my teeth, and when I got malaria — right there in the hospital — they cured me of that as well. At first, I had to sleep on the floor; a bed was just too soft. I had lots of bad dreams, too, and I’d wake up three or four times a night sweating and screaming and yelling.

The doctors say I’m doing pretty well now. I weigh about 150 pounds, and I’ve got as much energy as anyone else. I still have some ringworm on my feet; there are a couple of bugs inside me that they have to take care of, and I’m losing all my hair. I feel pretty bad about that, but they tell me that it will just be temporary.

Anyway, my fiancée doesn’t seem to mind. We flew to Reno in early October and got married, and I have to admit I’m pretty happy about that. In a few more weeks I should be able to fly again. That will make me happy too.

—“I Escaped from a Red Prison,” December 3, 1966

Read “I Escaped From a Red Prison” by Lt. (J.G.) Dieter Dengler. Published December 3, 1966 in the Post.

From Slingshots to Ink Stamps: The Fearless Birder

There was a time in the past — and maybe it’s still true for some — when the phrase “bird lover” might have conjured images of a frail, meek, soft-spoken milquetoast toting his binoculars through the woods. That image of birders has been reinforced in popular entertainment, as in the character of Wallace Wimple on the 1940s radio show Fibber McGee and Molly. Usually addressed as “Wimp” by McGee, the timid Mr. Wimple would speak in his soft, mournful voice about his greatest joy in life: watching birds.

But the perception of bird lovers as feeble ecological looky-loos doesn’t come near to describing the full spectrum of active bird lovers. It certainly doesn’t describe men like Edward J. Reimann, who, in the following Post article of May 23, 1942, describes how his love of birds — which began as a love for slingshots — led him from bird watching on the ground to dodging attacks from predatory birds while scaling towering trees and sheer cliffs. Far from a passive pastime, the dangerous and adventuresome ornithological work he and others like him performed, without remuneration, helped track and save bird populations in the United States.

Today, bird lovers don’t suffer so much from that old nerdish stigma. What’s more, a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals some of the good this avian avocation did for the culture and economy in 2011:

For the most part, bird lovers are content to watch from a distance. Only a few are still doing what Reimann describes here: climbing hundreds of feet up trees and cliffs to tag birds. Unlike the author, though, today’s taggers are now trained, closely regulated biologists who track hatchlings to study bird populations and migration patterns.

But it all started with passionate amateurs like Reimann. There is no doubt that the work he describes doing here contributed to a larger, successful effort to bring back the American bald eagle. Poaching by “eggers,” poisoning by DDT, and human encroachment on eagle nesting sites pushed bald eagles onto the endangered species list in 1967. But efforts and political pressures from individuals and groups were so effective that, on August 9, 2007, bald eagle populations had grown so large and widespread that they were removed from the endangered species list.


Bird Lovers Aren’t Sissies

By Edward J. Reimann as told to Daniel P. Mannix

Originally published on May 23, 1942

In the last ten years I have probably climbed about fifteen miles, straight up. All this distance has been either up the sides of precipices or tree trunks some eighty feet above the ground. For, in common with several hundred other young men, my hobby is banding birds of prey, and those are the places where the great raptors nest.

I first became interested in birds through my early dexterity with a slingshot. My gang all carried slingshots and we used to practice on the glass insulators on the telephone poles.

One day I rashly took a shot at a lineman who was bending over at the top of a pole to fix one of the broken insulators. The buckshot I was using sent up a puff of dust from the seat of his trousers, and I wouldn’t have believed that it was possible for anyone to get down a pole and start after me as rapidly as that man did. In fact, I was so interested in his technique that I forgot to run until it was almost too late. He chased me right under our back porch. After that, some of the neighbors came around to complain to my family: “Why can’t Bud be like other boys and amuse himself harmlessly by shooting the birds in the park?”

I spent many hours after that wandering through the park, keeping a lookout for our feathered friends, but, as time passed, I became more and more interested in the birds for themselves. One day I had such a good time watching a sparrow trying to get an oversized stick into his nesting hole that I forgot all about my slingshot. Knowing what a razzing I would get if the gang heard about it, I took care not to mention my lapse.

