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Jeremiah Denton for the Ages
Remembering an exceptionally courageous POW and an American hero.

Denton in 2009

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Rich Lowry

Jeremiah Denton, the Vietnam War POW who has died at age 89, uttered one of the great statements of defiance in American history.

In 1965, he was shot down in his A-6 during a bombing run over North Vietnam. He became a captive for more than seven years and endured an unimaginable regime of torture, humiliation, and isolation, managing to retain his dignity and spirit even as his captors went to hideous lengths to snuff them out.

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Soon after his capture, a young North Vietnamese solider signaled to him to bow down and, when he refused, pressed a gun to his head so hard it created a welt. Denton quickly learned that this would be mild treatment. He was taken to Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton, where he led the resistance to the North Vietnamese efforts to extract propaganda confessions from their prisoners.

As Denton related in his book, When Hell Was in Session, they tried to starve one out of him. After days, he began to hallucinate, but he still refused. They took him to what was called the Meathook Room and beat him. Then, they twisted his arms with ropes and relented just enough to keep him from passing out. They rolled an iron bar onto his legs and jumped up and down on it. For hours.

He agreed finally to give them a little of what they wanted, but at first his hands were too weak to write and his voice too weak to speak. He hadn’t recovered from this ordeal when the Vietnamese told him he would appear at a press conference.

Denton told a fellow POW that his plan was to “blow it wide open.” He famously blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code during the interview, a message picked up by naval intelligence and the first definitive word of what the prisoners were being subjected to. When asked what he thought of his government’s war, Denton replied, “Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, yes sir. I’m a member of that government, and it’s my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”

The legend is that under the pressure of the Inquisition, Galileo said of the Earth, “Yet, it moves.” That Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Denton’s words aren’t an embellishment. They were seen by millions when they were broadcast in the United States, and he almost immediately paid for them in torment so horrifying that he desperately prayed that he wouldn’t go insane.

For two years, he was confined in what was dubbed “Alcatraz,” reserved for the “darkest criminals who persist in inciting the other criminals to oppose the Camp Authority,” in the words of one of the guards. Alvin Townley, author of the book Defiant, writes of the Alcatraz prisoners and their wives back in the States, “Together, they overcame more intense hardship over more years than any other group of servicemen and families in American history.”

When the American involvement in the war ended and the POWs finally were released, Denton made a brief statement on the tarmac upon his return, no less powerful for its simplicity and understatement: “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.”

A Roman Catholic, Denton told his family that he had forgiven his captors and, after recounting to them on his first night back what he had gone through, that he didn’t want to speak to them of it again. His son James says he often heard him say — with typical modesty — “That’s over. I don’t want to be a professional jailbird.”

He certainly wasn’t that. Denton went on to become a U.S. senator from Alabama. With his passing, we’ve lost a hero whose example of faithfulness and duty should be for the ages.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © 2014 King Features Syndicate


Jeremiah Denton
Jeremiah Denton, who became the face of defiance during more than seven years of captivity in North Vietnam and later a champion of conservative causes back home, died March 28 at age 89. Here’s a look at Denton’s life.
Denton entered the United States Naval Academy in 1943 and served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge in 1946-47. He later studied at the Naval War College and received a master’s degree in international affairs at George Washington University. Pictured, Denton in March, 1965.
On July 18, 1965, Commander Jeremiah Denton led a squadron of A-6 Intruders (similar to this file photo) from the aircraft carrier USS Independence on a bombing mission to a target south of Hanoi, where his aircraft was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft guns.
Denton was regularly beaten and tortured in captivity. In 1966 he was chosen to be interviewed by a Japanese news crew, where he was asked about allegations of American war atrocities. Denton said: “Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.”
As he answered the questions, Denton blinked his eyes to send a message in Morse code: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” Naval intelligence spotted the message, the first proof that American POWs were being mistreated. Denton was further brutalized by his captors in retaliation.
Denton would spend seven years and seven months as a prisoner of war. After a peace agreement was reached with the North Vietnamese government in February, 1973, he was in the first group of prisoners released as part of Operation Homecoming.
Speaking at Clark Air Base in the Philippines upon his return, Denton 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."
Denton is greeted by residents during a parade in Mobile, Ala., in 1973.
For his bravery he had been awarded the Navy Cross while still a prisoner. After his return he was promoted to rear admiral and later named commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., where he served until 1977. Pictured, Denton in 1975.
Denton, a native of Mobile, Ala., ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1980, becoming the first Republican senator from Alabama since Reconstruction. Pictured, Denton on the campaign trail with his wife, Jane, in September, 1980.
Denton served one term and was a strong advocate of President Reagan’s military buildup. Pictured, Denton in Congress in 1982.
Denton established the Coalition for Decency in 1977 to advocate for family values and good citizenship, and appeared frequently on the Christian Broadcasting Network to promote his views. Pictured, Denton speaks at a Nation POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony in September 2009.
Denton (right) shakes hands with defense secretary Robert Gates, 2009
Jeremiah Denton: 1924-2014
Updated: Mar. 31, 2014

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