Danville Express

Living - August 3, 2007

Bringing the story home

Docudrama filmed aboard USS Hornet chronicles life of local Vietnam aviator

by Jordan M. Doronila

Dieter Dengler survived by eating rats, rice, snakes and bamboo shoots after escaping enemy troops in Laos during the Vietnam War in 1966.

The passionate U.S. pilot didn't realize the immense life struggle he would face when he embarked for a mission in Vietnam from Alameda Naval Air Station, which is now the site of the USS Hornet.

Dengler survived and lived to tell the tale. Famous and controversial German director Werner Herzog worked with the trustees of the USS Hornet to film "Rescue Dawn," a docudrama about Dengler's story, on the battleship. Trustee Bob Fish, a Danville resident, said the film, which opened last Friday, stays true to Dengler's experience.

"It's very close to the actual real thing," said Fish, who served as a U.S. Marine Corporal.

The film chronicles the true experiences of U.S. Naval Aviator Lt. Dieter Dengler flying from the USS Ranger aircraft, which left Alameda in December of 1965. The ship was heading into a secret combat mission off the coast of Vietnam, near Laos. He was shot down on his inaugural mission and held captive in desperate jungle conditions, but eventually escaped after several months, overcoming great adversity.

After the service, he moved to the Bay Area, worked in the airline industry, and retired in Marin County where he died in 2001 from Lou Gehrig's Disease, ALS.

Fish noted Dengler's story expresses the power of the human spirit.

"His is an exceptional story of the human will to live. Several people were killed and captured," Fish said. "Many people would've given up."

Although, he added that translating the actual intensity of war into film is difficult.

"You're scared," he said. "It's all about 'now.' It could be their last moment on earth. I don't buy war movies. (The films) bring too much intensity."

Directors shooting film and television are nothing new to the USS Hornet. Fish said the director of the Hollywood action film "Triple X" - starring muscular actor Vin Diesel - was shot on the ship, with 75-100 crew members working on it.

"It was the whole freaking ship," Fish said. "It was controlled chaos."

He also said the producers of hit TV show "Fear Factor" did stunts on the ship.

Fish found his experience with director Herzog to be more intimate. The director expanded the scope of his shooting as Fish gave him a tour of the Hornet, giving him insight of how to "flesh in" the life of a naval aviator.

"He's very passionate," Fish said. "He's passionate about exploring characters. He's intense. He's a perfectionist."

"He's very hands-on with a small crew," Fish added, noting that he knew what an entire scene was supposed to look and feel like. "He's very involved. He knew what he wanted to capture."

Also, Fish said working with Christian Bale, who plays Dengler, was enjoyable.

"Christian Bale was delightful," he said. "During the moments when they were shooting scenes, he was very professional and focused on his work. But in between he was happy to chat with our museum volunteers and other folks who happened by."

"He's just a regular guy," he added.

Fish said Hollywood film and television producers who want to incorporate Naval elements in their work often contact the U.S. Navy Department's movie industry arm. Department officials then make recommendations on what facility works best for Hollywood and for the Navy.

The level of access to military facilities for Hollywood has been reduced because of Sept. 11, said Fish. Still, Herzog and the Hornet trustees found common ground in 2005.

Fish said Dengler flying from the same homeport as the Hornet and then choosing to live in the Bay Area after his mission were two important signs that Herzog's project was worth their time.

Additionally, Fish said he enjoyed the German filmmaker's other works, "Fitzcarraldo," "Grizzly Man," and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Local San Francisco actors, such as Brad Carr, were hired to play Dengler's flight team.

Dengler grew up in Germany with his mother and brothers but did not know his father, who was killed while serving in the German army during World War II. His grandfather was declared a political enemy of the Nazis for being the only citizen in his town who did not vote for Hitler.

Dengler wanted to become a pilot after seeing an Allied aircraft flying over his town from his bedroom window in World War II. At 18, he went to New York and then signed up for the U.S. Air Force.

In Alameda, he was part of the VA-145 squadron. They were nicknamed the "Swordsmen."

Fish said he is looking forward to seeing the Dengler in "Rescue Dawn."

"I want to see the Hornet on the big screen," he said.

Contact Jordan M. Doronila at jdoronila@danvilleweekly.com or 837-8300.


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