Full of repentance, I hurried out the next morning and knocked over several sparrows. But when I came to examine my bag, I noticed that one was different in shape and plumage from the others. I had always reasoned that sparrows were just sparrows. As nearly every member of the gang was collecting either postage stamps or cigar bands, I decided those fields were getting overcrowded, so I would specialize on birds.

Woodland Conversion

While wandering through the woods, adding to my hobby with the slingshot, I often saw the figure of a strange-looking man crawling through bushes or wading streams. All the children in our neighborhood were afraid of him, and I took good care to keep out of his way. But one day while I was preparing to slip the old Mary-Ann to a red-eyed vireo, the stranger shouted at me across a ravine to wait a minute. He explained he was Richard Miller, president of the Miller Ornithological Club. He felt it was a good idea to tell me that both Nature societies and the game commission frowned on shooting songbirds with a slingshot.

I confided to Mr. Miller my great problem — that although I had no great desire to shoot birds, it was a well-known and generally recognized fact that all bird lovers were pantywaists.

Mr. Miller smiled a grim smile. “You come bird banding with me, my boy,” he suggested. “I’ll show you some excitement.”

It seems the Department of the Interior issues little aluminum bands, each one stamped with a number and the request, “Notify Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.” Anyone finding a banded bird is asked to send the number of the band and the place where the bird was found to the service. It is up to the bird banders to get these bands around the feet of the wild birds.

This performance is not so crazy as it might seem. Because of bird banding, government zoologists are able to trace the great tides of migration. Our federal and state game laws are the best in the world. They make it possible for any American to hunt who owns a state license, while in European countries hunting has long ago been restricted to wealthy men who could afford to keep private game preserves.

Mr. Miller’s desire to make me an ornithologist was supported by the telephone linemen. One of them even presented me with a pair of climbing irons and I acted as Mr. Miller’s assistant, climbing trees to band young birds in their nests. My specialty was crows.

I had got expert at this and had begun to think that Mr. Miller had exaggerated ideas about bird banding being a dangerous sport. Then the old ornithologist took me with him one day to band young fish eagles.

The fish eagle, or osprey, is one of our largest birds of prey. Only the bald and the golden eagles are larger. This nest was 70 feet up, on the top of an old white oak growing in the middle of a swamp. No bird had ever attacked me yet, and although I saw the parent ospreys flying around suggestively, I was more worried about climbing up 70 feet of smooth bark than I was about their powerful beaks and talons.

I put on my irons and started up. The parent birds were hovering around the nest, screaming at me. I noticed that instead of carrying their long feet neatly tucked up underneath them the way a good bird should, they were letting their legs bang down in an unpleasant fashion. However, I paid little attention to it then.

When I was about 60 feet up, I stopped for breath. It is surprising how much higher a tree seems when you are looking down from the top of it. I could see Mr. Miller far below me, looking like a dwarf with a huge head and no body. From my height I could see for miles over the swamplands, coated with brown marsh grass and veined with narrow waterways. Just then there was a sharp hiss as though a shell had whistled past me, and my hair was blown back by the accompanying breeze.

The female osprey could not have missed me by more than a foot or two. I clung to the trunk and watched her pull out of her dive and go zooming up again. She shot straight up into the air, her wings full spread, sharply etched against the deep blue of the sky. I would have liked to explain to her that I didn’t want to hurt her babies, only to put the bands around their legs.

I saw her turn in mid-air and look down on me. For a few seconds the great hawk hung motionless, studying my position. Then she closed her wings for the dive.

As I clung to the smooth tree trunk, there was nothing I could do. With her wings close against her body, the hawk came dropping down toward me at unbelievable speed. Every second her fierce head grew bigger and bigger. I could hear the moaning of the air through her feathers and at the last moment I ducked my head down into my arms. Again I could hear the rush of the bird’s wings, and I believe that her talons actually passed through my hair. I looked down to see her banking out into the wind as she came around for another stroke.

