It’s been exactly 40 years since Jeremiah Denton, who retired as a Navy admiral, was freed from captivity as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi.
His story of survival still is breathtaking for the punishment he endured when he signaled to the free world that war prisoners were being tortured.
The date was marked by the Thomas More Law Center, for which Denton now serves as chairman of the Citizens Advisory Board.
He was profiled just a few weeks ago when he was given the first-ever “Lifetime Achievement Award” by WND.
Denton’s life took a fateful turn 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.” In his book, he described the almost unimaginable hardships he faced as well as the phenomenal ingenuity and perseverance of 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.” 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 values of God, country and family that sustained him through years of being 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.” He provided 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 compromised 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.”
See video of Denton’s return:
Denton has always made clear that one thing, his faith in God, sustained him throughout his brutal 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 scene, 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 leaving the military, Denton in 1980 was elected to the U.S. 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.”