John Denver: The Untold Story of a Vietnam Sniper

Aspen, CO — Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., better known by his popular singer-songwriter stage name of John Denver, was known for his pastoral songs about nature and the “high life” of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Denver wrote about what he knew, or better, how he wanted things to be.

During the 1970s, he was arguably the most popular performer in the United States and exported his unique brand of optimism around the globe. But few know of his darker past; the talented bard fought an internal battle for the rest of his life.

John Denver was born into a military family in Roswell, New Mexico. His father, Captain Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., was a test pilot stationed at the Roswell Air Force Base after the war. Although the younger Deutschendorf never liked to discuss it, he later admitted to record producer Milton Okun that his father was one of the first crews on the scene of a secretive and supposed UFO crash on July 4th, 1947.

Given what he saw that night, his father rose to Lieutenant Colonel. The family never discussed the incident.

Given that the Deutschendorfs were an active military family, John enlisted to help fight the Vietnam War in 1966, abandoning his music career with the Mitchell Trio to join the war effort. After only two weeks in basic training, his Army Staff Sergeant discovered the young enlistee’s knack for sharpshooting and transferred him to sniper school. From late 1966 through early 1968, Denver recorded over 105 “kills,” a record that was not broken until Navy Seal Chris Kyle’s 150 unconfirmed shots in Iraq.

He Saved Countless Lives

Although violence followed John Denver, he saved countless American lives because of his efforts. But he was known mainly by his fellow soldiers as a quiet introvert who liked to sing to pass the time.

“John really could shoot his rifle,” said retired Captain James “Dusty” Straka (74), who served one tour with Denver. “He saved my life. But he was known for his performances, which calmed the guys down in terrible situations. He never went anywhere without his M21 [sniper rifle] and that beat-up guitar. He always used to say, ‘If I get out of here, I’m gonna make the world a better place with song, not guns.’ And damn if he didn’t.”

Of course, such revelations of such a gentle pop singer being a vicious and calculating killer are shocking to some. Still, in context, Denver’s later life was an attempt to work out and exorcise the demons he felt he gathered during his tours in Southeast Asia.

“I’ve got a gift,” Denver once told pop star Elton John, who once visited him in Colorado while recording the English singer’s Caribou album, “and it’s more than shooting the enemy. I want to bring peace to this troubled world and do everything I can to heal Mother Earth.” Elton John’s song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is dedicated to Denver.

Denver’s New Life

Mr. Denver spent much of the 1980s fighting for environmental causes, often with much success. However, his past would not let go.

Two years ago, it was revealed that the 1990 thriller Jacob’s Ladder, starring Tim Robbins, was loosely based on private interviews with John Denver. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin brilliantly crafted Mr. Denver’s re-occurring nightmares into what has become the de facto psychological horror film of the 1990s and beyond.

The film’s protagonist, Jacob, is a Vietnam veteran whose experiences before and during the war result in strange, fragmentary flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him. As his ordeal worsens, Jacob desperately attempts to figure out the truth. The film’s themes are a religious allegory of Denver’s life and songs.

Denver was killed on October 12, 1997, when his experimental plane crashed into Monterey Bay off the California coast. Although he had over 2700 hours of flight experience, and notwithstanding his long family pedigree with flight, he was not legally permitted to operate the vehicle then.

During this period, it was also widely publicized that he had an alcohol problem, an affliction common with people with PTSD. Authorities concluded that alcohol was not a factor in his crash but determined that Mr. Denver had carelessly failed to refuel his aircraft correctly.

He received many posthumous awards, but not until recently was he recognized for his bravery on the battlefield.

Loretta Splitair
Loretta Splitair
Loretta Splitair is Gish Gallop's Media and Cultural Editor. She has written widely including publications such as Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and the Lady's Home Journal where she hosts a regular column on the ravages of Billy Joel's music entitled, Billy Joel is a Piece of Shit. Loretta is married to her second husband after her first died protesting railway expansion in Kansas. Please do not ask her about it.

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