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Editor’s note: Most Americans remember Jeremiah Denton from an extraordinary ABC News broadcast in 1966 during the Vietnam War. A Navy A-6 Intruder pilot, Denton had been shot down over North Vietnam and imprisoned as a POW in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” After being repeatedly tortured to persuade him to speak against the U.S., he was forced to participate in an internationally televised interview intended as a propaganda showcase featuring his forced “confession.”
However, when asked whether he supported the U.S. war efforts in Vietnam, he replied: “Well, I don’t know what is happening, [but] whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully. Whatever the position of my government, I believe in it, yes sir. I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”
Moreover, while answering the interviewer’s questions, Denton – pretending to be overwhelmed by the bright television lights – repeatedly blinked in Morse code the word “t-o-r-t-u-r-e” to alert U.S. military intelligence to the fact that his captors were torturing him and his fellow prisoners of war.
As retaliation for his statements on camera, Denton’s captors tortured him so severely that guards assigned to oversee the session cried.
In all, Denton was held captive for seven years and eight months, including a staggering four years in solitary confinement. During that time, as the highest ranking officer among the American prisoners, Denton remained both a leader and an example, upholding the highest standards of American honor, while also demonstrating incredible resilience and ingenuity – as did virtually all of the other American POWs.
On Feb. 12, 1973, Denton and other American POWs were released from their captivity. Stepping off the plane in Clark Air Base in the Philippines as a free man, Denton famously 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.”
Jeremiah Denton later became a U.S. senator from Alabama, and finding himself in the Oval Office with President Ronald Reagan, proposed a comprehensive strategy for confronting communism in Latin America that Reagan accepted and successfully implemented.
He recounted his remarkable struggle to survive almost eight years as a POW in the classic book, “When Hell Was In Session,” recently reissued by WND Books.
The following is a memorable excerpt, in which Denton discovers that God is extraordinarily real, even in a filthy North Vietnamese prison cell …
On July 20, the first anniversary of my arrival in Hanoi, I was placed in rear cuffs and stocks for five days. They were trying to soften me up so that I would make a “good” choice.
During the long, hot, helpless days in cuffs and stocks, when l could only twitch the flies and mosquitoes off my body, I occupied my mind with thoughts of the past. I closed my mind to the frequent blare of the loudspeaker in my cell, and tried to ignore my personal discomfort. I was convinced it would be a long contest, and I searched for sustenance. Thus, my thoughts turned to Ed Overton.
Overton was my coach at McGill Institute in Mobile. As my athletic mentor, he naturally had my special attention, and he taught me many lessons. One was especially pertinent to my present predicament.
During the big game of the football season in my senior year, I played my best at quarterback, but we lost. I came out of the contest physically and psychologically exhausted. My mouth was busted up; one tooth was knocked out; the bridge of my nose was cut and bleeding. Overton paid me a tribute at our first practice after the game when he told the team: “Denton rose to the occasion. He has that in him. If all of you had played like he did, we would have won.”
Then I remembered another speech Overton had made at the start of the season: “To be a champion, you have to pay the price every minute, day in and day out.”
I had not paid the price in extra training, extra study, or extra effort to deserve being called a champion. Athletics wasn’t that high on my list of values.
But now, in a filthy cell in North Vietnam, the recollection of Overton’s “pay the price” reminded me that this was a deadly game, and that the stakes involved the values that were highest on my list. I realized that I had to pay the price, day in and day out.
In the months to come, most of the American captives learned how to play the game. They understood the price and paid it. They were prisoners under barbaric conditions, but they had their own spirit, and they prevailed. In an important sense, their captors became their prisoners.
Clausewitz, the Prussian military strategist, wrote in the 19th century: “It is not the loss in men, horses, and guns, but in order, courage, confidence, cohesion and plan … It is principally the moral forces which decide here.”
My principal battle with the North Vietnamese was a moral one, and prayer was my prime source of strength.
Another source was my country; no sacrifice was too great on her behalf.
The nation is only as strong as the collective strength of its individuals.
National interests, objectives, policies and commitments depend on adherence to the nation’s principles. Founded on faith in God, the United States has been blessed as no other nation. The main tenet of that faith is “Love God; love thy neighbor as thyself.” Because of our faith, we have managed to cooperate effectively to achieve great prosperity and security. While prosperity and security are not everything, they are evidence that “A good tree shall bring forth good fruit.”
