'Rescue Dawn' tells true story of Vietnam POW rescue

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
It was a movie premiere like few others. As the credits rolled down the screen here June 19, a Vietnam veteran in the audience -- not the Hollywood star with some 40 credits to his name -- got the louder applause and the standing ovation.

Retired Air Force Col. Eugene Deatrick, 82, slowly ambled to the stage of the base theater here after watching the premiere of "Rescue Dawn." There, he joined actor Steve Zahn, who plays 1st Lt. Duane Martin in the movie. Together they autographed posters of the movie, scheduled to hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles July 4, then go nationwide July 13.

"Rescue Dawn" is based on the true story of Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler, who was shot down in 1966 during a top-secret mission to destroy Viet Cong strongholds in Laos. Lieutenant Dengler, played by actor Christian Bale, was captured and subjected to brutal torture. He met Lieutenant Martin and four other U.S. and Vietnamese inmates in a makeshift POW camp and began planning an escape.

Five months after Lieutenant Dengler's arrival, the starving and ailing POWs broke free of the camp, then scattered to face another inhospitable enemy in the nearly impenetrable jungle. Lieutenant Dengler and Martin endured the elements and evaded capture together as they worked their way toward freedom.

Twenty-three days after the escape, Lieutenant Dengler was on a rock along a riverbank - alone now, desperate and losing hope -- when an Air Force A-1E "Skyraider" plane flew overhead. He began frantically waving a palm frond at the aircraft, catching the pilot's eye.

That pilot was Colonel Deatrick, then a lieutenant colonel, who was on a bombing mission at the time.

"As I banked, I saw him waving," Colonel Deatrick said.

"I came back around, and he was still waving."

On his third pass, Colonel Deatrick realized that Lieutenant Dengler had used discarded chutes from parachute flares to spell out "SOS" on the ground. He called his control aircraft to determine if an American had been shot down in the area, and was told that none had been.

In fact, Lieutenant Dengler was shot down six months earlier, 80 miles away.

"Finding Dieter was an act of God," Colonel Deatrick later told the audience - about 200 servicemembers and their families - during a question-and-answer session that followed the June 19 showing of the film.

Colonel Deatrick relayed how he took a chance and called in a rescue helicopter, an HH-3 "Jolly Green Giant," to pick up Lieutenant Dengler. He said he watched nervously overhead as Lieutenant Dengler grabbed the rescue harness and was lifted aboard, fearing all the time that he might actually be an enemy soldier. Lieutenant Deatrick said he was "tickled to death" when he learned the truth.

It was months later, when Colonel Deatrick was stationed at the Air Force Test Center and School at Edwards Air Force Base and Lieutenant Dengler was at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, both in California, that the two men finally met.

"It was quite a reunion," Colonel Deatrick recalled, and it marked the beginning of a close friendship that continued until Lieutenant Dengler died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2001.

Colonel Deatrick downplayed his role in the story, praising Lieutenant Dengler for the fortitude he demonstrated to make it through his ordeal.

"Dieter was quite an unusual man," he said. "He was a walking survivalist."

Actor Zahn, better known for playing comedic roles, said he found Lieutenant Dengler's story so compelling that he had to be a part of telling it. "It's so much bigger than life," he said. "Dieter's persona embodies all those great American qualities: perseverance, integrity, the determination to get back up on that horse and be whatever it is you resolve to be. It's an amazing story," the actor said.

Preparing for the movie was no picnic; Mr. Zahn had to drop 40 pounds and work out twice a day to play an emaciated POW. But remembering his boyhood days in Minnesota, where models of World War II planes dotted his bedroom ceiling, Mr. Zahn said that "in many ways, I've been preparing for this part all my life."

Forty years after Lieutenant Dengler's dramatic rescue, Colonel Deatrick said he's "just delighted that this film came out," and he hopes it inspires men and women serving in a different war today.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jay Hensley from the 1st Helicopter Squadron said watching Lieutenant Dengler endure one hardship after another "proves that you can overcome just about anything if you have to."

"It shows that you have to have faith and never give up," he said. "The human will is unbelievable with you keep the faith and continue on."

Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer Jerry Featherstone, the senior noncommissioned officer for Naval Air Facility Washington, said he sat riveted to the screen through the movie as he put himself in Lieutenant Dengler's place.

Watching Lieutenant Dengler's actions "made me feel proud to be a part of the military team," Featherstone said. "It was all of us up there on the screen. It wasn't the Air Force, the Navy, the Army or the Marine Corps. It was a serviceman."

Airman 1st Class Skip Marburger from the 316th Operational Support Squadron agreed. "It shows that everyone in uniform is a team and we look out for each other," he said.

Karen Chambers admitted that when she arrived at the theater to see "Rescue Dawn" she thought she and her girlfriend were about to see a "chick flick." The story turned out to be vastly different and far more personal. Ms. Chambers' husband, 1st Lt. Joseph Lee Chambers, was killed in Vietnam in 1970 during a helicopter rescue operation. The 1st Air Cavalry Division Soldier had volunteered for a mission very similar to the one that saved Lieutenant Dengler, but died before returning safely to his base camp.

"Seeing this movie really made me proud," Ms. Chambers said. "I'll always be proud of what he did and happy to see him recognized. He was a hero, too."

The movie underscores the legacy veterans of past wars have left to today's military members.

"It's very important for us to go back and relive the success stories of those who served before us," said Navy Capt. Marco Cromartie, commander of Naval Air Facility Washington.

Captain Cromartie called "Rescue Dawn" a story of struggle, of determination, of pride - all those things that make us proud to wear the uniform." He expressed hope that people who see the movie will be inspired by the courage and commitment Lieutenant Dengler drew on to survive and look for that same inner strength within themselves.

"This is a great story that needs to be told," Captain Cromartie said.

"I hope that every Sailor, Airmen, Soldier and Marine who sees it will stand prouder, taller and more dedicated to the cause because of the rich tradition of those who served before us," he said.

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