Editor's note: On September 5, 1963, five people, including Phisit Intharathat and Gene DeBruin (MSO-59), parachuted from a flaming Air America C-46 over Laos. All were captured and became prisoners. Phisit was a prisoner for three years, four months and four days.
Dieter Dengler, whose story intersects with Phisit's, recorded his memories in a book called Escape From Laos. Below, I have interspersed edited passages from his book in an effort to flesh out some of Phisit's account, which I hope gives readers a better perspective on what transpired during those harrowing months. I hope it also gives readers a better sense of who Gene was as a person.
In the October 2006 issue of Smokejumper, the four Air America personnel had made an unsuccessful escape and had been recaptured. At this point, they have been imprisoned for over two years and are soon to be joined by two U.S. military pilots.—Chuck Sheley
Meeting Duane Martin
On the morning of December 3, 1965, a squad of Laotian soldiers brought in an American military prisoner. He was tall, slender and handsome but looked fatigued and weak—probably from severe beatings, as he had bruises and cuts around his eyes and face. He was especially glad to see Gene DeBruin, another American. He introduced himself as First Lieutenant Duane Whitney Martin, a copilot from a rescue helicopter based in Nakhorn, Thailand. He had been overseas only two months and was shot down in Laos near the Vietnamese border on September 20. Martin said he was shot down attempting a rescue of an F-5 pilot. The pilot was being hoisted through the trees, when he saw a platoon of Laotian soldiers shooting at them. The main rotor blade was hit, and the helicopter fell straight down, landing on its side. Martin was the last one to scramble out and did not see the F-5 pilot, the other helicopter pilot, the mechanic or the door gunner. He quickly ran away and hid in some bushes. The second helicopter pilot, who was supposed to provide cover fire, did so for a few moments and then flew away. Martin was quickly captured. We received the first news of the outside world in over a year from Martin. The fighting was escalating, and there was no information about a prisoner exchange. We all developed malaria and had fever and chills every day.
According to the Arlington National Cemetery website, 1st Lt. Duane W. Martin, had been aboard an HH43B "Huskie" helicopter operating about 10 miles from the border of Laos in Ha Tinh Province, North Vietnam, when the HH43B went down, and all four personnel aboard the aircraft were captured. Duane W. Martin was taken to a camp controlled by Pathet Lao. Thomas J. Curtis, William A. Robinson and Arthur N. Black were released in 1973 by the North Vietnamese, and were in the Hanoi prison system as early as 1967.
Meeting Dieter Dengler
Navy Lieutenant Dieter Dengler was shot down February 2, 1966, while flying a mission off the carrier Ranger. He was flying an A-1E propeller-driven aircraft that the Americans called the "Spad." Dengler had been captured for two weeks and was severely beaten up when he arrived to where we were being held.
At the end of April, we walked three days to a new prison.
Editor's note: The boldfaced, italicized paragraphs that follow are edited passages from Dengler's book, Escape from Laos.
About his shoot-down, Dengler writes: "Tree and plane met with a violent shudder. I came to, lying on my back about 100 feet from the crash. It was important that I put distance between myself and the aircraft. My first Pathet Lao was different than I had anticipated. He was small and had muscular calloused feet and carried a long-bladed machete. Slowly, I pulled the sleeping bag over my body for camouflage.
"As I began to think about the fix I was in, I nearly panicked. Escape and survival were not unknown to me. Since boyhood in Germany, thanks to the war and its aftermath, I had learned to fend for myself. I started north using a small compass attached to my watchband. It was hot, and dehydration and mosquitoes were driving me nearly mad.
"No matter which way I went, I could not get away from signs of village life. I decided to take my chances and forded a river. The water felt great, and I scooped some into my shoe, dropped in an iodine tablet and drank the yellow liquid. It was getting dark, and I was exhausted from the day and in complete despair. I fell asleep within minutes.