Although the United States has never been the richest in natural resources, or the most populous country, it has produced for its people, and for much of the rest of the world, a bounteous harvest – both materially and morally.
Democracy and freedom are rarities – hard to attain, harder to preserve. The pages of history are littered with freedom’s stillborn, people who rose against their oppressor, only to have sweet victory stolen from their grasp by another oppressor.
But we are different. The strength of our nation is more than a material strength. We are a strongly moral people, and our country is based on spiritual strength. Lose that and we lose everything.
The Declaration of Independence has established certain moral confines, and governs in a manner consistent with the spirit under which our nation was founded: Love God; love thy neighbor as thyself.
God is denied by the communists, and this denial is reflected by the way they treat their own subjects. Their system derives its strength from discipline imposed by the state. Ours derives its strength from the collective self-discipline of our individual citizens.
Such thoughts would carry me through the night, until I heard in the predawn distance the rattling sound of the Hanoi streetcars beginning their first circuit. Then my thoughts would again turn to surviving another day.
The North Vietnamese wanted me to rewrite my confession and put it into a special form that they had devised. I refused, and after I was caught communicating again, a guard came to my cell and pointed to his wrists, then made a circular motion with his hands. He wanted me to put on my long-sleeved shirt and roll up my gear. This always meant a move and, for me at this time, almost certainly more punishment.
Fox told me I must stop inciting others to resist, and I was taken to my old punishment cell in the auditorium, where I was placed in rear cuffs and traveling irons for the night. Then I was taken to the Gate, a building that had been used as a supply room and was now divided into three cells and a couple of utility rooms. In the cell to my left was Air Force Capt. John Borling. Beyond him was Air Force Capt. Darrell Pyle.
My cell was large, about 25 feet by 15 feet, but that was about all you could say for it. There was no ventilation, and the early August sun turned it into a steam oven. We were required to remain in full dress, which meant underwear and pajamas that were too light for winter and too heavy for summer. Eventually our bodies became covered with boils. There were no amenities, nothing to sleep on, and worst of all, no mosquito netting. We were in rear cuffs, with ropes around our ankles.
I passed to Borling and Pyle a technique, which I had learned from Ed Davis, of removing the cuffs with a nail. They used the method effectively to free their hands when the guards were away. Ironically, I was unable to find the right-sized nail to open my cuffs. Within a few days, however, I invented a different method of opening the cuffs. Unfortunately, I was caught clicking the cuffs back on one day, and the guards soon procured a heavier type of cuffs, made in China, from which no one could escape.
After about three weeks, I was taken back to the auditorium. My arms were tied tightly behind me, but not so tightly that the circulation was cut off. The guards had become masters at rope tying; that is, they knew how to produce constant pain without causing permanent damage. But I had also learned a few tricks, including a method of undoing the ropes and then retying them when the guards approached. This usually worked well, and I could achieve a brief respite, especially during the night. But there was no predicting my captors.
One night there was a heavy thunderstorm, and at about three in the morning. I decided it was safe to undo the ropes and maybe get an hour’s sleep without them. Suddenly a guard, Happy, came plowing through the torrential rain, lantern and flashlight in hand, to check on me. I heard him fumbling at the door, and didn’t have time to tie the ropes in back of me, so I tied them loosely in front. I looked up as though half-asleep when Happy opened the door and shined his light into the cell. He grunted and started to close the door, then did a double-take.
Puzzled, he came closer and looked at the ropes. He hauled me up by the ear and led me into the hallway, where he could get a better look. Pointing and gesturing, he wanted to know if he had tied the ropes in front. Of course, I nodded. Happy then gave me practically his entire English vocabulary.
“Bullsh-t!” he shouted. He reared back and knocked me against the wall. He then retied my arms behind me tighter than ever.
The next day two guards came to my cell and, after knocking me about, began raising me off the ground by my arms, which were still tied behind me. They kept this up for what seemed like hours, and I don’t know how my arms didn’t pop from their sockets. The pain was so intense that finally I could take it no longer. I gave in and copied my confession onto their standard form. It was small comfort that it had taken them three weeks to get it.
This was a new approach. They were now spreading the harassment and torture over a longer period of time, trying to wear us down. I didn’t like the method. If I was going to be tortured, I wanted it over with quickly.
