EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 18, 1965, Adm. Jeremiah Denton of the U.S. Navy was shot down during a combat mission over North Vietnam. A prisoner of war for seven and a half years, Denton provided the first direct evidence of torture by the North Vietnamese. The following is an excerpt of his book, When Hell Was in Session, a special edition of which commemorated the 25th anniversary of his experience.
My wife knew what was up the moment twelve-year-old Billy, our fourth child, came halfway up the stairs and called out that Captain Nelson was there to see her.
As Jane recounted to me years later, Captain Stu Nelson had called on a neighbor, Bobi Boecker, a few days before to tell her that her husband, Don, had gone down over Laos. Don had been rescued, and on that pleasant, warm Sunday afternoon in July, Captain Nelson held out hope that I would also be rescued.
“It’s all right, it’s all right, we’re trying to get him out,” Nelson called up the stairs.
Even now I relive the moments as though I had been there. Jane was silent as she came down to face the stocky, crew-cut Nelson and his pretty blond wife. There was really little to say as Nelson, ordinarily gruff and outspoken, mumbled the details. A parachute had been seen; my comrades had flown cover and had seen me fall into a river and then get safely to shore. A rescue effort was under way. That was about all.
Jane listened in stunned silence and thought back to the night before, when she had taken the children to a drive-in to see Mary Poppins. For the first time since I had left home three months previously, she had felt apprehension about my safety. In the middle of the movie she had begun to cry, silently. That Sunday morning she had written me a letter and then the family had gone to Mass.
Now Billy was staring at her, and she didn’t know what to do. Finally she asked him to go and take care of Mary Beth, one and a half, our youngest. Michael and Madeleine, five and seven years old, were playing outside. Mrs. Nelson took them across the street to a neighbor.
Because of the time difference, it was now Monday, July 19 in Vietnam.
Jane did what her character and background told her to do; she went to church and prayed. Later she would take care of her family.
People made things easier. As the news spread, friends came to offer assistance, and Jane’s sister began making plane reservations for the trip to Virginia Beach. Our close friend Kitty Clark came down from Washington immediately.
On Monday night, Captain Nelson came by with a map to show Jane where I had gone down, but even before he told her, she knew the truth. I was not going to be picked up. Captain Nelson finally said that the search had been called off. On Friday, the week was climaxed by an announcement from Hanoi that I had been shot down and captured along with Tschudy. The broadcast added an ominous note: Denton and Tschudy had been sent by McNamara personally and would be treated as imperialist criminals. At noon, while watching the news on television, Jane saw a picture of me and Bill Tschudy and cried out: “Is that Jerry?” My face was swollen and out of shape and I looked as though I’d been whipped. It was a shock, and she broke down badly for the first time.
She hoped I would be home by Christmas, but something I had said on my departure kept forcing its way into her consciousness. “The war will last a long time,” I had said. To her, it sounded like an open-ended sentence.
Jane married me at the age of 20 after two years at Mary Washington College in Virginia and plunged quickly into the itinerant way of life that characterizes the military. The names are familiar: Philadelphia, where I was attached to the carrier Valley Forge, being built at the naval shipyard there; Newport, R.I.; Philadelphia again; San Diego; Hawaii; Lakehurst, N.J., where I took blimp training; Pensacola; Patuxent, Md.; Nice, France; Norfolk; Pensacola again; Norfolk again; Kansas; Newport again; and Virginia Beach.
Each move became more of a chore as the family grew, and Jane was delighted to settle down for a time in the big white house on Watergate Lane. It turned out to be a much longer time than she had bargained for.
And the Vietnam War was to last a much longer time than the American public had bargained for. If I had been somewhat prescient about the length of the war, that was not the case with the American public. Most people were aware, vaguely, that the United States had gradually been building ground forces in South Vietnam; first, advisers to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, then Marines to guard installations, then the Army, for offensive operations. By July 18, 1965, the day I was shot down, President Johnson had authorized a total of 193,000 men for ground forces in South Vietnam. But the public hardly knew there was a war on.
Even those who opposed it were slow to organize. The Students for a Democratic Society didn’t hold their first anti-war rally until Easter of 1965, and it was generally ignored by the government and the public. In time, however, the protestors were to become almost as grave a problem as the military forces of North Vietnam.
For me, the fateful decision was made on Sept. 7, 1964, more than ten months before I was shot down, when President Johnson met in the White House with Dean Rusk, Secretary of State; Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense; General Maxwell Taylor, ambassador to South Vietnam; and John A. McCone, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Johnson administration for months had had contingency plans for an air war against North Vietnam, and by March 17, 1964, details were in place for retaliatory strikes on 72 hours’ notice, and full-scale air raids on the North on 30 days’ notice.
Then, on Aug. 4, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Congress three days later gave President Johnson the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which said in part that the Congress would approve and support the determination of the president “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
President Johnson had a slight problem with the timing of the start of the bombing, however. He was up for reelection against Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose advocacy of full-scale bombing of North Vietnam had become a major campaign issue. Publicly, Johnson had been preaching moderation and couldn’t afford to bomb the North until sometime after the election in November. In a campaign speech in Texas on Aug. 29, 1964, he had declared:
“I have had advice to load our planes with bombs and to drop them on certain areas that I think would enlarge the war and escalate the war. Instead, the policy of the United States government toward Vietnam is to furnish advice, give counsel, express good judgment, give them trained counselors, and help them with equipment to help themselves.”
A little more than a week later, on that fateful September 7, the inner circle of the administration decided to go ahead with the raids on the basis that they would bolster the shaky morale of the South Vietnamese government, which was on the verge of another coup, and put the North on notice that the U.S. meant business.
On Feb. 13, 1965, President Johnson gave the order for the sustained bombing of the North, code-named Rolling Thunder, of which I was a willing part.
– Adm. Jeremiah Denton is a retired United States Navy Rear Admiral and Naval Aviator, and a former U.S. senator from the state of Alabama.