"Daybreak came, and I moved on, coming to some deserted huts. Hunger won over caution, and I entered one and filled my pockets with what looked like potatoes and headed west. I heard the sound of a Spad and ran to an opening in the jungle and tore off my shirt and waved it frantically. Still waving my shirt, I saw two more Spads and two Jolly Green Giant helicopters heading directly toward me. At that moment, I knew I had been spotted. Spotted indeed—but by the Pathet Lao. When they saw me, I saw them.
"One of them pointed in my direction, and I turned and ran at a steady pace. It was very difficult to avoid trails as I worked my way through the brush. Arriving at an intersection of several trails, I checked to make sure it was clear and started to run across the clearing. Halfway across I heard someone yelling, "Yute, Yute!" I turned my head and met the cold steel gaze of an M-1 rifle, pointed at my face."
The Eighth Prison: Ban Hoeui Het
We arrived at this prison on May 1, 1966. It was a new prison, and we were told that no one had ever been kept there before. As we walked there, we passed military installations, AAA, tanks and even large tractors that were clearing a road though jungle and tall trees.
Dengler writes: "'How long have you guys been here?' I asked. 'Two and a half years for the other guys, nine months for me,' Duane [Martin] said. A guard opened their hut, and I watched the other guys come out. The fourth man appeared. He had on green trousers, worn at the knees. His beard was long and red. It was obvious that he was an American. His name was Gene DeBruin. Their clothes were old and worn, but there was something more than that. When they looked at me, I could see the years written on their faces. There was an animal look behind their slight smiles, and their sunken eyes were haunted and hungry."
The prison was a fenced area about 24 yards square, with two cells made of logs similar to our other prisons. There were three tall guard towers outside the fence, and we had a new team of guards totaling 16. We were divided into two groups, one for each cell.
Dengler writes: "Gene came over and introduced himself. As Gene and I talked, the others came over and also introduced themselves. Gene asked a lot of questions that morning. 'Hey,' he asked, 'Have they come out with stainless-steel razor blades yet?' I didn't know but was sure they had. 'Well, I'll be,' he mumbled, 'That's what I wanted to invent when I got out of this hellhole.'"
Each morning, the guards would take all of us at one time to the stream, where we would dump out our waste buckets. Every three days we were allowed to bathe and wash our clothes. They didn't put us back into our cells immediately when we walked back, and we were allowed to stay within the perimeter of the prison until breakfast. Opposite the camp was a high mountain covered with a thick blanket of trees. We figured it would take about six hours to reach the top of the mountain, but we wondered if there was a way down the other side. The whole time we were at this prison we never saw any outside soldiers or villagers. The sounds of trucks eventually disappeared, and all that was left was the sound of aircraft 24 hours a day. We often saw aircraft drop flares and bombs, and the sound of gunfire filled the air. At times it felt like an earthquake.
Dengler writes: "Gene brought me his blanket. I didn't want it, since I was sure it was the only one he had, but he kept insisting, saying that Duane was big enough to keep the two of them warm."
We started to make escape plans. Some days the guards climbed the towers and went to sleep. Sometimes they left their weapons in the tower when they came down at mealtime; all 16 guards would eat together. We tried to be on our best behavior as we waited for the rainy season to arrive. As advance preparation, we dug and loosened the bamboo fence next to one of the guard towers. We did the same in the cell. Each day we poured drinking water and urine onto the base of the largest pole until we loosened it. We put it back into the hole and covered up all traces so the guards wouldn't notice anything and waited until the end of July and the rainy season.
Dengler writes: "Gene slid over and covered the door so the guards couldn't see us, and we all took off our footlocks. What really surprised me was that they were able to get out of the handcuffs. One of the guards told us we're going to be released. I looked around the table and saw troubled looks on the guys' faces. Gene said, 'All the Pathet Laos are lying bastards, and nothing they told us before ever came true, especially when it came from that little no-good son of a bitch.'"
The Escape Plan
Each one of us had an escape plan that we believed was better than the others. We had to bring them all together and come up with something that was acceptable to everyone. Martin and Dengler thought we should escape at night, not taking any weapons and not harming the guards. They told us that when Americans were taken prisoner they had to try to escape; otherwise, they would be court-martialed when they obtained their freedom. I listened and thought it was funny. There was no way they would be court-martialed in either case. Later they spoke of the Geneva Convention, which stated that if they didn't harm the guards while escaping, the guards didn't have the right to kill them if recaptured. Based on our last escape, I thought we had to have the weapons. Without them we had no way to resist recapture, and the guards could track us without fear of harm. I said that if this escape did not include weapons, I wouldn't go with them; I would just wait for my own time to flee. After considerable discussion, everyone agreed with me.
My plan was to escape at about 1600 on July 31, while the guards were eating in the mess hall. We would divide into two groups, get out of the prison, obtain weapons from the tower and capture the guards while they were eating. We wouldn't harm the guards but would put them in the foot traps and handcuffs and lock them in the cells. After that we could get shoes, rice and salt to take with us as we made our way to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain we would split into four groups and go our separate ways. We divided up as follows: Duane Martin and Dieter Dengler, Gene DeBruin and Y.C. To, Prasit Prahmsuwan and Prasit Thanee, and me (alone).
Dengler writes: "Prasit thought we should be in two groups, with at least one American in each group. Y.C. wanted us all to go together. 'It'd never work Y.C.,' I said. 'Hell, we can't get along even here.' I wanted to go with Gene and Duane, because we got along so well. Y.C. was insistent; he wanted to have an American with him."
I also recommended that each group should head west and do most of the travel in the waterways. If anyone was rescued, they could direct searchers back along the rivers and streams looking for the others. Under no circumstances should anyone go into a village; otherwise, he would be captured. It was mid-June when we agreed on the escape plan. It had begun to rain a lot, and the water in the stream was rising. One month to go.
Dengler writes: "'Listen. Do you hear it?' Duane asked. I was drowned out by the noise of the heavy pounding of the first rain. 'Wow, listen to it. Wait until the monsoon season hits. It's even louder then,' shouted Gene. 'Come on, baby, pour, will ya?' Gene grinned from ear to ear as the rain answered his bidding."
We offered suggestions about finding food in the jungle. Ferns that grew along the waterways were edible, as were figs that could be eaten green or ripe. The easiest animals to catch and eat would be baby green frogs and tadpoles. You would have to watch out for the baby black toads, which were poisonous. It would be hard to build a fire due to the rain.
Dengler writes: "The guards brought in a mirror and wanted to shave our beards. Gene was first. [One guard] scraped his beard off with a little knife. Occasionally, Gene cried out and little red rivulets trickled down his face. Gene now looked like somebody else. His face was still sunken and white, but he looked much younger."
The guards became more lax and careless. When we emptied our waste buckets in the morning, only five guards went with us compared to all 16 at first. Even though we all had malaria and our bodies were in bad shape, we had hope. Y.C. To was in the worst shape, probably because he was the oldest. On July 25, Y.C. caught a fever so bad that he couldn't get up to eat. We began to worry that we would have to postpone our planned July 31 escape. Y.C. had a lot of spirit and even pleaded for us to move up the escape, as he felt he might not ever escape and would die in prison. We agreed to move it up to July 28.
Dengler writes: "The escape plan had to be changed at the last minute because of Y.C.'s illness. He could barely move his legs. Prasit said that taking him along with them would be suicide. No one said anything, but I knew Prasit was right. Finally Gene spoke up in anger: 'Y.C., you're going with me! Don't listen to that damned Prasit. Prasit, you go to hell!'
"'No,' Y.C. said quietly. 'Thanks but no thanks. He's right. You'll never make it out with me along.'
"'The hell! We'll make it. Anyway your legs might get better.'