Early in September, they tried yet another gambit, when Lump, a civilian with a large tumor protruding from the middle of his forehead, was introduced to the Zoo. He was a highly intelligent man who spoke excellent English and was well versed in psychology. Obviously someone of importance in the hierarchy, he boasted that he was a frequent negotiator for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in trade sessions with other communist nations, and that he had just come from a meeting with an East German group.
Lump began taking the soft-sell, good-guy approach with the POWs in quizzes, and probably suckered some of them, although I felt certain that he would eventually resort to torture if he didn’t get what he wanted.
I had not yet recovered from the brutal arm-twisting session, and when Lump asked me to write something, anything, I consented and wrote on “superstitions” among pilots, a topic he suggested.
I wrote at length on the logical proof of the existence of God, using examples from the order of the universe, and Lump accepted my work. When I refused to write something more of a similar nature, he remained calm. But I knew this was only the beginning.
I had been taken back to cell 1 of the Pool Hall late in August, and about the middle of September, Navy commander Jim Mulligan was moved into cell 3. Mulligan, who had been shot down on March 20, 1966, had been a shipmate of mine on the carrier Independence in 1962, and we were good friends. But his condition worried me. Dave Hatcher in cell 2 tapped to me that Mulligan had been a “ball of fire” at the Barn, but now was quite different.
He was debilitated by mistreatment, was seriously ill, couldn’t eat or drink much, and was so weak that he could barely tap. Hatcher tapped to me that Mulligan looked like a survivor from a Nazi concentration camp and weighed no more than 100 pounds.
We in the Pool Hall were a sorry lot, in general. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jack Fellowes in cell 10 couldn’t use his arms. The North Vietnamese thought he had knowledge of the EA6, an electronic version of the A6, and had used the ropes on him so severely that his arms were permanently damaged. The especially sad part was that Fellowes actually didn’t know anything about the EA6. Fellowes was also an old friend from the early ’60s, and was one of the toughest men in prison.
In cell 10 with Fellowes was Air Force Capt. Ron Bliss, who had a serious head injury. Bliss and Fellowes took turns caring for each other. In cell 5 were Air Force Maj. Quincy Collins, on crutches, and Air Force Maj. A. J. Myers.
Air Force Maj. Alan Brunstrom and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Render Crayton were in cell 6; Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dave Burroughs was in cell 5; Purcell in 7; Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Coffee and Navy Lt. Larry Spencer in 8; and Ray Vohden with Air Force Maj. Norland Daughtrey, whose arms had been mangled in a high-speed ejection, in 9. All were debilitated, and many had serious and mostly untreated injuries.
It became evident that no one would be spared in the quest for biographies and confessions. They were now torturing badly injured men.
Our resistance remained resolute, and in the middle of October, Lump demanded information from me on camp communications. He told me they knew I was inciting others to resist, and he lost his composure for the first time, threatening me with torture if I didn’t cooperate.
I refused, and a special rig was devised for me in my cell. I was placed in a sitting position on a pallet, with my hands tightly cuffed behind my back and my feet flat against the wall. Shackles were put on my ankles, with the open ends down, and an iron bar was pushed through the eyelets of the shackles. The iron bar was tied to the pallet and the shackles in such a way that when the rope was drawn over a pulley arrangement, the bar would cut into the backs of my legs, gradually turning them into a swollen, bloody mess.
I couldn’t move my legs; I couldn’t turn my ankles; I had to remain in a sitting position at all times with my legs absolutely straight. The pulley was used daily to increase the pressure, and the iron bar began to eat through the Achilles tendons on the backs of my ankles.
After five days and nights in the rig, I decided to give them something harmless, hoping that the gesture would allow them to save face and release me. I wrote that we had talked to other prisoners while pretending to talk to the guards, and had also shouted under the doors. Lump shrugged and ordered me back into the rig. He was angered by my attempt to deceive him and determined to break me.
The punishment was so gory that each day Happy, after tightening the ropes, would still be weeping when he went to the next cell to let Mulligan out to empty his bucket. For five more days and nights, I remained in the rig. My back got one respite in that time. I managed to lean against my bucket, which I had maneuvered into position on the pallet, and relieve the strain enough to get some sleep. Even a roving guard took some pity. He saw me leaning against the bucket but didn’t report it for 18 hours. By the fifth morning, I was nearing despair. I offered myself to God with an admission that I could take no more on my own. Tears ran down my face as I repeated my vow of surrender to Him. Strangely, as soon as I made the vow, a deep feeling of peace settled into my tortured mind and pain-wracked body, and the suffering left me completely. It was the most profound and deeply inspiring moment of my life.