But I knew why the bird had missed me. I was so close against the trunk that she could not get a fair shot at my head. I suddenly realized that if I could only get up underneath the nest, the bird could not reach me at all. I started up as fast as I could, and then suddenly the strength seemed to go out of my arms.

I had clung to the side of the tree so long that I had wasted my strength. Now my arms felt numb. There was no feeling at all in the fingertips. Even to move my arms was an effort.

But Mr. Miller had been watching me. “There’s a knob on the other side of the trunk!” he called. “As big as a man’s head! If you can reach it, you can hang on long enough to get your strength back!”

A Break with Thoreau

The knob was only two feet away, but my muscles seemed paralyzed. I dragged my heavy arms over the bark until my fingers caught of their own accord, before I dared to shift my hooks. As I worked around the tree the osprey stopped diving at me. Apparently the wind was wrong for her there and she was afraid of dashing herself against the trunk. Slowly, I inched toward the knob until my fingers gripped it and I clung weakly.

After I had recovered somewhat, I was able to climb the last few feet to the nest and band the young birds. When I reached the ground again, Mr. Miller was leaning against the tree.

Very casually he remarked, “I must have been just about your age when I first climbed that tree and the osprey dived at me just the same way.”

“Do you really think it was the same bird?” I asked.

“There’s no way of telling,” he admitted. “But now, with bird banding, we’ll be able to know those things.”

I spent happy hours after that wading through swamps up to my waist looking for osprey nests. Each nest and each pair of birds was a different problem. Some of the nesting trees were so rotten that my spurs wouldn’t hold in the crumbling wood, and sometimes the nests were built out on the end of long limbs where it was almost impossible to reach them. Occasionally I would find the marks of another climber’s irons in a tree and after a while I could even identify certain men by their way of using the hooks.

I had always supposed that bird lovers were either benevolent old gentlemen or sentimental ladies who put out suet in winter with holly wreaths tied around it. But at the end of a couple of months I began to realize that there were ornithologists operating more in the tradition of Legs Diamond than Henry David Thoreau.

Keep ’Em Flying

For some reason known only to themselves, a number of wealthy men have adopted as their hobby the collecting of birds’ eggs. Possibly as little boys they were frustrated during bird’s nesting by some Audubon aunt and have been getting their revenge ever since. As a result of their activities, robbing the nests of rare birds was once quite a widespread business. Today, because of very strict state and federal laws, nest robbing is no longer profitable. It is impossible to sell eggs, and you can be fined as much as $500 for having them in your possession.

The demand for eggs created a group of men who were known as “eggers” and were spoken of with feeling by game commissioners, members of the Audubon societies, and nature clubs. Egging for the most part was strictly illegal, and eggers were simply high-class poachers. But in addition to being expert ornithologists, eggers were usually skillful woodsmen with perseverance and courage. Bird banders don’t wear lavender either, and we are as determined to protect the birds as the eggers were to destroy them.

One day several of us were called into conference by Richard Pough, director of the Hawk and Owl Society. For several years, eggers had been cleaning out the nests of American eagles so systematically that one year not a single young bird was raised in a New Jersey eyrie. “Keep ’em flying,” said Mr. Pough to us. Then he outlined his plan. He wanted one of the banders to climb to each eagle’s nest in turn and stamp the eggs with a rubber stamp dipped in indelible ink. The slightest imperfection of the egg makes it worthless to collectors, so this device would protect the eggs and yet not injure the little eagles growing up within.

Now, although it is many years since a pair of nesting eagles have attacked a climber, that man had to be put together like a cane chair in order to hold the inquest. But the normal danger lies in climbing the giant trees where eagles build their eyries and then crawling over the sides of the huge nests, 80 or 90 feet above the ground. It seemed to me that the ospreys I had been banding had already picked out the biggest and toughest trees to nest in, so I volunteered.

Half a dozen of us left the next morning before daybreak in Mr. Pough’s car. I was carrying a knapsack containing my climbing irons, 200 feet of half-inch rope, an inked pad, and a rubber stamp reading, PROTECTED BY THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF AUDUBON SOCIETIES. We drove along sand trails through the pine barrens until Mr. Pough stopped the car and we started through a jungle I wouldn’t have believed existed north of the Amazon. The green brier was so bad in places that we had to cut our way through with a machete. We struggled through bogs and waded across black mud flats that held you like a mixture of glue and quicksand.

