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by Denny Breslin (North Cascades '69) |

As a former Navy pilot, I read Jerry DeBruin's critique of Rescue Dawn with interest because of the reputation Dieter Dengler had among Navy WestPac aircrews in the Vietnam War. Going through SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school in Warner Springs, California (near San Diego) prior to going overseas to my first squadron in 1973, we were given Dengler's evasive accomplishments at SERE school as “goals” in our evasion and escape training. He had avoided his captors on the evasion course and escaped the prison camp while guards were looking the other way. I hadn't heard of Dengler before that, but I figured if he could avoid getting caught, then so could I. If he could escape from the mock-POW camp, then perhaps I could, as well. It gave me something to shoot for.

The first part was easy; I hunkered down in my camouflage and was never caught. I made it to the end of the three-mile course unscathed, though all my brethren had been caught and “tortured.” However, I wasn't able to escape from the POW camp because I was never allowed the opportunities that Dieter had.

Fast-forward to the return of POW's in 1973 and the end of the war in 1975. Three ex-POWs were in my squadron in Pensacola, Florida. My utmost respect for Ross Terry, Gene Sierras and John Heilig was born of the actions and attitudes of these truly great, generous and genuine men who had endured seven years of literally death-defying brutality.

Then came the POW books, and among them, Escape from Laos. It was impressive and filled-in the blanks about Dengler’s exploits I’d heard about in SERE school. Later, as an American Airlines pilot, I was flying from Chicago to San Francisco one night, and a TWA flight was just in front of us. Dengler was a TWA pilot at the time. I asked the pilots if they knew Dengler and was surprised by the seemingly sarcastic response framed by the words, “...don't believe everything you read.” I was puzzled because I’d read the accounts of every POW who wrote a book, and all seemed like heroes to me.

So last night my son brought the video over, and we watched Werner Herzog’s follow-up to Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Understanding that a certain amount of literary license is granted to film writers/producers, one can give some leeway in the telling of the story. But after reading the critical comments from Gene DeBruin's family and the account from Phisit, it is clear that Mr. Herzog went beyond the bounds of “literary license” into what amounts to mean fiction.

It is sad that Americans will not see the truth about Gene DeBruin and those prisoners in Laos. Herzog had every opportunity to make them all the courageous heroes they were. Jerry DeBruin gave it the proper perspective with the notion that Gene, Duane, YC and others are no less heroes because they didn't make it out.