In 1966 I can remember getting home from high school late one afternoon and watching Walter Cronkite on TV with my family in stony silence. The fabled news anchor showed us a grainy film on that night’s version of the Nightly News that included a Navy pilot who was a prisoner-of-war and as Jeremiah Denton appeared gaunt and stared forcefully at the camera, my daddy whispered, “Don’t believe a word he says … he’s being treated badly … ‘’
Prisoner Denton, the wretched warrior we watched that night, was asked what he thought of “the so-called Vietnamese War’’ and with his eyes staring right into the camera, he blinked and said in a halting way, “Well, I don’t know what is happening … but whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully … I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it … and I will as long as I live.”
About a week after the haunting film was shown repeatedly for the next few days, my dad – who worked at the newspaper with the rest of our family – called me aside and asked me if I remembered the POW staring at the camera. Of course, you couldn’t forget it. “Every time his eyes blinked,’’ Dad confided, “he was sending Morse Code … T – O – R – T – U – R –E,” I was told, just before I sat and cried.
Jeremiah A. Denton, the POW who starred in that film and was beaten so badly immediately following he thought his life was over, lived to be 89 years old before he, one of the greatest patriots our nation has ever known, died peacefully at a hospice in Virginia Beach yesterday.
Rear Admiral Denton later became a senator after he endured seven years and seven months in the cruelest captivity any of us can ever imagine and actually he made two memorable videos. The second was made in the Philippines on Feb. 12, 1973, when he became the first American POW to step off the plane and return to freedom at Clark Air Base.
With cameras whirling and tears freely running down his face, Admiral Denton stood tall in front of the microphones and spoke for his fellow prisoners as they, too, filed off the rescue plane. “I am profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”
Almost eight years earlier then-Commander Denton – the father of seven children – was flying an A-6 Intruder on a bombing mission near the Thanh Hoa Bridge south of Hanoi. There was intense anti-aircraft fire and he lost control of his plane, bailing out as the Intruder went into a tailspin. He was captured and, as the title of his memoirs would later fully explain, he survived by the hardest.
The book, “When Hell Was In Session,” which he wrote with the help of Ed Brant, is as revolting as any of its kind but it explained what heroes we had representing freedom in the “Hanoi Hilton” and the despicable Hoa Lo prison, which was even worse and dubbed “Alcatraz” for its brutality. John McCain was there along with James Stockdale, who ran on the presidential ticket with Ross Perot. Sam Johnson, later a Congressman from Texas, was too.
A story in the Washington Post revived one particular passage. Two sadistic guards put a nine-foot-long steel pipe that had been filled with concrete across Admiral Denton’s legs. “One torturer stood on it while the other jumped up and down and rolling it across my legs. Then they lifted my arms behind my back in the handcuffs, raising the top part of my body off the floor and dragging me around and around. This went on for hours.”
Admiral Denton recalled, “They were in a frenzy, alternating treatment to increase the pain until I was unable to control myself. I began crying hysterically, blood and tears mingling and running down my cheeks … my only thought was a desire to be free from pain.”
The torture was as constant as the rats, roaches and infection. Denton, a senior officer, was the unquestioned leader. “I put out the policy that (the U.S. prisoners) were not to succumb to threats but must stand and say no … we forced them to be brutal to us.”
Several years later a made-for-TV movie was made of the horrors he endured. Hal Holbrook played Admiral Denton and Eva Marie Saint played his wife. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Silver Star and the Distinguishing Flying Cross.
In 1980 he became the first Republican to be elected to the Senate from Alabama since the Reconstruction and served for six years but he was forever hailed as one of America’s greatest heroes for his unwavering loyalty to his country under the most severe conditions.
Towards the end of his life he was asked about the seven years and seven months of “When Hell was in Session” and he said, “If I had known when I was shot down that I would be there more than seven years, I would have died of despondency, of despair, but I didn’t. It was one minute at a time, one hour, one week, one year and so on. If you look at it like that, anybody can do anything.”
Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr., a member of the Class of 1946 at the United States Naval Academy, served the people of the United States for a lifetime. He should never be forgotten, most especially for the fact he used his only eyelids to tell us he and our other POWs wouldn’t dare give up the ship. “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” was recognized immediately by the nation’s intelligence experts and the message undoubtedly kept many soldiers and sailors from falling into enemy hands.
What a giant. May God bless the memory of Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton.
Jeremiah Denton at the Hoa Lo prison in Viet Nam