In his book “When Hell Was In Session,” Adm. Jeremiah Denton – who passed away Friday at age 89 – described a life-changing personal encounter he had with God while being tortured in a rodent-infested North Vietnamese prison cell:
Our resistance remained resolute, and in the middle of October, Lump [a senior prison official] 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 [a prison guard], 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 still bear the scars … frequent spasms in my legs,” wrote Denton.
Which perhaps is why, close to five decades later when my daughter and I were walking through the Jamestown Settlement museum with Jeremiah Denton and his wife, Mary (they had graciously invited us to visit them in Williamsburg, Va., where we were overnight house guests), Jeremiah Denton couldn’t bend down and tie his shoelaces that had become untied. Mary knelt down and tied them.
Jeremiah Denton, or Admiral Denton or Sen. Denton (or, as he preferred to be called, “Jerry,” though I always had a hard time calling him that to his face, even when he insisted) was a hero not just because he was imprisoned in filthy prison cells and tortured for his country. Denton, along with the other heroic Americans POWs – many of them, like Denton, Naval aviators shot down over enemy territory – are especially worthy of honor because they dealt with their horrendous mistreatment so nobly, so admirably, so defiantly, like the natural aristocrats of the human race that they were and are.
It’s hard to have any idea what I’m talking about without reading Denton’s book, “When Hell Was In Session.” It has affected me – in a lasting way – more than almost any other book I’ve ever read.
I first met Jeremiah Denton and his wife, Mary, while spending a week with them aboard a WND cruise, and found the daily experience of talking and dining with them somewhat akin to sitting down to dinner with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or William Bradford and experiencing living history. We’re talking stories – amazing stories.
Anyway, having gotten to know “Jerry and Mary” through that experience, we stayed in touch and they invited me to visit them at their home near Colonial Williamsburg. I took my daughter, Sarah, along with me.
We drove down from Washington, D.C., with me at the wheel and Sarah navigating, and eventually ended up at the door of the Dentons’ home. After unpacking, we drove out with the Dentons for a little sightseeing, visiting nearby Colonial Williamsburg briefly, but spending more time at Jamestown, which Sarah and I had not previously visited.
It was remarkable walking through the Jamestown Settlement, talking about and reflecting on America’s history with a living part of that history walking along with us. Just like I described the experience of dining with them on the cruise, this once again was kind of like those “Night at the Museum” vignettes where Theodore Roosevelt or Sacagawea or other larger-than-life historical icons spring to life and talk personally, intimately, warmly with you, just some regular person, about great things. Except this was better – because it was real.
But the best part of our visit was the hours we spent in the Dentons’ living room later that evening and the next morning, just talking about life, about America, about God, about the future, about the events of Jeremiah Denton’s life – in other words, great stories. He even reminisced about his encounter with the divine in his North Vietnamese prison cell, adding a few more details.
My daughter, in her early 20s, not only watched and listened, but talked, asked questions, interacted with Jeremiah Denton (occasionally holding back tears, she later told me; I felt the same way). He graciously signed a book for her, and was – as I am quite sure he was with all his friends and admirers – warm and enthusiastically supportive of both Sarah and me in our own work and our lives. That’s how he was.
Denton’s well-known life story – his A-6 Intruder being shot down over North Vietnam; his nearly eight years as a prisoner of war, four of them in solitary; his blinking “torture” in Morse code while being interrogated on international TV; his valiant leadership role with the other POWs; his astonishingly patriotic and humble comments upon finally being released (“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”); his subsequent role as a U.S. senator; his advising a grateful Ronald Reagan on foreign policy; his continual outreach and inspiration to new generations of Americans; his enduring charitable work – that story stands as a stark and annihilating contrast to everything the political and immoral left has been doing to America (including her military) during the same period of time.
As we prepared to leave the Denton home, we packed our car (Sarah reminds me that “Jerry” was so kind, always making a point of carrying her suitcase for her) and said our goodbyes. Then, as we slowly turned and pulled out of the driveway, we looked back – and there were Jerry and Mary Denton, standing side by side “at attention,” both of them smiling and locked in a military salute, as we pulled away.
Today, of course, it is we and all of America who salute Jeremiah Denton.
I have the beloved Kipling poem “If” framed on a wall in my office, and the last verse reminds me of “Jerry” and the life he led:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
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