Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Directed by Werner Herzog, 1997) Narrated by the director, Werner Herzog, this work documents the life of Dieter Dengler as a man of dreams and actions. Unlike so many of us,  Dengler made his dreams come true. The star of the show is Dieter Dengler himself who brings the audience from an impoverished postwar Germany to a bustling America full of life and hope for an eighteen year old. Speaking little English, Dengler did what many immigrants did before him: he joined the American military services, in his case, the U. S. Air Force, thinking mistakenly that the Air Force would teach him to fly. Flying became Dengler’s dream from the time he saw American fighters strafing his little village in the Rhineland, but no, the USAF could not enter him into flight school; instead, he peeled potatoes and did menial work during his enlistment. Some good things did happen: he learned English, became a American citizen, earned a college degree, and joined the navy where he would indeed learn to fly.

    Dengler’s dream of becoming a U.S. Navy pilot took shape first in flight training in Pensacola, Florida and finally when he launched on his first mission from the USS Ranger into Laos. Hunting for North Vietnamese targets along the Laotian section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1965, his A1 Skyraider, an aircraft that navy pilots called the “Spad” after its beloved World War I namesake, took withering ground fire, and Dengler soon found it wingless and on fire. After the crash, miraculously the impact threw Dengler from his burning craft, and with evasion nearly impossible, his captivity began in short order.

    Director Herzog working closely with Dengler reenacted his squalid captivity at the hands of the Pathet Lao, under the control of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. His central organizing principle during this time was simply survival, and while his fellow prisoners always considered escape, they also believed that the Pathet Lao might release them. Wrong. After six months behind the wire, learning that their captors intended to take them all into the jungle for execution, Dengler finally convinced his reluctant fellow prisoners, two Americans, a few Thais, and one Hong Kong Chinese, that the time arrived for definitive action, escape.

    Dengler executed his daringly simple escape plan, shot several guards, and left the camp with his fellow POW, Air Force 1Ist Lt. Duane Martin. The other American, Gene DeBruin, left with other members of the group and was never seen again. Martin was killed during the evasion, and Dengler, now a sole survivor, was spotted by a USAF pilot and subsequently rescued by a USAF Search and Rescue team. After his return, Dieter Dengler received the Navy Cross and other decorations for his escape and continued his career as a pilot eventually flying for TWA.

    Dengler always enjoyed a distinguished notoriety and the utmost respect among former Vietnam POWs, including Charles Klusman, a navy pilot who also escaped from the Pathet Lao a year before Dengler did. In 1979, Dengler published his personal escape narrative, Escape from Laos, a distinctly dramatic telling of his story. That Werner Herzog found Dengler, formed a lasting friendship, and developed his story as a documentary comes as no surprise.  Little Dieter Needs to Fly received high acclaim by the critics and earned among other prizes an Emmy in 1999, the Golden Spire at the 1999 San Francisco International Film Festival and was nominated for a Sierra Award at the 2000 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards.

     Not content with just a documentary, Herzog developed the story further into a feature film, Rescue Dawn. First premiered at the Munich Film Festival in June 2007, Rescue Dawn showed in theaters around the United States during the summer of 2007 but did not enjoy much serious publicity and received mixed reviews in the popular press.

    Sadly, Dieter Dengler of Mill Valley, California, suffered and died from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) in 2001 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With his narrative, a documentary, and a feature film recording Dengler’s will to live, decisive action, luck, and skills at bare survival, the memory of Dieter Dengler has been well served.
Robert Doyle      Franciscan University of Steubenville   rcdoyle@sbsglobal.net

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