‘Rescue Dawn’ Premiere Inspires, Provides Example for Today’s Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md., Jun. 19, 2007 It was a movie premiere like few others. As the credits rolled down the screen here last night, 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, left, who rescued Navy Lt. Dieter Dengler, a POW during the Vietnam War, chats with Steve Zahn, who plays Air Force 1st Lt. Duane Martin in “Rescue Dawn,” a new movie about Dengler’s capture and escape. Deatrick and Zahn met during a June 18, 2007, premiere at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Air Force photo by Bobby Jones
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
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 Air Force 1st Lt. Duane Martin in the movie, to autograph 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. Dengler, played by actor Christian Bale, was captured and subjected to brutal torture. He met Martin and four other U.S. and Vietnamese inmates in a makeshift POW camp and began planning an escape.
Five months after 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. Dengler and Martin endured the elements and evaded capture together as they worked their way toward freedom.
Twenty-three days after the escape, 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 Deatrick, then a lieutenant colonel, who was on a bombing mission at the time.
“As I banked, I saw him waving,” Deatrick recounted during an interview with American Forces Press Service. “I came back around, and he was still waving.”
On his third pass, Deatrick realized that 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, Dengler was shot down six months earlier, 80 miles away.
“Finding Dieter was an act of God,” Deatrick later told the audience – about 200 servicemembers and their families – during a question-and-answer session that followed yesterday’s showing of the film.
Deatrick relayed how he took a chance and called in a rescue helicopter, an HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant,” to pick up Dengler. He said he watched nervously overhead as Dengler grabbed the rescue harness and was lifted aboard, fearing all the time that he might actually be an enemy soldier. Deatrick said he was “tickled to death” when he learned the truth.
It was months later, when Deatrick was stationed at the Air Force Test Center and School at Edwards Air Force Base and Dengler was at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, both in California, that the two men finally met.
“It was quite a reunion,” Deatrick recalled, and it marked the beginning of a close friendship that continued until Dengler died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2001.
Deatrick downplayed his role in the story last night, praising 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.”
Zahn, better known for playing comedic roles, said he found 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.”
Preparing for the movie was no picnic; 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, Zahn said that “in many ways, I’ve been preparing for this part all my life.”
Forty years after Dengler’s dramatic rescue, 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 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 Dengler’s place.
Watching 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.”
Air Force 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 “Dawn Rescue,” 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. 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 Dengler, but died before returning safely to his base camp.
“Seeing this movie really made me proud,” Chambers said. “I’ll always be proud of what he did and happy to see him recognized. He was a hero, too.”
Navy Capt. Marco Cromartie, commander of Naval Air Facility Washington, said 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,” he said.
Cromartie called Dawn Rescue “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 Dengler drew on to survive and look for that same inner strength within themselves.
“This is a great story that needs to be told,” he 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.”