Jeremiah A. Denton’s life took a fateful turn for the worse on July 18, 1965, when the A6 Intruder he was piloting – leading an attack squadron of 28 airplanes off the deck of the carrier USS Independence – was shot down while targeting the heavily defended Thanh Hoa Bridge about 75 miles south of Hanoi.
Having snapped a tendon in his left leg while trying to prevent the A6 from crashing after being hit by enemy fire, Denton ejected and parachuted to ground, only to land in a river where armed North Vietnamese soldiers easily captured him.
“Dazed and bleeding as I was, my principal emotion was fury,” Denton wrote in his 1975 bestseller, “When Hell Was In Session,” describing the almost unimaginable hardships he faced – as well as the phenomenal ingenuity and perseverance of the American POWs – during his nearly eight years of captivity in and around the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”
“I was mad as hell at being shot down,” said Denton, “and even angrier at being captured.”
What the North Vietnamese captured, Denton explained, was “an average product of Middle America and its values,” such that his heritage, training, and background made him “the very antithesis of everything my Communist captors stood for.”
Born in 1924, Denton was raised Roman Catholic by a strong mother who taught him the values of God, country and family that sustained him through years of surviving day-by-day, chained, tortured and malnourished – including an unprecedented four years of solitary confinement.
Denton achieved fame in 1966 when, during an internationally televised press conference staged by the North Vietnamese for propaganda purposes, he bravely answered the interviewer’s questions while simultaneously blinking, in Morse code, the message “T-O-R-T-U-R-E,” providing confirmation to the U.S. government for the first time that U.S. POWs held in captivity in North Vietnam were being tortured.
When asked a leading question designed to elicit a compromising response – “What is your feeling toward your government’s actions?” – Denton’s measured reply shocked everyone: “I don’t know what is going on in the war now because the only sources I have access to are North Vietnam radio, magazine and newspapers, but whatever the position of my government is, I agree with it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.”
Finally released on Feb. 12, 1973, Denton again achieved international attention as the spokesman for the first group of POWs returning from Hanoi to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
As he stepped from the plane in his Navy Uniform, Denton – a free man after eight years in “hell” – walked over to waiting microphones and famously said, “We are honored to have 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.”
View a 5-minute video documentary on Jeremiah Denton featuring both the North Vietnamese “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” press conference and Denton’s famous comments upon returning to American soil for the first time after his captivity.
“My principle battle with the North Vietnamese was a moral one, and prayer was my prime source of strength,” he wrote.
Though happy and relieved to be free, when he finally arrived back in the United States, Denton was shocked by what he beheld.
“I saw the appearance of X-rated movies, adult magazines, massage parlors, the proliferation of drugs, promiscuity, premarital sex, and unwed mothers.”
This scenario, he wrote, was coupled with “the tumultuous post-war Vietnam political events, starting with Congress forfeiting our military victory, thus betraying our victorious American and allied servicemen and women, who had won the war at great cost of blood and sacrifice.”
Indeed, Denton was convinced the United States won the Vietnam War, only to throw away the victory for political reasons.
“The victory was insanely handed back to the enemy by congressional actions, motivated by political catering to the media, academic, and public antiwar activities, which tragically comprised a loud, violent, ignorant minority of our people who were swept along in the days of national dissolution,” he said in “When Hell Was In Session.”
After retiring from active service at the rank of rear admiral, having been awarded the Navy Cross and several other decorations for heroism, Denton became active in public affairs, always emphasizing the prerequisites of family strength and national morality for the American civilization to continue to advance and protect the sacred, inalienable rights of all its citizens.
In 1980, Jeremiah Denton was elected to the United States Senate from Alabama, the first Republican elected to represent that state in the Senate since Reconstruction.
At a fundraising luncheon in Birmingham, on June 6, 1985, President Ronald Reagan waxed eloquent about his friend, “Jerry” Denton:
“For almost eight years, Jeremiah Denton endured the inhuman trials and tortures of North Vietnamese prison camps, but his faith and the love of his family and country not only gave him the courage to survive, but to alert the world to the horrors of the Vietnamese gulag,” Reagan said. “He became in those eight years not only a great hero for his country, but a hero for the cause of human freedom. He learned then that the struggle for liberty is the struggle for life.”
Jerry and I came into office in the same year, 1981, and for the last four and a half years, he’s been a pillar of support for our efforts to keep America strong and free and true. He’s been rated the most conservative senator by the National Journal. That’s my kind of senator. His voting record has been rated 100 percent by the American Conservative Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Conservatives Against Liberal Legislation – I like the name of that one – the National Alliance of Senior Citizens, the Christian Voters Victory Fund, and some others. The magazine, Conservative Digest, took a poll of its readers, and Jerry Denton was their second most admired senator. Now, knowing Jerry, he’s probably wondering where he slipped up.
A few years earlier, in his 1982 State of the Union Speech, Reagan said to the whole nation:
We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes. They are all around us. One who sits among you here tonight epitomized that heroism at the end of the longest imprisonment ever inflicted on men of our armed forces. Who will ever forget that night when we waited for the television to bring us the scene of that first plane landing at Clark Field in the Philippines – bringing our POWs home? The plane door opened and Jeremiah Denton came slowly down the ramp. He caught sight of our flag, saluted, and said, “God Bless America.” then thanked us for bringing him home.
In bestowing its first-ever “Lifetime Achievement Award,” WND wishes to honor Adm. Jeremiah Denton for being, as President Reagan expressed it so well a quarter century ago, “not only a great hero for his country, but a hero for the cause of human freedom.”
Read WND’s related story: Christmas Eve in Hell