A few minutes later, Happy and another guard came into my cell and the two of them began pulling on the rope. Blood began to flow heavily from my legs. I felt nothing, though I still bear the scars and have frequent spasms in my legs from the ordeal.
I looked up at Happy as if to say: Why are you doing this to me? Happy stopped pulling on the rope, apparently asking himself the same question, and cried out “No! No!” in Vietnamese. He ran headlong from the room and into Lump, who had been standing just outside the door. Lump ordered him back, but Happy refused in a high-pitched, half-hysterical voice. A loud, screaming argument ensued, and when Happy returned he loosened the ropes.
The next morning, I was taken from the rig by Happy, who avoided my eyes as he applied medication to the larger gashes in my legs. He also helped me roll up my gear, and since I couldn’t walk, he and another guard held me between them and walked me back to the Gate, where I was pushed into my old cell. I soon determined that there were no other prisoners in the cellblock. I was again isolated.
In the 15 months I had been in Hanoi, I had been through six major torture sessions, five of them in the last six months. I was exhausted, but for the first time I felt as though I had really beaten them. They had not got even a face-saving gesture.
My hands were cuffed behind me at the Gate, but when the guards tried to put traveling irons on me, my ankles were so swollen that they had to settle for ropes. To avoid the embarrassment that knowledge of their failure to break me would bring, they kept me in total isolation. …
After about a month, I got a new neighbor in my cellblock. At first I couldn’t tell who it was, although I had seen him being moved in, and I immediately got on the wall and tapped, “Who are you?”
The answer came back: “Coker. Who are you?” I tapped back my name and waited for a greeting, but none came. I continued to tap without getting an answer until I was fairly booming on the wall over and over: “Why won’t you tap? Why won’t you tap?” Finally Coker tapped, “I do not think you are Denton.”
I was puzzled and a little angry. Who in the hell did he think I was? Then I realized that he thought it was some kind of trap. The North Vietnamese on occasion had attempted, somewhat crudely, to trick the prisoners by tapping, but I considered myself much too smooth an operator to be mistaken for a North Vietnamese. For the next 20 minutes I tapped to Coker an account of our duty together in VA 42 and recalled many mutual acquaintances. Convinced, he tapped to me, “I didn’t recognize you when I saw you through a crack in my door. You were picking up your chow. You don’t weigh a hundred pounds.”
On Dec. 7, I heard three of the guards, Pierre, Flash and Happy, arguing outside my cell. Lump still wanted information from me and had ordered more torture. I thought Happy was telling the other two guards that using the rope trick on me would do no good, but in a few minutes the three of them came into my cell, bound my legs and applied the rope trick to my arms. By now, I knew I could beat the rope trick by accepting the pain until I passed out. Of course, if the ropes weren’t removed after a certain period of time, my arms would suffer permanent damage from lack of circulation and would have to be removed. I would take that chance.
After the guards left, I crawled to the wall and tapped my condition to Coker. Then I lay on my bed. As unconsciousness approached, I felt my arms, wrists and hands go numb and my shoulders began to hurt. I crawled on my knees to the door, and through a crack I could see the three guards pacing back and forth, glancing occasionally at their watches. They also knew the dangers of the ropes, and apparently weren’t prepared to risk loss of my arms.
After nearly an hour, they came into the room and removed the ropes without a word. Pierre kicked me in disgust. That night, I peeked out the door at the heightened activity outside. Many others were getting the rope trick.
But the next day, Dec. 8, 1966, I watched through my crack in amazement as 26 sets of cuffs and traveling irons were taken from various cells and stored in a room a few yards from my cell. It was the signal for what was to be a major change in the North Vietnamese torture program. They apparently had given up on trying to subjugate the mass of prisoners with camp-wide torture. Biographical information was still being forced from some prisoners, but it soon became apparent that the pressure was off, to a degree.
Our resistance had forced the Vietnamese into brutal measures, and word had leaked out. The United States and other countries had reacted violently to such outrages as the Hanoi March, and this reaction had its effect in the higher councils of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam.