"'By tomorrow? You don't believe that,' Y.C. told Gene.
"Then Y.C. very calmly said, 'Gene, if you mean it, we'll go together.' As Y.C. spoke, he watched Gene's eyes for a rebuff. Gene said, 'You bet!'"
On the morning of July 28, Y.C. was better and said he was ready.
Dengler writes: "The three Thais were better adapted to survive in the jungle than we were. Prasit had been a paratrooper in Malaysia, and he really knew the jungle well. With the added burden of Y.C., we three Americans were now at a real disadvantage. I waited until the three of us were alone to bring up the topic again.
"'Gene, we just can't do it,' I told him. He remained silent.
"'Leave him be, Dieter,' Duane said.
"'Nah, he's right,' Gene said, 'So we don't go with the two of you.'
"'Don't be a fool. We want you with us,' I said.
"'And I want Y.C.' Gene's determination was unwavering. Though the darkness hid his face from me, I could tell that he was worried but also dead set on his plan.
"'Listen, you guys,' he said, 'Y.C. and I will go together, and after we make it over one ridge, we'll lie in wait for air contact. If you guys make it out before us, be sure someone looks for us.' For a while all three of us remained silent."
After breakfast, we immediately began the escape plan. We rested and prepared ourselves mentally and at the appointed time heard the okay from Gene DeBruin. Dengler, Martin, Prasit and I got out first. Dengler climbed the tower and passed an M-1 rifle down to me, taking one for himself. Martin climbed up and grabbed a Chinese-made rifle with a bayonet. Prasit opened the cell for the others.
The Plan Backfires
I ran toward the guards who were eating in the mess hall. I yelled at them in Laotian, "Stop! Don't move!" They froze for a few seconds, but then one of them reached out to grab his carbine, and then some of the others started to run. I had to shoot the one who went for his rifle and then those who ran. Dengler and Martin appeared from the back and provided supporting fire. Our plan had not worked! We thought that they would be afraid to run when we threatened them, but the opposite happened. We tried not to let anyone escape and killed three of them, but the rest ran away. After taking knives and shoes from the guards, we waded the stream and ran up the mountain. After about an hour, we looked back and could not see any activity at the prison. When we split up, I stayed on the top of the high mountain.
Dengler writes: "Duane and I kept running. We heard the sound of someone coming to our left and ducked into the bush and froze. The familiar red head appeared, and there were Gene and Y.C. We started to move off together, but Y.C. held us back. Then Duane ran on ahead, while I stopped and took hold of Gene's hand.
"'Go on, go on,' he said. 'See you in the States.' I looked into Gene's face and got all choked up. I tried to say something, but the words wouldn't come. I pumped his hand, began running, then stopped and waved at him and Y.C."
The next morning, I hurried alone down the trail on the back side of the mountain. I reached a stream at the base of the mountain by about 1200 hours. The stream was in very dense jungle, which is what I wanted. My plan was to float downstream at night and rest during the day. I wanted to avoid leaving tracks and put as much distance between me and the prison as possible. I was wearing a pair of torn jeans with no shirt and had sandals taken from one of the guards. I had also taken an M-1, a knife, some salt tablets and 24 rounds.
The first night I did not want to make any sounds constructing a raft, so I decided to grab a clump of bamboo and float downstream. The water was very cold, but I had to endure it. The advantage of floating was that I could travel fast without leaving any tracks. I could also save my strength. The big disadvantage was that the streams went by villages. I had to be very aware of crowing roosters and barking dogs, because that meant the presence of a village. The soldiers always kept a fire going when they camped near a stream. I floated until about 0400, when I heard the squawk of a chicken. Then I climbed onto the bank and into the dense bush and fell asleep. I woke up about noon.
Trouble On The Fourth Night
My drifting went well until the fourth night. I was hugging a log and heard numerous voices and could see a campfire in the distance. I let the log go and quietly climbed out on the opposite bank. The next day I walked slowly through the jungle and bypassed the place where I had heard the voices the night before. It was difficult to get my bearings as the jungle was so dense that I could not see the sun at times. I walked throughout the day and tried to rest that night. I couldn't sleep. Mosquitoes and leeches were all over the place, and I had chills and fever from the malaria.
I started walking again the next morning, looking for vegetables and grass to eat. There was plenty of water, and pools filled with tadpoles. I ate tadpoles every day. I would scoop them up in my hands and let them swim down my throat. They were easy to find, easy to eat and were not poisonous. Salt became very important as the body loses it through perspiration. If the body doesn't get salt, one becomes very weak and begins to shake.
Traveling In A Circle
Traveling was extremely slow. It was raining all day. I couldn't see the sun and didn't know which way was west. I walked on guesswork and gut feeling. Finally I decided that travel was useless and looked for a good place to spend the night. I saw a large tree and headed for it. When I got there I realized it was the same place where I had spent the night before. I had wasted a whole day traveling in a circle! My body and soul were weak, and I admit that I cried and was very disheartened. I had the feeling that my life was going to end. I thought about my father, mother, brothers and sisters. My father used to travel through the jungle alone just like I was doing now. During World War II, he was a member of the Free Thais and had walked from South China through Laos to North Thailand all by himself. I never believed in fate. I never asked for help from the supernatural. I would help myself.
Dengler writes: "I pushed the brush aside and looked across the creek. Several abandoned huts sat in a clearing, and something about them rang a bell in the back of my memory. I knew we had been here two days before. Heartsickness and despair overcame me, and I wanted to hide the truth from Duane."
I fell asleep. When I woke up I was covered with leeches and spent considerable time pulling them off. They left sores that continued to bleed, and my body was completely red. Regardless, I started walking and came to another stream. I found a large log and waited until night before floating downstream. As before, I got out of the water when I heard a chicken. I rested during the days and traveled at night. Sometimes there was a village, and I would travel around it in the jungle rather than try to float by it. I traveled like that for three weeks.
Dengler writes: "Duane's malaria grew steadily worse. 'Go on, leave me alone. I want to die by myself,' Duane rasped. 'Dieter, I'm going down to the village to get some food.'
"'That's a sure way to get killed,' I told him.
"'I'm going Dieter.'
"The trail turned left and suddenly a little boy was standing a few feet away. Seconds later, somebody yelled 'Americali,' and a villager appeared before us clutching a long machete over his head. I was on my knees, and Duane was also kneeling—holding his prayer-folded hands toward the man. The villager slashed at Duane's leg, the blade disappearing just below the groin. The next blow buried the blade deep into Duane's neck, and he fell forward.
"The villager was swinging the machete at me, and I ducked and ran back down the trail and hid in the brush as five villagers ran past me on the trail."
I figured that I had put considerable distance between me and the prison camp. My strength was gone, and all that was left was skin hanging on bones. The rifle and knife were a burden to carry, and I had run out of salt tablets. There were more villages, so it was harder to travel by water. I also felt that I could no longer take the hours in the cold water anymore. Many times I got so cold and cramped that I thought I would drown. I also heard gunfire at times and thought that I had gotten close to Laotian Rightist territory. If I had a map and compass, I would surely have completed my escape, but now I didn't know where I was. What was certain was that I was a long way away from the Ban Hoeui Het prison camp!
Day 22 Of The Escape
It was almost impossible to determine direction, and I decided to find the best possible hiding place and rest for an extended period of time. I headed into the jungle toward the base of a nearby mountain, where I found a dry spot protected by a rocky overhang. There were banana trees to make a shelter with, and I was able to rest 24 hours without worrying about anything. When I started to walk the next day, the terrain started to change as the jungle thinned out, and there were more plains and groves. I had to stick to the mountains, as I would be easily seen if I walked through the open areas. The best place to travel was through the mountain passes, as there were food sources and water to be found.
Dengler writes: "I waited all day, but not a single plane flew over. I wondered if it was a Sunday or national holiday and if all the pilots were off work. I decided I would not take another step and would just lie in the jungle and die of starvation. The next morning I was no longer resigned to death."
The malaria hit me every day. My body was in terrible shape, full of scratches and sores. My feet were swollen to the point where I could hardly walk. The rifle and knife were so heavy I almost threw them away. My pants were now a mere loincloth. In short, I was a walking corpse.
Dengler writes: "They were all armed and were Viet Cong, not villagers. I could tell they were excellent trackers, because they were following my path exactly—even though it had been days since I had been there. I had lost my fear, and it was strange and interesting to watch my trackers track me.
"On day 23, a slip sent me tumbling into the shallow river, and I cracked my head against a boulder. In a bowl-shaped depression, I saw a coiled, brilliantly colored snake. Not caring if it was poisonous or not, I snatched the snake and, as it coiled around my arm, stretched it out. I took the head in one hand and the tail in the other and bit it in half. The long brown liver hung from the body, and I began to eat it and kept eating it until half the snake was gone.
"The noise I heard was a plane, and I realized that it was a Spad. I jumped from one boulder to another signaling the plane. A second Spad was now circling. First I could hear them, and then I saw two helicopters. A shot echoed down the canyon, and I knew it was a race between the choppers and the Viet Cong.
"The tree-penetrator slowly descended, and I again heard shots echo in the canyon. I was woozy and distant and finally pulled down one of the penetrator's three arms and sat across it. I held on with a death grip, and when I opened my eyes, a huge man was towering over me in the doorway of the helicopter. I grabbed his leg and hugged it, refusing to let go, afraid that he might go away."
Day 26 Of The Escape: Soldiers
Late in the morning of the 26th day of my escape, I heard numerous voices and people walking toward where I was hiding. There were seven of them, and they were wearing pale khaki Vietnamese Army uniforms and carrying AK rifles. They chatted continuously as they walked. I could practically hear my heart beating. They were only about 10 yards away when they turned to the right and headed away. When they were out of sight, I started walking again in an attempt to put distance between myself and them.
Day 27 Of The Escape: Jets
When I came out of the mountains on the morning of day 27, I saw a broad cornfield. Since I could not walk through it, I had to climb slowly through the mountains that surrounded it. I would climb for 10 minutes and rest for 20 minutes, because I was so extremely tired. I spent the night at the crest of the mountains in the rain and cold. Late that night, I heard the sound of vehicles and saw trucks traveling the ridgeline. The engines stopped, and the lights went out. About a minute later, jet aircraft approached, and I heard the sound of the explosion of rockets and saw the flashes of AAA and machine guns firing back. After about five minutes, the aircraft left, and everything got quiet. Then the engines started, the lights came on and they continued to drive off in convoy style. I began to worry about getting across that road, as there would be a lot of soldiers on a supply route like this one.
Day 28 Of The Escape: More Jets
On day 28, I awoke and discovered that the road ran along the base of the mountain and would be blocking the path of escape. I had heard a lot of gunfire near the road the night before, so I knew there were soldiers in that area. I retraced my path to the edge of the cornfield, where I spent the night. During that night, a large aircraft dropped numerous flares, lighting up the whole area. Soon the jet aircraft appeared and began strafing like the night before.
Day 29 Of The Escape: Close To Death
On the 29th day, I headed back through the mountain pass that I had come through on day 27. I tried to stay parallel to the road, skirting along the edge of the jungle. I came down with the fever again. My eyesight was blurred, my ears rang and I was so weak I couldn't stand and could only crawl. The rifle and knife were even heavier. I was confused and feeling close to death. I was able to move very little on the 30th and 31st days.
Day 32 Of The Escape: I Couldn't Get Up
I felt better on the 32nd day than I had the previous three days. The fever was finally gone. I reached the edge of the road before the sun came up. After watching for a fair length of time, I crossed the road and headed for the jungle and another mountain. I came across fresh footprints and tire tracks and tried to move quickly away from that area. It was still before noon. I remember falling and trying to get up but not being able to move. The ground, sky and jungle were spinning. I don't remember what happened next.
When I came to, I was sitting on the floor of a house with my hands and legs tied around a post. The house was filled with Laotian Communist soldiers and villagers. One of the soldiers said, "Why is this little dog so hard to kill?" An older man brought me some water, and the soldiers didn't say anything. I was no doubt a long way from the prison I had escaped from, and they did not know who I was or where I had been. I learned that I had been found by a female villager who was cutting bamboo sprouts. The villagers had carried me back to the village and informed the soldiers.
The Kind Old Man
Late that morning, the same old man brought me some hot rice gruel with salt along with a cup of boiled water and tree bark. It was the first hot drink that I'd had in two years! I got chills and fever again, and the old man asked the soldiers to untie my hands so that I could lie down. They did what he said. He then covered me with an old rice sack and I slept until dark. When I awoke I was given a large amount of sticky rice with peppers and a cup of boiled bark water. I vomited and defecated until there was nothing left, probably because I hadn't had much to eat in the last 30 days, and my body wouldn't accept it. I drank some more of the astringent bark water and fell asleep until morning. The old man brought me more food, and this time everything was normal. I then slept for 24 hours. A new group of soldiers replaced the ones who were originally at the house, and I saw the leader go over and talk to the kind old man. The soldier called him "Phor Taseng" (a term of respect for the Administrative Zone Chief). I would probably have reached my time to die if I had not met someone so kind as this old man.
The next day, as the soldiers were preparing me to travel, I prostrated myself at the feet of the old man in thanks. He rubbed my head and gave me this advice, "Don't complain, don't try to escape. Just endure, and you won't die."
Yet Another Prison
We traveled for three days until we reached the headquarters of a large military unit, sheltered in a cave below a large mountain. From there I was taken to another large mountain, which contained a large prison constructed in a cave. Within the cave I was put into a cell made of clay, near the cave's mouth. The floor was split bamboo, about 20 inches above the ground. I was put into foot traps and stayed there for three months without being interrogated. There was no opportunity to speak to anyone else, and all I could do was glance at the other prisoners as they were let out to work each day. I would catch the fever twice a day.
All of the prisoners were Laotians, and two of them were Laotian Rightist officers who had been captured when their unit had been overrun in Savannakhet. They had been here a year and were allowed to work outside. When they found out that I was a Thai, they were very nice to me. They would sneak me leafy vegetables or fruit and medicinal vines for my malaria. The vines also helped keep away the fleas and ticks.
At the beginning of the fourth month, a Laotian Rightist battalion commander was put into my cell. He had been beaten severely and just laid there moaning. When the guards unlocked the foot traps the next morning, he was dead. My feelings were hardened, and I prepared myself to die. I told myself that I would not die in prison. I would take a gun away from a guard, even though I would be shot in the process. All I wanted was a chance to shoot some of them as well.
At every chance, I started to dig my way out of the cell. I had been put in this prison in September 1966, and by October 1966, the hole I was digging was ready for escape. I needed to find a way to speak with the prisoners in the large prison in order to find out the trails outside the prison camp. The two officer-prisoners still chatted with me and brought me a piece of parachute cord and taught me how to make a fish net. One of the officers sold the net in the village and bought me a piece of cloth with which to make a pair of pants. The cloth was purchased from a communist soldier and was canvas that had been used to cover a tank. My health had improved, and my fever was down to once a day. Maybe the medicinal vines really helped me. My spirits were good, but the condition of my body was a different story. At the time we were shot down in 1963 I weighed about 150 pounds. Now I was lucky to be 90 pounds. But no matter what, I was going to trade everything, even my life, to get free.
I found out that most of the soldiers had moved north and that most of the villagers had fled into the jungle, because they feared the aircraft. For the whole year that I had been at this prison, aircraft had come to drop bombs and strafe every day, several times a day. This also resulted in beatings from the Laotian soldiers, as they would take their anger out on me. During a nighttime air attack, I would crawl out through the hole that I had dug and travel west to an area where there were both Laotian Leftist (Communist) and Rightist forces fighting.
On January 9, 1967, at 0400, aircraft circled and dropped illumination flares and bombs not far from the prison. A few minutes later, I heard the sounds of automatic weapons and light machine guns. I quickly undid the foot traps and handcuffs. Next I heard the sounds of feet racing toward the gate and the order to break the locks and release the prisoners. Someone yelled, "Which cell are the foreign prisoners in?" The cell door was opened, and someone ordered the prisoners to follow him. We ran about a half hour and crossed a wide stream, traversed a hill and moved onto a flat barren plain. We had reached Route 12. I was given a green army shirt that was still wet with blood and had a bullet hole on the right side. We ran along the road for a long time until we got into the mountains, where the leader of the group set up a radio and immediately sent a signal. I was dead tired, and my feet were bleeding.
It was just starting to get light, and we could look out over the wide plain and see the Communist forces following us. Just then, four Phantom Jets showed up and opened fire on our pursuers and then left. When the jets left, four T-28s showed up and continued to strafe and bomb.
Our rescue group was led by a non-commissioned officer named Sergeant Tae. He said that he was the leader of a Cobra team of Laotian Rightists from Savannakhet. The sergeant had orders to attack the prison and rescue the prisoners. In all, there were 53 of us prisoners. I was the only foreigner (Thai) in the group. The others were villagers and Laotian Rightist soldiers, including the two Laotian Rightist officers who had befriended me. Twenty two people asked to go off on their own, as they had families in the area.
Sergeant Tae gave me a pair of sandals and some rice crisps and then ordered the remaining 31 of us to move out. He ran us part of the time and walked us part of the time. He sent out point men and set rear guards in a professional manner. His team knew the routes well. I learned later that two members of his team were from this area. We continued to travel until almost 1700 hours, when Sergeant Tae sent out another radio message, and helicopters approached and passed over us. After about 15 more minutes of travel, we arrived at a wide, rocky field and saw two helicopters and a platoon of Laotian Rightist soldiers.
The pilot was an American and asked, "Who works for Air America?" I introduced myself, and he shook my hand. He said his name was Jerry McEntee, and he was an Air America pilot from Udorn. I accompanied the soldiers who attacked the prison onto the first helicopter and took off at about 1730. There were 14 people total, including the two pilots and mechanic. The mechanic, who was Filipino, walked over to me and gave me a cigarette. I smoked, wondering if this was a dream. Was I really saved and not dreaming?
Twenty minutes later, the copilot told me that the remaining soldiers and prisoners had been overrun by the pursuing forces. I just cried and let the tears flow.
They Were Shocked When They Saw Me
When we arrived at Savannakhet, I was picked up by two Americans in a vehicle. I recognized one of them as Tom Fosmire, who was my radio instructor with Air America. They took me to the Laotian Rightist headquarters, where I received medical treatment. Among the soldiers were two of my friends from childhood. They were shocked when they saw me. I got a bath and new clothing to wear. After dinner and a debriefing, I went to bed but couldn't sleep. I still believed that this might not be true and that I was just dreaming. On January 12, I was flown to Udorn and spent the night at the Air America Company. Later, I flew to Bangkok and was treated at the Bangkok Christian Hospital.
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Smokejumper Magazine Article
Editor's note: On September 5, 1963, five people, including Phisit Intharathat and Gene DeBruin (MSO-59), parachuted from a flaming Air America C-46 over Laos. All were captured and became prisoners. Phisit was a prisoner for three years, four months and four days.