At last Mr. Pough stopped and pointed. “There’s a nest,” he said.

Ahead of us was the biggest sour-gum tree I have ever seen. It must have been more than 100 feet high and some 20 feet around the base. At the top was a pile of sticks nearly the size of a log cabin. Over this were flying a pair of eagles, their white tails and heads gleaming silver in the sun.

The tree was so tremendous it presented almost a flat surface and I couldn’t hook my spurs in. It was like climbing the side of a wall. I tried and tried, and finally had to give up.

“It’s a pity you only have those little lineman’s hooks,” said Mr. Pough regretfully. “I’ll have to buy you a set of lumberjack’s spurs.”

But I had an idea. Beside the sour gum was a tall thin tulip. It was only 40 or 50 feet high, but the two trees were only about 15 feet apart. If I could get to the top of the tulip, I might be able to make a traverse over to the sour gum.

I climbed the tulip as high as I could, and then, when the slender top of the tree began to sway dangerously, I dug my irons in and looked the situation over. Across from me, an enormous branch of the sour gum, as big around as the trunks of most trees, ran off, and I decided to try to rope that branch and swing across.

Coiling up the end of my rope, I tried to throw it over the branch. After half a dozen attempts it went over and the coils dropped on the other side. Then I tried to flip part of the rope I still held around the swinging end and draw it in. This is tricky to do. You have to snap the end of the rope in your hand like a whiplash and try to make it twist around the hanging end and hold long enough for you to jerk both ends in.

When I finally had both ends of the rope in my hands and a loop over the branch, I steadied myself for a moment and then let go with my spurs. I shot across the space between the two trees in a long arc, swinging like a pendulum. Unable to use my hands because I was hanging onto the rope, I struck at the sour gum with my irons and managed to hook them in the great trunk. The channels in the bark were deep enough to give me a finger hold and slowly I worked myself up, clinging like a chipmunk until I could crawl out on the crotch of the branch.

“Stop awhile and get your wind back!” Mr. Pough shouted. But I thought the worst was over and started up toward the nest without waiting for a rest. I came out over the roof of the forest, 100 feet up. The tops of the trees lay below me like a woven green mat. It looked solid enough to walk on, almost. High up in the sky there were two dots — the parent eagles flying about, watching me with their telescopic eyes.

The gigantic mound of sticks that was the nest was so big and stretched out so far on every side above me that there was no way I could get over it. It seemed to be built on exactly the same principle as the round disks put around the trunks of fruit trees to keep squirrels from climbing up and eating the fruit.

The only thing to do seemed to be to crawl along the bottom of the thing upside down, like a fly, until I came to the side, and then climb up that. But the nest was so carefully woven together and the sticks so tightly pressed down by the great weight above them that I couldn’t even get my fingers between them for a grip.

I rested on my hooks and thought the situation over. If I could only throw my rope over the nest itself, then I could go up the rope hand over hand and into the eyrie. After making throw after throw, I finally managed to toss the rope over the nest and snag the dangling end. Then I made a firm loop around the nest, pulled my hooks out of the tree, and began to climb up the side of the eyrie.

Every time I writhed a few inches up the rope a shower of dirt sifted out through the mass of sticks and sprayed over me. The stuff stung my eyes like powdered acid, and in a few seconds I was half blind. My hooks were useless here and it seemed impossible to find even a toehold in the basket weave of the sticks. But I dragged myself up until my fingers could grab the edge of the nest. Then I was up and over, sprawling beside the two big white eggs, trying to rub the smart out of my eyes.

In two weeks we inked every clutch of eagles’ eggs in New Jersey. We did more than $1,000 worth of damage to the eggers’ business.

I had begun to think that bird banding had nothing left to show me when I happened to overhear a fellow bird bander describing the death of a friend of his who had fallen out of his double bowline and plunged 600 feet.

