August 16, 2007, - 5:30 am

What Happened to Gene DeBruin?: How Hollywood Robbed an American Hero

By Debbie Schlussel
What if your dear brother was Missing In Action while working on behalf of America in a war zone? How would you feel, if Hollywood–adding insult to injury–portrayed your brother as Charles Manson in a widely acclaimed movie?
That’s what the makers of “Rescue Dawn” did to a great American.
I picked “Rescue Dawn” as the best movie of 2007. But now that I’ve learned more, that praise comes with a major asterisk. Actually, with a dark stain.
It’s no secret that Hollywood distorts reality. But what the makers of “Rescue Dawn” did to the memory of Eugene “Gene” DeBruin is unforgivable. And an outrage.

genedebruin.jpgjeremydaviesrescuedawn.jpg

Gene DeBruin, POW & Hero (Left),

Defamed in “Rescue Dawn” Like This (Right)

(Thanks to David Lunde for Assistance with Both Images)

In “Rescue Dawn,” the story of Navy Pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian POW camp, DeBruin is portrayed as a crazy Charles Manson-esque fellow POW. In the movie version, he tries and threatens–at every step–to turn in Dengler and the other POWs to their barbaric Pathet Lao captors.
To make the point, DeBruin is played by actor Jeremy Davies, who played Manson in the TV movie, “Helter Skelter.” In the film iteration, Dengler shoots the prison guards and stages the escape, and DeBruin is portrayed as a spaced-out, lazy, uncaring person who fails to do his part and then asks Dengler, “What will I do now?”
But that’s not what happened. And it’s not the kind of person Gene DeBruin was. It pains his brother Jerry DeBruin and other family members and friends–including the one surviving member of the POW camp escape–to see this fiction, this great defamation of a POW who was actually a hero and is still missing.
Reality’s Gene DeBruin did not sabotage Dieter Dengler’s escape from Ban Houei Pathet Lao Prison in 1966. He helped plan and implement it. But he heroically stayed behind to care for a sick fellow POW who could not make it. That was his “crime.” That was his “Helter Skelter.”
The real Gene DeBruin was spoken of highly by Dieter Dengler, the movie’s hero. He described DeBruin as a strong leader and peacemaker when differences threatened their escape plan, NOT the man who sabotaged it in the silver screen story. In real life, Pisidhi Indradat–the only living, free survivor of the camp–calls this silver-screen “Charles Manson, “The finest man I have ever met.” He believes that Dengler would be appalled by “Rescue Dawn,” had he lived to see it.
DeBruin’s family and friends repeatedly tried to reach out to “Rescue Dawn” Director Werner Herzog to get the story straight. But they were blown off. Ditto for Indradat, who was actually there. And while Herzog claimed he was loyal to his friend, Dengler’s story, his movie is starkly at odds with the Dengler’s own words–his letters, his book, “Escape From Laos,” and this statements in the Herzog documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”
The real story is at Rescue Dawn, The Truth, a site compiled by the friends and family of Gene DeBruin.
Since Mr. Herzog would not tell the truth, I will. I feel a special responsibility to do so, since I gave such accolades to a film, I now know defamed not only an innocent American POW, but a heroic one.
Gene DeBruin was a Staff Sgt. in the Air Force for four years and obtained his pilot’s license. After being honorably discharged and graduating from college, DeBruin ultimately became a smoke jumper and a cargo “kicker” for the CIA’s secret airline, “Air America,” in Laos. He and his crew were shot down over Laos, while they were delivering rice and buffalo meat to the people there. They were sent to several brutal POW camps, and repeatedly tortured.
DeBruin was shuffled to a fifth prison, where he spent 2.5 years before Dieter Dengler ever arrived. He and fellow prisoners spent that time formulating an escape plane and storing rice in bamboo tubes in preparation. In the movie version, DeBruin is not only against any escape, but it is Dengler who comes up with the idea to store rice in the tubes (and DeBruin who tries to eat it beforehand).
In the movie, DeBruin is cold, callous, and inhumane. In real life, DeBruin taught his cellmates English, shared his blanket with them on cold nights, and shared his food with them.
DeBruin was every bit a part of the attack on the guards and the escape. And by the way, the prison guards were killed by fellow POW Indradat, NOT Dengler (as in the movie version).
DeBruin was healthy and could have escaped through the jungle with Dengler. But he chose to stay behind to care for Y.C. To, whom he knew was too ill to make it without help. Dieter Dengler, himself, testified that DeBruin shook his hand after the escape, shouting, “See you in the States,” and returned to help To. Truthfully depicting that act of courage on-screen would not have taken away from “Rescue Dawn.” It would have enhanced it.
As DeBruin’s brother, Jerry, points out, it is false to say that only those who successfully escaped the POW camp are heroes. Gene DeBruin was every bit as heroic to give up his chance at freedom to help a sick, helpless fellow POW. Maybe even more so. It is that sacrifice, that humanitarianism that helps make America great, sometimes to our detriment.
Dieter Dengler’s escape from the POW camp and survival in the Laotian jungle is certainly still heroic. But there was no reason to devalue and defame DeBruin to tell Dengler’s story. If Herzog was so intent on twisting events and characters for dramatic purposes, he could have used fake names for fake personas. There is no decent explanation for giving an honorable and decent man–a hero, no less–the undeserved persona of Charles Manson.
Eugene DeBruin is still Missing In Action. If he is still alive, he is 74 years old. His family has not given up on him and wants to bring him home. Photos of him in a Pathet Lao prison and subsequent sighting reports are all proof that he is a Pathet Lao prisoner, and that they should be held accountable for his fate. September 5th will mark 44 years since he was shot down by the Viet Cong-allied Pathet Lao.
Says Jerry DeBruin,

My basic fear is that the makers of movies such as “Rescue Dawn” will prey upon both released and missing POW/MIA family members, purporting untruths, and dragging them through what our family is going through today.

