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september/october 2007

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Arts of war

By Marc Leepson

Only a handful of Americans escaped from enemy POW camps during the Vietnam War. One successful escapee was Dieter Dengler, a Navy Skyraider pilot who was shot down on his first mission over Laos on February 2, 1966, and taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao in a remote jungle camp. Tortured and nearly starved to death, Dengler—a naturalized American citizen who was born in Germany in 1938—led a daring escape from the prison camp and miraculously survived 23 days in the jungle before another miracle happened: He was spotted by an inexperienced Spad pilot as he frantically signaled from the dense jungle just over the border in North Vietnam.

Dengler’s amazing story has been told periodically since he was rescued on July 20, 1966. Magazines such as Time and the Saturday Evening Post ran features in the months after the big escape. Dengler’s memoir, Escape From Laos, was published in 1978. The German director Werner Herzog, one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema, told the story in the 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.

Dengler’s death in 2001 inspired Herzog to tell the story one more time. The result: the riveting, big-budget Hollywood film, Rescue Dawn, which Herzog wrote and directed and which earned generally good reviews when it was released in July. The film stars are Christian Bale, who puts in a heroic performance as the slightly goofy but steadfast Dengler, and Steve Zahn, who is usually known for his comedic talents and who does extremely well as a dissipated prison camp buddy. The film features an equally strong performance from Jeremy Davies (who played Tom Hanks’ timid clerk in Saving Private Ryan) as a fellow American Pathet Lao prisoner.

Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: Wrath of God, et al.) is best known for off-beat work that focuses on crazed visionaries. Here he concentrates on Dengler and adheres to the facts. The result is a mainstream Hollywood escape film. This is not a bad thing, at least it isn’t in Herzog’s capable hands. Yes, there’s a bit of hokeyness here and there—particularly in the sappy music that accompanies Dengler’s over-dramatized triumphant return to his ship.

But Herzog knows how to make a movie. The characters—except for the prison guards, nearly all of whom are 100 percent evil—are well sketched and believable. The plot zings along. The action sequences ring true. The jungle scenes, shot in Thailand, are greener than green and evoke the real thing powerfully. Rescue Dawn, which was the code used by Dengler’s fellow fliers to identify themselves as Americans, is a top-of-the-line escapist escape film.

The names of three American servicemen were inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in May: Army Sgt. Richard Monroe Pruett, Navy Fireman Apprentice Joseph Gerald Krywicki, and Army Spec 4 Wesley Alvin Stiverson. Krywicki was killed on Sept. 13, 1966, in South Vietnam, and his name was inadvertently left off the initial list of those on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Pruett, who was wounded in Vietnam on May 27, 1969, died on February 28, 2005. The Pentagon, which has final say in these matters, deemed that his death came as a result of medical complications related to his war wounds. The same situation applied to Stiverson, who was wounded in Vietnam on April 6, 1971, and who died on March 30, 2005.

The three additions—which bring to 58,256 the number of men and women listed as KIA in the Vietnam War—were added “as close as possible to their dates of casualty, so these servicemen can remain in the company of those they served with,” Jan Scruggs, the head of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said. The three new names became official when they were read aloud during the annual Memorial Day Ceremony at The Wall on Monday, May 28.

Also on The Wall front: on May 22 the VVMF unveiled the exhibits that will be part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, the underground, under-construction educational facility that will become part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitors’ experience. The exhibits include a wall of photos of the Vietnam War fallen, along with images, letters, and other remembrances left at The Wall in their honor; a selection of the more than 100,000 items that have been left at the Memorial; a visual and written history of the Memorial; and interactive stations, aimed primarily at young people, that will provide information about the war, The Wall, and Vietnam veterans.

“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center will be a place that touches the heart and teaches the mind,” said VVMF board member Harry Robinson, “enhancing the Memorial experience for people of all ages and walks of life, taking them on a journey through layers of storytelling and history.”

Army veteran Bruce Solheim, who teaches at Citrus College in California and is the institution’s volunteer veterans coordinator, tells us that in September the school will offer the nation’s first college course designed to help returning veterans make the transition back to civilian life. The course, titled “Counseling 159: Boots to Books,” covers combat stress, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and other issues affecting veterans returning from deployment. It is a joint effort of the college and the East Los Angeles Vet Center.