“Six hundred feet! Why, there isn’t a tree that high in the whole country!”

“I know it,” he retorted. “This fellow was banding falcons on the side of a cliff.”

Here was something I’d been missing. “I’d certainly like to band some young falcons,” I said hopefully.

The bander looked at me scornfully and moved away.

I soon found out that my friends would tell me all about their private lives, lend me money and even give me their girls’ telephone numbers, but as soon as the conversation drifted around to falcons’ eyries, all grew mute.

Although falcons nest only on the sides of the highest and most perpendicular cliffs they can find, this does not always protect them. Unfortunately, no two falcons’ eggs are marked exactly alike, and eggers collect the different color patterns as stamp collectors collect stamps for watermarks, cancellations and margins. So any bird bander who knows the site of a falcon’s eyrie is sworn to secrecy.

A friend and I decided to discover our own falcon’s nest. We spent three days searching through the Pocono Mountains. Then while taking a short cut over back roads, we emerged into a lovely hidden valley. Across from us shot up a huge cliff, its base washed by a broad stream. High up on the dark-red face of the cliff showed a few tiny silver vertical streaks. Those streaks could be only the white droppings, or “ mutes,” of a pair of nesting falcons.

At first there were small saplings we could cling to as we pulled ourselves up. Then we reached the bare rock. We worked our way up from ledge to ledge, testing each handhold before we trusted our weight to it. In places the rock was slippery because of trickles of water, each no bigger than a thread. Sometimes several of these little streams met, and the rock would be covered with lichens, as dangerous as ice. Caught in among the crevices were little pockets of earth, holding a few vines and sometimes a tiny bush. It was always a great temptation to grab these bushes, but as they often came right out of the pocket, roots and all, it was a temptation I learned to resist.

Suddenly from the eyrie in the cliff above us, the mother falcon burst out. She circled over the valley, screaming with rage, looking like a giant swallow as she turned and twisted. A passing crow, attracted by the noise, passed close to the eyrie. That was where he made his big mistake. The falcon gave him one terrible blow with her hind talons. The crow gave a scream of surprise and terror and, closing his wings, dropped into a thicket of laurel that fringed the edge of the stream.

When we reached the top of the cliff, we sat on the edge with our feet dangling over the brink of the precipice and caught our breaths. It had taken us two hours to get where we were, and yet all we had to do was to let ourselves go and we’d be down again in ten seconds.

My friend was to lower me over the cliff to the eyrie, so we looked around for a good tree about which he could snub the rope. We picked a hemlock some 20 feet back from the cliff edge. I slung my camera over my back, made sure I had my bands and pliers in my pocket, and got into the double bowline at the end of the rope. Then, lying flat on my stomach, I inched backward off the edge of the cliff, gripping the rope with both hands.

The cliff sloped out slightly here, and I crawled down over the rocks, shouting, “A little more line! A little line!” as I went. He payed off the rope inch by inch. After a few feet, the cliff fell away perfectly sheer. I began to work my way down the face of this wall, my whole weight on the half-inch rope. Above me, the rope groaned as the snub tore into the bark of the tree. It was taut as a banjo string. If it encountered a thin-edged rock set at just the right angle, it would be cut through.

Abruptly, the wall on which I was climbing stopped. I had come to the beginning of the overhang. The cliff was undercut here, and the face I was on projected out like the eaves of a house. From now on I would have to be lowered through space like a spider.

“I’m going to swing clear!” I shouted up. There was no answer. The acoustics of the cliff cut off my voice.

As he was still slowly slacking off the rope, I let go of the rock, and the next second I was hanging in mid-air. It was a horrible, helpless sensation. Slowly the rope started to twist. I began to spin around, going faster and faster. The rope paused, then began to unwind in the opposite direction. I was so dizzy I no longer had any idea which was up and down. Suddenly I felt afraid that I might be leaning too far over on one side. I tried to straighten myself. Instantly my legs shot up into the air and I nearly fell out of the bowline. My exposure meter fell out of my camera case and I saw it hit a rock and explode like a bomb. Then right across from me I saw the eyrie with three little birds like fluffy powder puffs looking at me in solemn amazement with their great brown eyes.