Let’s hope that, some day soon, Gene DeBruin is brought back home to America alive.
And that his reputation is brought back with him.
Director Werner Herzog and his Hollywood friends tried to take that away from him.
But they cannot take Gene DeBruin’s honor and heroism.

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13 Responses

To answer your question: The same thing that happened to Canadian WW1 hero Wop May in “The mad trapper”.
May, a flying ace, was portrayed as a mad pilot who eventually flew himself into a non-existent mountain.
Based-on-a-true-story my a$$.

stevecanuck on August 16, 2007 at 11:10 am

An excellent example of how blogs, unlike films and most other media, are self-correcting.

Jeremiah on August 16, 2007 at 11:39 am

I came to the conclusion long ago, that with rare exception, someone would know more about a historical event if they DO NOT watch the movie. in most cases much more.
“Advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper (or movie).”
– Mark Twain

feralcat9 on August 16, 2007 at 3:14 pm

Good article Deb, thanks.
ML

Moe Larry on August 16, 2007 at 7:58 pm

It is a fact that Laotian POWs experienced severe protein deficiency. That would have effected both judgement and motor ability. However, the fact that DeBruin chose not to leave Pathet Lao custody and make propaganda for the Viet Cong, is testament to his obvious high moral standards.

supercargo on August 16, 2007 at 10:43 pm

I always liked Charlie. He must’ve had a lousy lawyer.

steve ventry on August 20, 2007 at 1:17 am

Debbie,
In your article you said, “And by the way, the prison guards were killed by fellow POW Indradat, NOT Dengler (as in the movie version).”
I have to point out that in Dieter’s book Escape From Laos, Dieter confirms that it was he, Dieter, who killed the guards. Is the DeBruin family now taking the side of Indradat on this issue and disputing Dieter’s account?
Please get to the truth on this.

Kurt on August 26, 2007 at 12:59 am

You have been taken in by the DeBruins. After seeing RESCUE DAWN I saw LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY and realized the story the DeBruin’s are telling is 100% fabrication. While I sympathize with the DeBruin family, they have their own agenda and should be ignored.

SamMcGowan on September 13, 2007 at 10:43 pm

I believe that the true story of Dieter Dengler was absolutely mind-boggling, heartfelt, and inspiring. However, I was under the impression that the movie Rescue Dawn was just BASED on the true story and was not intended to portray it completely.

cory on February 18, 2008 at 9:25 pm

I have read the book and seen the Movie. Phisit Indradat and his wife were Guest of Honor at the Air America Reunion this summer in Portland, Oregon. He has seen the movie and had high praise for the filming location but otherwise he said it technically showed a great lack of research. But mainly he was greatly disturbed at the character assassination of Gene Deburin. As would most anyone be. By DenglerÔø?s own account Gene Deburin was the level headed one who got along with everyone and was the Ôø?Peace MakerÔø? as there was a lot of mistrust between the ThaiÔø?s and the American Pilots.
According to Phisit during their initial captivity Gene Deburin was subject to the most severe beatings because he was an American.
As far as who shot the guard(s) Phisidhi does not dispute Denglers account but said that he, Dengler and Martin were all shooting at fleeing guards, Three guards were killed, but who cares? That is a very mute point. The point here is that Gene Deburin was a true Hero. Anyone who risk his own salvation to save a friend especially in that situation is a Hero.
It is true that unless they say it is a Ôø?DocumentaryÔø? they can put any kind of bullshit they want and say is it is BASED on actual happenings. But why Hertzog chose to defame someone like Gene Deburin I canÔø?t imagine. I can understand him wanting to glorify a fellow German but that could have been done without this character assassination. Maybe it is just part of HollywoodÔø?s continuing effort to make anything associated with the CIA/Air America appear very dark and sinister. It would have made as good or better movie if he had filmed it like the book. I am sure Dengler himself would not have approved of this type of character assassination of Gene Deburin.
Bill Murphy
Air America 1965-1968.

billm70 on October 21, 2008 at 9:19 am

I trained as a Smokejumper with Gene DeBruin in 1959. I also spoke with him frequently in 1960 and later in 1963 before his departure for Air America. I did not see the Dengler movie until a few days ago, although I read his book.

I was shocked and angered at the portrayal of Gene in this movie. This was not the Eugene Debruin I knew. Just more garbage from Hollywood. Ron Rockwell

Ron Rockwell on June 30, 2010 at 12:09 am

I couldn’t be less connected with the events of the movie if I tried, but I would like to express some kind of approval/respect/thanks for everyone who has made available their factual characterizations of the people involved in the events of the movie.

If the story being told wrong made any of the real people involved any less heroic for me, then reading how much people wanted it told properly afterwards sure made them more so.

Jordan Ritchie on April 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I would just like to say thank u to ALL who serve our country, and for genes brother gerry, keep spreading the word! To everyone that matters, Gene is a hero, I hope he is found alive!

Teez Williams on March 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm

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