Torture was still used for punitive purposes, even at times on a camp-wide basis for such things as escapes and the discovery of sophisticated command and communications systems. Prolonged spot purges against specific groups were also conducted for propaganda exploitation, and new prisoners were tortured individually for military information. But routine subjugation purges against the entire mass of prisoners did not continue. The North Vietnamese had thought the Americans would be easy touches, and when they were not, the whole program of total subjugation was thrown into chaos. There wouldn’t have been much point in torturing us to death. What they wanted was to subdue us, and then win us over to the point where we would routinely do their bidding. They failed.
Had they succeeded, it would have been disastrous for the morale and substance of the United States. The vast majority of American prisoners in North Vietnam upheld their country’s honor, with enormous consequences for their nation’s pride and prestige. If we had come out of there defeated and bowed, our country would have, too.
For the first time since April 1966, I was accorded “normal” treatment. I was still in isolation in a windowless, cold and filthy cell, but I began receiving the standard cigarette ration of three a day, I was allowed out of my cell 15 minutes a day for exercise, I got a haircut, and I was allowed to bathe and shave at regular intervals.
When I removed my clothing and looked at my arms in good light for the first time in months, I could understand that George Coker was not exaggerating. I looked like a skeleton.
I repaid the North Vietnamese for their consideration by planning an escape. During my previous stay at the Gate, I had discovered I could open the large double door to my cell by working loose the metal piece securing the hasp, to which the large padlock was attached. This was my first real chance to work out a feasible escape plan, and I had the circumstances, time and determination to try.
All the doors to the rooms at the Gate were secured in the same way, and I told Coker in the next cell how to force open his door. But it scraped on the concrete and made a loud noise, so I figured that the best thing for Coker would be to work his way through the ceiling of his cell, come across the roof at night to my cell, and go out with me.
All the instruction to military men advised that no one should go out by himself, for various reasons, so it was important that we go out together. Also, Risner had previously passed word that no one should go without outside help, meaning someone like a friendly guard. When Coker asked me about the order, I tapped to him, “I know Robbie well, and under the circumstances, I believe he’d agree with me that God is our outside help.”
George was tough, but he thought little of our chances. “You want to commit honorable suicide,” he tapped to me.
But I told him how we could steal two bikes from a storage shed, use a pallet for a ladder to go over the wall and be on our way. I was not sure about our physical strength for such an undertaking, and when Coker finally bought my plan, I agreed to wait until the Tet holiday in February of 1967. Our strength would be somewhat restored, and most of the guards would be drunk.
But I was moved from the Gate long before Tet and never had the same kind of door again. Coker and George McKnight later used the same door-opening method to engineer a successful but brief escape.
On Dec. 13, there was a spectacular air raid on the truck park on Highway One about a mile from the Zoo. By looking through the crack in my door, I could see the planes, mostly F4s and F105s, diving down and whipping their bombs out toward the park as they passed over the Zoo. The raid lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and the thud of bombs was mixed liberally with the sound of shrapnel falling in the street from the heavy antiaircraft fire.
As the planes banked over the Zoo, I could actually see the pilots in their cockpits. I watched in fascination and with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I feared for their safety in that sky full of fire, and on the other, I envied them. In a few minutes, most of them would be back in the security and comfort of their bases, where they would sit down with their friends and eat a warm, full meal, something I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. I reached up with my hand, as if to grab a wing and hitch a ride back with them.
A few days later, there was another raid close by, but behind my building, so that I couldn’t see it from my door crack. Frenchy, just outside my cell, was looking up in horror. He thought Hanoi was being bombed, and would be destroyed. Actually, the target was a rail yard and there was little collateral damage, as I learned later.
On Christmas Eve of 1966, George and I exchanged “Christmas cards.” As closely as I can remember, I tapped to George Coker: “May the consoling peace of the Infant King unite you and your family on this Precious Night.”
George was young and one of several children from a close-knit, God-fearing family. His “card” to me was similar, and touched me deeply on that Silent Night.
Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr., born July 15, 1924, is a retired Navy admiral and aviator who spent almost eight years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and later became a U.S. senator from Alabama. For his continuous resistance and leadership, even in the face of torture and inhumane conditions, Denton was awarded the Navy Cross.