I grabbed desperately at a bit of rock and managed to stop spinning. My friend was steadily lowering me past the eyrie and I yelled until my throat felt skinned. Finally he must have heard me, for I stopped sinking. Then I tried to swing around and get a footing on the nesting ledge.

Swish! A rush of air slashed my face. For a second I was puzzled, and then I saw the mother falcon shooting up for another blow. Remembering the crow, I decided to work fast. I pushed away from the cliff with one foot and started myself swinging. After a couple of pushes I was close enough to get my footing on the ledge. Under the shelter of the rocks the mother falcon couldn’t reach me, and I banded the babies in peace.

Since then I have probably banded more than 100 young falcons and eagles, and many, many ospreys. But someday before I get too old, I would like to say I had banded a harpy eagle. These giant birds are among the largest and most powerful winged creatures in the world. They nest in great trees near the headwaters of the Amazon. Explorers have seen their nests. I have talked to a man who knows where such a nest is. He tells me the nest is in the top of a tree and the first branch of the tree is 150 feet above the ground. The natives say it is impossible to reach a harpy eagle’s nest. But perhaps by shooting an arrow with a long line tied to it over the lower limbs —well, perhaps it wouldn’t work. But someday I would like to go to South America and have a try at it.

Up in the Air: When the Wright Brothers Learned to Fly

Orville Wright
Orville Wright

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from “Thus Man Learned to Fly,” a 1928 interview with Orville Wright, published in The Saturday Evening Post on the 25th anniversary of the brothers’ historic first flight. The full article traces the brothers’ lives from their early days when the inquisitive youths built their own printing press to their young adulthood as bicycle manufacturers. Then they caught the flying bug. “We were aware, of course, that people generally knew that it could not be done,” Orville recalled. “When one said, ‘A man might as well try to fly,’ he expressed the popular notion of impossibility. And yet so many strange creatures could fly — birds, fish, insects, reptiles, and even some mammals. Why not man?”

They began in 1901 to make pilgrimages to Kitty Hawk where they had determined the consistently strong winds would be beneficial to their effort. Finally, after three years of trial and error and numerous setbacks, the momentous day arrived. [Read an interview with best-selling author of “The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough.]

Thus Man Learned to Fly

By Howard Mingos
This excerpt from “Thus Man Learned to Fly” was originally published July 7–14, 1928

We placed the track 150 feet up the side of the slope and put the machine on it, facing the wind. We had no doubt about being able to get up flying speed. Our chief concern was whether we could balance the machine while it was on the track, but moving. It could not start out until the pilot himself released a wire which held it to the rail; so he would have time to have the engine running properly. Wilbur and I tossed a coin to determine who should make the first test. Wilbur won.”

But Wilbur was not destined to make the first flight. Orville held one end of the wings to help balance the machine as it ran down the track. Wilbur had taken his place in the machine, lying flat, face down, just as they had done while gliding. The engine was purring as smoothly as could be expected with that type of motor. The propellers were churning the air. Waving his hand as a signal that he was ready, he released the wire that restrained the plane.


It started down the track so quickly that Orville could not keep up with it; so it ran on the track free, and about 40 feet from the start, left the rail, climbed a few feet, stalled, and then settled to the ground at the bottom of the hill, about 100 feet distant. It had been up just three and a half seconds. As it landed, the plane swung around; the skids tore into the sand; one was broken. Other minor parts were damaged, but on the whole the accident was not serious. The plane could be repaired easily. The flight had failed because the machine had been permitted to turn up too much on the take-off. It had pleased the brothers, however, for they knew then that their system of launching was practical.

They spent two days repairing the airplane, and on the afternoon of December 16 it was again ready. That night the north wind howled about the camp and thumped the roof under which the brothers, buried in blankets, were speculating on their chances for the morrow.

