(from CBS News) – Prisoner of war Jeremiah Denton declared his loyalty to the U.S. government during a 1966 interview for what was supposed to be a propaganda film. But his enraged captors missed his more covert message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E,” blinked into the camera in Morse code, a dispatch that would alert the U.S. military to the conditions he endured.
Denton, who would survive 7 1/2 years confined in a tiny, stinking, windowless cell at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” and other camps before his release in 1973, died of heart problems Friday in Virginia Beach, Va., at age 89, his grandson Edward Denton said.
The elder Denton later became the first Republican from Alabama elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. …
In July 1965, a month after he began flying combat missions for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, the Mobile native was shot down near Thanh Hoa. He was captured and recalled his captivity in a book titled “When Hell Was in Session.”
“They beat you with fists and fan belts,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “They warmed you up and threatened you with death. Then they really got serious and gave you something called the rope trick.” The use of ropes – to cut off circulation in his limbs – left him with no feeling in his fingertips and intense muscle spasms, he said.
Some of the most severe torture came after the 1966 interview, in which he confounded his captors by saying that he continued to fully support the U.S. government, “and I will support it as long as I live.”
“In the early morning hours, I prayed that I could keep my sanity until they released me. I couldn’t even give in to their demands, because there were none. It was pure revenge,” Denton wrote.
The tape was widely seen, and U.S. intelligence experts had picked up the Morse Code message. But Denton theorized later that his captors likely figured it out only after he was awarded the Navy Cross – the second-highest decoration for valor – for the blinks in 1974.
He said his captors never brought him out for another interview. But with the war’s end drawing closer, he was released in February 1973.
Denton was the senior officer among former POWs who stepped off a plane into freedom at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Denton epitomized the military spirit as he spoke for the returning soldiers: “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 words and bearing, beamed back to his country by television, gave heart to the military at a time of increasing uncertainty and bitter division over the course of the war.
He was promoted to rear admiral and retired from the Navy in November 1977. Denton then turned to politics, despite having no experience running for a statewide political office. With Ronald Reagan atop the GOP ticket, Denton became the first Republican elected to the Senate from Alabama since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.
In Washington, he was a Reagan loyalist, a defender of military might and an advocate for a return to traditional family values and conservative stands on moral issues. …
Denton lost his re-election bid in 1986 by only a fraction of a percentage point.
After his defeat, Denton founded the Coalition for Decency and lectured about family causes. Denton also launched a humanitarian outreach to needy countries through his National Forum Foundation, which arranged shipments of donated goods.
“He was a war hero, an honorable senator, and a family man who cared deeply about his country,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, who as a Democrat defeated Denton in 1986. Shelby switched to the GOP in 1994 and was elected to a fifth term in 2010.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who also was held captive as a POW in Vietnam, described Denton as his mentor. “As a senior ranking officer in prison, Admiral Denton’s leadership inspired us to persevere, and to resist our captors, in ways we never would have on our own,” McCain said. [Over seven years and seven months, Commander Denton was held in various prison camps, including the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” and endured beatings, starvation, torture and more than four years of solitary confinement, including periodic detentions in coffinlike boxes. He and other officers nevertheless maintained a chain of command and a measure of discipline among the prisoners. “I put out the policy that they were not to succumb to threats, but must stand up and say no,” he told The New York Times in 1973. The commander was often punished for urging others to resist. He also devised ways for prisoners to communicate by signs or numbers, tapping on a wall or coughing signals in a sequence.]
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions called Denton a “friend, warrior, leader, and hero.” “He was a man of grit and character that can’t be manufactured,” Sessions said in a statement. “His word was his bond and his loyalty was unshakable.”[Former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, who served with Denton in the Senate, added, “He brought an experience and credibility with him that immediately established him as the kind of American who was willing to do everything he could to help the country, putting his own interests second.”]
In later years, Denton lived in Williamsburg, Va., but he still appeared at patriotic gatherings. In November 2008, an emotional Denton watched at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Ala., as a newly restored A-6 Intruder fighter/bomber – like the one he flew over North Vietnam – was rolled out in his honor.
Denton’s grandson, Edward, said that on one hand, Denton was a normal grandfather who enjoyed taking his grandchildren fishing aboard his boat in Mobile. “On the other hand,” he said, “he was a war hero and someone who set an example for being what being a good, patriotic American is all about.”
CBS affiliate WKRG reports that Denton, a native of Mobile, attended McGill Institute and Spring Hill College before graduating from the Naval Academy.
First published March 28. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from CBS News. Visit the website at cbsnews .com.
1. a) When was Jeremiah Denton captured by the North Vietnamese?
b) When was he released?
2. a) In what year was Commander Denton forced to participate in an interview in what was supposed to be a propaganda film?
b) Why were the Vietnamese enraged by his responses?
c) How did they react to his answers during the interview?
3. a) What message did Denton convey to the U.S. during his interview?
b) How was he able to convey this message?
c) Commander Denton was awarded the Navy Cross in 1974 (the second-highest decoration for valor) for his message. What is puzzling about this award?
4. a) What did Commander Denton say upon his release as he stepped off a plane in the Philippines?
b) What is your reaction to his remarks? (astonishment, admiration, awe…etc.) Explain your answer.
5. What was significant about Commander Denton’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1980?
6. How do others describe Jeremiah Denton? Be specific.
7. Watch the news video on Commander Denton under “Resources” below. What two or three words do you think best describe this man? Explain your answer.
CHALLENGE: Jeremiah Denton was a true American hero. Read more of his story through the links under “Resources.” Watch an interview he gave about his book. Share his story with at least one friend and your family.
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 onto 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.” …
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 on his first night back what he had gone through, 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. (from Rich Lowry at nationalreview.com)
Read an additional article about Jeremiah Denton at: reuters.com
Read about his book “When Hell Was in Session” or watch an interview with Commander Denton about his book at:
Watch an ABC News report including his interview while a POW: