Jeremiah Denton, the Vietnam War POW who has died at age 89, uttered one of the great statements of defiance in American history.
In 1965, he was shot down in his A-6 during a bombing run over North Vietnam. He became a captive for more than seven years and endured an unimaginable regime of torture, humiliation and isolation, managing to retain his dignity and spirit even as his captors went to hideous lengths to snuff them out.
Soon after his capture, a young North Vietnamese solider signaled to him to bow down and, when he refused, pressed a gun to his head so hard it created a welt. Denton quickly learned that this would be mild treatment. He was taken to Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton, where he led the resistance to the North Vietnamese efforts to extract propaganda confessions from their prisoners.
As Denton related in his book, “When Hell Was in Session,” they tried to starve one out of him. After days, he began to hallucinate, but he still refused. They took him to what was called the Meathook Room and beat him. Then, they twisted his arms with ropes and relented just enough to keep him from passing out. They rolled an iron bar on his legs and jumped up and down on it. For hours.
He agreed finally to give them a little of what they wanted, but at first his hands were too weak to write and his voice too weak to speak. He hadn’t recovered from this ordeal when the Vietnamese told him he would appear at a press conference.
Denton told a fellow POW that his plan was to “blow it wide open.” He famously blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code during the interview, a message picked up by naval intelligence and the first definitive word of what the prisoners were being subjected to. When asked what he thought of his government’s war, Denton replied, “Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, yes sir. I’m a member of that government, and it’s my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”
The legend is that under the pressure of the Inquisition, Galileo said of the Earth, “Yet, it moves.” That Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Denton’s words aren’t an embellishment. They were seen by millions when they were broadcast in the United States, and he almost immediately paid for them in torment so horrifying that he desperately prayed that he wouldn’t go insane.
For two years, he was confined in what was dubbed “Alcatraz,” reserved for the “darkest criminals who persist in inciting the other criminals to oppose the Camp Authority,” in the words of one of the guards. Alvin Townley, author of the book Defiant, writes of the Alcatraz prisoners and their wives back in the States, “Together, they overcame more intense hardship over more years than any other group of servicemen and families in American history.”
When the American involvement in the war ended and the POWs finally were released, Denton made a brief statement on the tarmac upon his return, no less powerful for its simplicity and understatement: “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.”
A Roman Catholic, Denton told his family that he had forgiven his captors and, after recounting to them what he had gone through his first night back, that he didn’t want to speak to them of it again. His son James says he often heard him say — with typical modesty — “That’s over. I don’t want to be a professional jailbird.”
He certainly wasn’t that. Denton went on to become a U.S. senator from Alabama. With his passing, we’ve lost a hero whose example of faithfulness and duty should be for the ages.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.