Next morning, on the 17th, they found the wind blowing at about 27 miles an hour. They remained inside until about 10 o’clock, hoping that it would die out, but when it continued, they decided to fly despite it. The men from the life-saving station [there to serve as witnesses] were to be summoned by a flag flown as a signal. This was put up. Orville and Wilbur talked things over. If they could face the machine into that wind there would be no trouble launching it from the level ground in front of their camp. They decided to try it.

Orville and Wilbur fly the Wright Flyer
We have liftoff! Orville mans the controls in this photo of the first powered flight in history. Seconds earlier, Wilbur (right) had released his steadying grip on the wing.
Photo by John T. Daniels/Library of Congress

The wind was so cold that they had to interrupt operations at short intervals to warm their hands over the stove, which was nothing more than a large carbide can. Their friends arrived as they were ready. They found the brothers discussing the wind. Obviously it was dangerous to set out in a machine of that size against a 27-mile wind. But then, thought the brothers, the force of the wind should make a slow landing, which would compensate for the danger in flight.

There was no question as to the pilot. Wilbur had tried on the 14th. It was now Orville’s turn. He took his place in the machine. “After running the motor for a few minutes until it had heated,” said Orville, “I released the wire and we started forth into the wind. Wilbur ran alongside holding one of the wings to balance it on the track. The start was different from that other day when the air was calm. The wind held back the plane so that it started slowly. Wilbur could remain with it until it lifted free of the track 40 feet from the start. One of the men from the station snapped the camera for us just as the machine had risen about 2 feet.

More in the Post archive on the innovators of aviation:

“Thus Man Learned to Fly”
by Howard Mingos

“I Flew Around the World Alone”
by Joan Merriam

“And Then I Jumped”
by Charles A. Lindbergh

“Lindbergh Four Years After”
by Donald E. Keyhoe

“The First Birdman”
by J.W. Mitchell

“Earnings of Aviators”
by John Mitchell

“The Making of an Aviator”
by Harry N. Atwood

“From there on the flight was erratic, because of the bumpy air and, too, because of inexperience in handling the machine. The front rudder was balanced too near the center and I found it difficult to control. It turned itself when once started, so that it turned too far to one side and then too far to the other. This made the machine rise up about 10 feet and then lunge toward the ground. During a sudden lunge it touched the surface, thus ending the flight.”

But it was a flight, and it had lasted 12 seconds. The machine was in the air for a distance of a little more than 120 feet. It had attained a speed of about 35 miles an hour. It had lifted about 63 pounds for each horsepower of its engine.

Three more flights were made that day, though the wind was so cold that now and then all hands had to visit the stove to warm up. Shortly after 11 o’clock that morning Wilbur went up. Like the first, his course was up and down, but the wind had slackened and he flew faster. Though in the air less than a second longer than the first flight, he flew about 75 feet farther.

Orville went up again 20 minutes later; his flight was steadier, until a gust of wind carried the machine up about 15 feet and turned it sidewise. As it slid off to the left, Orville warped the wings to retrieve the lateral balance and at the same time pointed the plane down so as to reach the earth quickly. His time was 15 seconds and the distance covered more than 200 feet. Wilbur then went up again at 12 o’clock. For 300 feet he flew an erratic course, then, apparently having the machine under better control, he flew straight without much undulation, until several hundred feet farther on, when it commenced darting up and down again, and Wilbur landed. He had flown a total distance of 852 feet. On examination they found that this had been a rather hard landing, for the front rudder frame was broken.

Back in camp and while they were standing about the airplane discussing the last flight, the wind hurled itself upon the little group, as if bent on wreaking vengeance for man’s conquest. Then and there an angry gust struck the machine, caught under the wings and turned it over. Wilbur tried to seize it in front. Orville and Mr. Daniels [one of the onlookers] tried to hold the rear supports. The plane rolled over. Daniels, who had held on, was thrown in between the wings and carried along. When they got him out he was badly bruised, for he had been shaken up and down. His body, tumbling about, had smashed the ribs of the wings, hurt the engine, and bent the chain guides. That ended the flights of 1903.

Soon after the first day’s flying the Wrights packed up their belongings and returned to Dayton. There they made arrangements to retire from the bicycle business and devote themselves to developing their flying machine.