But who is Gene DeBruin?
Gene DeBruin is the second eldest in a Wisconsin farm family of ten. He is a quiet, non-assuming type of guy, rarely boisterous nor a troublemaker, honest and emotionally stable, neither high nor low. He did well as a student in elementary and secondary school. While growing up and working on the farm, Gene became an avid sports fan; a skier and outdoorsman, one who loved to hunt and fish.
He felt strongly about helping people, a feeling deep inside himemanating from a strong core of basic beliefs and values, notably the result of a rugged upbringing.
Not long after high school, Gene joined the Air Force seeking adventure. He served four years, mostly in Japan as an aircraft mechanic achieving the rank of staff sergeant. During his tenure, he obtained a private pilot’s license. Gene loved to fly. While in Japan he also took up judo and continued to nurture his writing skills. Gene enjoyed the service and his time in Asia.
After being honorably discharged from the Air Force, Gene enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. He completed a four-year degree in Forestry. During the summers, he worked both in Idaho and Montana for the U.S. Forest Service. It was then that he was introduced to a number of smoke jumpers. They made a lasting impression on him, so strong that he became a smoke jumper himself. He spent three summers in Alaska doing just that.
The urge to write however, gradually took precedence. Gene traveled to Mexico City and entered Mexico City College to learn Spanish and refine his writing skills with the goal in mind of becoming a published author. While in Mexico, Gene developed an interest in Hemingway and bull fighting.
After declining an offer to join the Peace Corps in Columbia, Gene took his smoke jumper skills to a faraway country: Laos. He was hired as a cargo “kicker” for Air America, the CIA’s secret airline. He rejoined a number of his smoke jumper friends in Vientiane. The demanding work in rugged Laos matched Gene’s personality and he felt that he was helping people. After being in Laos for only one month however, Gene and his crew mates were shot down. Gene was introduced to the Pathet Lao culture- the hard way.
Gene and four other crew members bailed out of the burning C-46. The pilot and copilot perished choosing to stay with the craft. During the first nine months of captivity, the five prisoners were shuffled to four different, filthy prisons. Conditions were deplorable. The prisoners lost weight, not accustomed to so little food. In May, 1964, the five escaped for seven days but were caught at a water hole in their search for water.
They were tortured and returned to the site of the escape. Then they were moved to a fifth prison, all the time becoming weaker and weaker. At this prison, they received a small, pilfered, box of food and medicine and a sample of mail from home. This was the only time they ever received any word from the outside world since their shoot down.
A tall, sharply dressed Asian man soon appeared on the scene. He instructed the prisoners to don newer clothes, then took their picture. He then had the prisoners exchange these newer clothes for their old, original clothes, worn since their shoot down nine months ago. The photo is a well documented and disseminated one, positive proof that the five were indeed Pathet Lao prisoners.
Their plan was now to form three groups and escape into the jungle, rafting and hiking along the Nam Kok River.
(1) Dieter and Duane moved southeast.
(2) Pisidhi Indradat, Prasit Thanee and Prasit Promsuwan headed into the jungle moving southwest.
(3) Gene and the very ill Hong Kong Chinese, Y.C. TO found a hiding place not far from their Ban Hoi Het prison camp. The rest is history.
We know the outcome for three of the seven escapees. In search of food, Duane Martin was killed by an angry villager.
Dieter Dengler was rescued after 23 days on the run. He went on to a career as a TWA pilot and lived near San Francisco until he died in 2001 of ALS.
Pisidhi Indradat, who had separated from the other two Thais, was recaptured after 32 days on the run. He was returned to another prison camp and then rescued in January 1967 by CIA and friendly Lao forces. The raid freed 52 Lao and one Thai -Pisidhi Indradat. He currently lives in Bangkok.
The fates of Prasit Thanee and Prasit Promsuwan are unknown.
The fates of Gene DeBruin, and his fellow prisoner Y.C. To are also unknown.
All the prisoners took the same risks. All made decisions that ultimately led to their own fate, known or unknown. To the families and friends, all are heroes, whether fate allowed them to live or not.
Everyday, my brother, Gene DeBruin, and the others are loved and missed by their families.
– Jerry DeBruin