Remembering Vietnam War Hero Jeremiah Denton

denton_jeremiah++defense.govWhen Jeremiah Denton passed away at 89 on March 28 President Obama issued a statement:  “The valor that he and his fellow POWs displayed was deeply inspiring to our nation at the time, and it continues to inspire our brave men and women who serve today. As senator, he served as a strong advocate for our national security.  He leaves behind a legacy of heroic service to his country.”

That presidential tribute was certainly welcome, and perhaps something of a surprise. But the man and his story deserve more detail.

Commander Denton was shot down over North Vietnam on July 18, 1965, and held captive for nearly eight years. Senator John McCain, a POW in North Vietnam for more than five years, said, “as a senior ranking officer in prison, Admiral Denton’s leadership inspired us to persevere, and to resist our captors in ways we never would have on our own. He endured unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct.” Denton’s heroism also emerges in Leading with Honor, a recent memoir by fellow POW Lee Ellis.

Hanoi and Haiphong were the most heavily defended areas in the world and more than 70 percent of US pilots shot down in the “Rolling Thunder” campaign were pilots and crew members. Denton was one of the first and a prize for the North Vietnamese who sought to use prominent POWs as propaganda tools in staged press conferences. As Ellis describes it:

CDR Denton endured excruciating torture before agreeing to go before the cameras. Prior to his filming, his captors prepped him for several days on what he was supposed to say about ‘America’s cruel and oppressive war.’ He said ‘whatever my government is doing, I agree with it, and I will support it as long as I live.’

On camera, Denton blinked out TORTURE in Morse code (video below). When the video went public, Ellis notes, “it was the first time the U.S government had accurate information about the treatment of POWs.” So Denton’s valor was informative and inspiring, but he wasn’t done.

His defiance angered the Vietnamese Communists but they remained unaware of Denton’s encoded communication and put him on display at another staged press conference two weeks later. “This time Denton stood up on camera and walked out.” His Vietnamese Communist captors “put Denton in the rope torture and then beat him until he was unconscious.”

Even so, Denton’s policy remained firm: “no writing, no taping, take torture until you’re in danger of losing mental facilities, and then give a phony story. Die before giving classified information. If broken, don’t despair. Bounce back as soon as you can to the hard line. Remember: unity above self.” And Ellis notes that Denton practiced what he preached.

Denton “never hesitated to provide leadership when he was senior ranking officer of a cellblock or camp. Although that made him a prime target for abuse and exploitation by the enemy, he steadfastly pushed himself and the enemy to the limit. He deliberately kept the torture team occupied, so they would have less time to harass his fellow POWs.”

So in current parlance, he took more than one for the team, and he prevailed. After the 1973 accords, Denton was the first former POW to step off the plane at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. But he wasn’t done yet.

Promoted to rear admiral, Denton became commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. He remained a strong anti-Communist, supporting the Nicaraguan Contras in their fight against the Communist pro-Soviet FSLN regime. In 1980 he gained election to the U.S. Senate, the first Republican from Alabama since Reconstruction. Not bad for the son of a hotel clerk who attended 13 different elementary schools.

Jeremiah Denton wrote When Hell Was in Session about his POW years. In 1979 that book became a TV movie with Hal Holbrook as Denton and Eva Marie Saint as his wife Jane, who raised seven children while her husband was a POW in Vietnam. That movie deserves another shot on television and a full theatrical release. That would be a fitting tribute to Jeremiah Denton and help his valor, as President Obama said, “to inspire our brave men and women who serve today.”

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  • UCSPanther

    I hope that there is a Valhalla for courageous and honorable soldiers…

    • Claes Henrikson

      Hear, hear…

  • nomoretraitors

    I’m shocked Obama would honor him, since he fought against a communist regime

    • BagLady

      Perhaps your assessment of Obama is skewed by tunnel vision.

      • nomoretraitors

        No, Obama has a long history of affiliation with communists, as does his closest advisor and his father in law

      • GuyGreen

        That’s pretty rich, Bag Lady. Project much, do you?

  • nomoretraitors

    Thank you for your service, Rear Adm. Denton.

  • Josh Randall

    RIP Sir. I will never forgive those commie North Vietnamese for how they treated our POW’s.

    • BagLady

      You should have stayed home,

      • nomoretraitors

        Hey, maybe we should torture finatical jihadis since they too “should have stayed home.”

        • BagLady

          You do. Silly boy.

      • GuyGreen

        I’m convinced you write under your real name. Have you had a new political thought since 1968?

        • BagLady

          Please be more specific. Which particular ‘thought’ from the ’60s are you referring to?

