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AF aviator recounts participation in rescue operation

By C. Todd Lopez

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. (June 18, 2007) -- On Monday at the base theater, members of the Andrews Air Force Base community were treated to a special screening of the film "Rescue Dawn." The film chronicles the experience of Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler during his escape from a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam conflict.

In the audience was Col. (ret.) Eugene P. Deatrick, who was seeing the film for the first time. Colonel Deatrick was instrumental in the rescue of Lieutenant Dengler.

Just a little over 41 years ago, Lieutenant Dengler was a pilot with the Navy's Attack Squadron 145. During a mission, Feb. 1, 1966, the lieutenant's aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he crashed into the jungle in Laos.

Lieutenant Dengler was subsequently captured by Laotian communists and was kept in a prison camp and tortured for several months. Lieutenant Dengler and fellow prisoners eventually broke free from the camp and escaped into the surrounding jungle.

While on the bank of a stream, Lieutenant Dengler made efforts to make himself visible to friendly air forces that might fly overhead.

At the time, then Lieutenant Colonel Deatrick, an A-1E Skyraider pilot, was participating in a bombing mission that would take him to the north Vietnamese border, near Laos. It was during this run, Colonel Deatrick said, that he spotted something unusual.

"As I went by, there was a big rock that came about three quarters of the way across the stream and there was a native down there waving a white banner at me, and I just happened to catch his eye," he said. "I've long said I'll never know what made me go back, because natives normally aren't waving at airplanes going over with a load of bombs on them. And I came back and he was still there. So I called my wingman and I asked him to take a look. He said it looked like he has an SOS written on the rock."

During the Vietnam conflict, the Air Force routinely dropped flares over potential bombing targets. Each of the flares, capable of lighting up the night sky to allow bombers to see their targets, was suspended from a parachute. After the flares were spent, the flare canister and parachute were left on the jungle floor.

"What Dieter had done, after he escaped, was he'd been picking up parachute flares that we used for night bombing," Colonel Deatrick said. "He had a whole bunch of them with him. So he wrote as well as he could this SOS on the rock, using the parachutes."

Colonel Deatrick and his wingman contacted their headquarters to ask if they knew of anybody that had been shot down in the area, but learned there was no intelligence that indicated that.

"After a lot of thought, we finally got permission to see if we could go in and pick him up, mainly because he had an SOS," he said. "We got a Jolly Green Giant (HH-3E helicopter) and I escorted him in and he dropped his penetrator, and the guy got aboard. And I was sweating it out because I thought if he gets aboard and the thing blows up -- well, we didn't know who he was. They got him aboard and I asked if they knew who he was, They told me that he claimed to be a Navy pilot who had been shot down six months before."

Later, back at Da Nang Air Base, Colonel Deatrick saw that the rescue helicopter had landed and an ambulance was there to take care of Lieutenant Dengler. But Colonel Deatrick didn't get to meet the man he had spotted on the riverbank.

"They kept it quiet for three months because they didn't want anybody to know that six of them had gotten out of the camp," Colonel Deatrick said.

It wasn't until the following year that Colonel Deatrick got to visit with Lieutenant Dengler.

"They took him to (Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.)," he said. "I found out where he was and wrote him a letter. My wife, Zane Deatrick, actually met him first. His mother was flown over from Germany. And Zane was there when she landed. I met Dieter when I came home in February 1967."

Though Colonel Deatrick played a key role in the rescue of Lieutenant Dengler, he claims the rescue was more the will of the divine than an effort on his own part.

"I'd like to say finding him was due to outstanding airmanship, but God intervened in this one and (Dengler) was just fortunate," Colonel Deatrick said. "And whatever this film is, it is a dedication to what Dieter did. He was a very unique and a very unusual gentleman."

Colonel Deatrick spent much of his Air Force career as a test pilot, and retired from the service in 1974. He said he spent his time after his military service as a consultant.

Lieutenant Dengler was born in Germany, in 1938. He came to New York City, at 18, with the hope of becoming a pilot. He first joined the Air Force, and later, after college and attaining his American citizenship, he joined the Navy as a pilot. Lieutenant Dengler died of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 2001; he is buried now in Arlington National Cemetery.

The film, "Rescue Dawn," starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, is scheduled to open July 4.