“A war is going on and it is psychologically impacting some of our soldiers who will eventually return home and become students,” said Manuel Martinez, a Vietnam veteran who is the course’s instructor and who is a readjustment counseling therapist at the East L.A. Vet Center. “As far as I know, there has never been a psycho-educational model that has systematically addressed these issues while providing coping skills and strategies to help correct them.” The “partnership between the VA and a community college,” Solheim said, “will serve as a model for all of California and the rest of the nation.”

In addition to the course, Citrus College has other programs and services for veterans. “We have a Veterans Fund that helps them pay for textbooks,” Solheim said. “We also have a very active Veterans Network that is run by student veterans. Our activities include an annual Veterans Day celebration and participation in a variety of community veterans events.”

Selector Switch On (Rock and Roll): A Musical Remembrance of the Vietnam War is a top-quality CD of rootsy rock and folky songs dealing with you-know-what American war. The music on this CD was conceived, written, and recorded by Vietnam veteran Marc Waszkiewicz and Lea Jones, who describes himself as an “activist, left-leaning, tree-huggin’ singer- songwriter.”

Former Marine Waszkiewicz served two tours in Vietnam, most of them as an Artillery Forward Observer. He got together with Jones in 1991, and they put together the nine tunes “portraying the everyday experience of the average grunt,” Jones told us. We had a chance to listen to the compilation in 1992 and wrote about it favorably in these pages. The music makers decided to re-release the CD this year to support veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Half of the proceeds from sales “will directly benefit Wounded Warriors and outreach services at Veterans Affairs’ Maryland Health Care System,” Jones, who lives near Baltimore, told us. For more info, visit

The actor Stephen Lang received excellent reviews for his one-man show, Beyond Glory, in which he tells the first-person stories of eight Medal of Honor recipients, during the production’s June 21-August 19 run at the Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theater in New York. The show, based on Larry Smith’s oral history, Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words, has been playing in smaller venues and military bases since 2004. It includes Lang’s takes on three Vietnam War MOH recipients: Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, Army medic Clarence Sasser, and Army Sergeant Nick Bacon.

This “modest” show, New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote, “provides a powerful reminder of the hardships, psychic stresses, and physical dangers that men endure on the front lines.” The show’s “sobriety, simplicity, and lack of histrionics are [its] signal strengths.”

We have just learned that In the Electric Mist is scheduled to be released early in December. This is the movie version of James Lee Burke’s stunning 1993 novel In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, a Dave Robicheaux detective that is heavily influenced by Dave’s Vietnam War flashbacks. Tommy Lee Jones plays Dave in the film, for which Burke co-wrote the screenplay. The Frenchman Bertrand Tavernier directed. Burke’s latest Robicheaux (this summer’s Faulknerian The Tin Roof Blowdown) is reviewed on page 49.

The blogosphere has been buzzing with reports that Oliver Stone’s newest project is a movie either called Pinkville or One Day in March. Whatever the name of it, the film deals with the March 1968 My Lai massacre. Sean Penn and Channing Tatum are supposedly starring in the film, which would be Stone’s fourth Vietnam War movie, following Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Heaven and Earth (1993). Stone, who served as an Americal Division infantryman, is famous for roiling the political waters in his movies, and the My Lai massacre is a ripe topic for both his movie-making skills and his in-your-face film-making. Stay tuned.

The first nine half-hour episodes of the extremely well done 1987-88 Vietnam War Stories series are now available on DVD (HBO Video, $14.98). The series of realistically taut dramas based on true events features the work of writer-director-producer Patrick Sheane Duncan and director Georg Stanford Brown, along with top-notch acting from, among others, Wesley Snipes and Eriq La Salle.
The recently opened National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in Vails Gate, New York, is looking for stories from Purple Heart recipients. The Hall, located in New York’s Hudson Valley near the city of Newburgh, is encouraging Purple Heart recipients to visit and “place their combat stories on video for later generations to view,” said Ray Funderburk of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. For more info, go to

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