When hell was in session

Admiral Jeremiah Denton died yesterday at the age of 89. Admiral Denton served seven-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Denton’s name should be known by every American. In captivity he gave something beyond the last full measure of devotion, if that is possible. His is a story of almost unbelievable endurance, courage and patriotism. Here is a short course courtesy of the Denton Foundation that I saved a while back:

In June 1965, he began a combat tour in Vietnam as prospective Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five. On July 18, 1965, Denton was leading a group of twenty-eight aircraft from the USS lNDEPENDENCE in an attack on enemy installations near Thanh Hoa, when he was shot down and captured by local North Vietnamese troops.

He spent the next seven years and seven months as a prisoner of war, suffering severe mistreatment and becoming the first U.S. military captive to be subjected to four years of solitary confinement.

A Commander when he was shot down, Denton was recommended for and promoted to the rank of Captain while a prisoner. He was confined at several prison camps in and around Hanoi, frequently acting as the senior American military officer of all American POW’s.

Denton’s name first came to the attention of the American public in 1966, during a television interview arranged by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi. Prior to the interview, torture and threats of more torture were applied to intimidate him to “respond properly and politely.” His captors thought he was softened up sufficiently to give the North Vietnamese their propaganda line at the interview attended by important Communist officials from several countries and by Wilfred Birchett, an internationally known Communist author.

During the interview, after the Japanese interviewer’s recitation of alleged U.S. “war atrocities,” Denton was asked about his support of U.S. policy concerning the war. He replied: “I don’t know what is happening now in Vietnam, because the only news sources I have are North Vietnamese, but whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.” The audience was aghast at his unexpected answer and the room went dead silent.

Without comment, the Vietnamese then renewed the rest of the interview which consisted of a free-flowing debate between Birchett and Denton.

Throughout the interview, while responding to questions and feigning sensitivity to harsh lighting, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse Code, repeatedly spelling out a covert message: T-O-R-T-U-R-E. The interview, which the Japanese journalist clandestinely took from Hanoi to Tokyo and sold to ABC was broadcast on American television on May 17, 1966[. It] was the first confirmation that American POWs in Vietnam were being tortured.

Denton did not learn until his release that the interview had been shown in the U.S. And the Vietnamese had waited a week or so to punish him for his “misbehavior” at the interview. It was the worst torture session Denton endured during his time there; the guards assigned to two hour shifts watching the all-night torture each shed tears they could not hide.

Denton was released on February 12, 1973, when he again received international attention as the spokesman for the first group of POWs returning from Hanoi to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Denton was advised that as the senior POW onboard, he might be expected to say something on behalf of the group upon arrival. As he stepped from the plane, Denton turned to the microphone and said: “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”

The video below captures this incredible story, also recounted in Denton’s memoir When Hell Was In Session.

Admiral Denton was elected to the Senate from Alabama in the Reagan landslide of 1980. He served one term in office. In his first State of the Union Address in January 1982, President Reagan saluted Denton:

We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes. They’re all around us. One who sits among you here tonight epitomized that heroism at the end of the longest imprisonment ever inflicted on men of our armed forces. Who will ever forget that night when we waited for television to bring us the scene of that first plane landing at Clark Field in the Philippines bringing our P.O.W.’s home. The plane door opened and Jeremiah Denton came slowly down the ramp. He caught sight of our flag, saluted it, said, “God bless America,” and then thanked us for bringing him home.

Putting the emphasis on Denton thanking “us,” President Reagan was making the point that it is we who owed him the debt of gratitude. Were it not for the example of men such as Admiral Denton, we might never know the meaning or contours — the outer limits — of the virtue of courage.

The New York Sun has posted a stirring tribute. The Sun describes the brief video clip of Admiral Denton blinking out T-O-R-T-U-R-E as “one of the most astonishing film clips in American history.”

The New York Times obituary is here, the Washington Post obituary is here. RIP.

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