        • BagLady

          1968? In those days America was 10 years in front of Europe and we were considered ‘quite quaint’ in our old-fashioned ways – tea shops and no debit cards, let alone credit cards. We were horrified when the BBC did a programme on the American credit system. It opened with a six-tier plastic folder dropping down. At that time we just didn’t do that sort of thing. You were ‘no better than you aught to be’ if you bought something on tick. Mortgages and, later on the car, were the only socially acceptable forays into the banking system.T

          The media would applaud the ‘swinging sixties’ and Americans would go YEAH, whilst the English — who were actually ‘there’ — would go, yeah. They had no money and life was hard for young people. Hippies came late to Britain. I’d put them in the 70’s and very much restricted to Art Colleges.

      • nomoretraitors

        And how about torturing all those illegal immigrants who’ve invaded the US by crashing our southern border? They also “should have stayed home”

        • BagLady

          No argument with plugging loopholes at borders so long as it’s democratically inclusive.

      • Debbie G

        You’re a real piece of work. Shame on you for being so nonchalant about our POW’s.

  • Randy Townsend

    Denton is a real hero. McCain should keep his mouth shut, as should Obama.

  • Texas Patriot

    If Barry Goldwater had been president, he would have nuked Hanoi and Haiphong, and the war wouldn’t have lasted more than three weeks into his presidency. No one else had the courage to end the nightmare of America’s fighting men who were trapped in a jungle war they weren’t allowed to win and weren’t allowed to abandon, and no one exemplifies the resulting gross injustice to America’s soldiers than Jeremiah Denton.

    • BagLady

      I see you would happily nuke innocent people that never did you any harm. You had no right being in S E Asia and the fact that American kids got killed had nothing to do with the Vietkong. What do you expect when you invade a country? That the people just lay down and die without a fight?

      The devastating consequences of your uninvited intervention in S E Asia are ongoing half a century later.

      • Texas Patriot

        BL: I see you would happily nuke innocent people that never did you any harm.

        On the contrary. I never saw any reason for us being in Vietnam in the first place. Obviously our national security was not at risk and the South Vietnamese regime we were defending could not possibly have been more corrupt. My point is that Barry Goldwater would have ended the conflict quickly, one way or another. Either the U.S. would have be allowed to withdraw peacefully with all of our POWs or the North Vietnamese Communist Regime would have been utterly and totally destroyed immediately. There is no question that North Vietnam was the aggressor in that conflict, and if they were not willing to allow us to withdraw with all of our men, they would have deserved everything we could have thrown at them. Unfortunately, those kinds of choices were not presented to the North Vietnamese, and our soldiers were kept pinned down in a jungle war they weren’t allowed to win and weren’t allowed to abandon. There has never been a greater injustice to American fighting men in the entire history of the United States, and yes, the welfare of American soldiers and the American people is always my first concern.

      • nomoretraitors

        We never invaded N Vietnam. It was strictly an air war. The troops in S Vietnam were there at the invitation of the government, however corrupt and repressive it may have been.
        Using the same logic, perhaps we should not have intervened in Germany during WW II.
        I don’t think direct military intervention was the wisest choice, but at least I have my facts straight (though perhaps grossly oversimplified)

        • BagLady

          We never invaded N Vietnam. It was strictly an air war.

          Only on paper. Who were all those men crossing over into Cambodia in search of their communist quarry?

    • BagLady

      Although Goldwater discussed the possibility of using low-yield nuclear
      weapons to defoliate infiltration routes in Vietnam, he never actually
      advocated the use of nuclear weapons”

      Thank goodness for that.

      Vietnam is but a long thin strip of coastal land. from north to south it is a graveyard interrupted by very tall thin apartment blocks.

      Whilst I understand your concern for your innocent soldiers sent to fight jungle warfare with an enemy that was not theirs in an environment they would never cope with. Once they did finally get out of there, their troubles were over. To this day Vietnamese are still paying the price with their lives and limbs.

      • Texas Patriot

        More than 50,000 Americans never got out of Vietnam alive, and tens of thousands more who did get out remain totally or partially disabled even to this day. We never should have gotten involved in that regional civil war in the first place, and it is my guess that Barry Goldwater would have gotten us out of there immediately after his election in 1964. Unfortunately, Goldwater didn’t win that election, and the rest is history. My point about the nuclear weapons is that in the event the U.S. was trying to withdraw from Vietnam but N. Vietnam (a) would not permit us to withdraw peacefully; and/or (b) would not account for and turn over every single American POW in their custody, I feel quite confident that Barry Goldwater would have readily blown the N. Vietnamese strongholds of Hanoi and Haiphong completely off the map using whatever force was necessary, and that would have been the right thing to do under those circumstances.

        • BagLady

          Thankfully, this did not happen and Vietnam is in one piece. I am pleased to see that many American Vets return annually to Vietnam and actively participate in removing the countless landmines left behind, in an act of contrition.

  • nomoretraitors

    My only regret is he lived long enough to see this country fall

  • GSR

    Unbelievable man. RIP.

  • johnnywood

    Denton was a valiant warrior in the order of our “Greatest Generation” who were our WWII heroes. May his tribe increase.

  • Shmalkandik

    No doubt,, the Admiral was brave and noblle.
    But, you cannot infer from that the cause he served was either.