The nation loses a man who persevered against communist brutality and outwitted his captors.
When 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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