Jeremiah Denton, 1924-2014

Aug. 2, 2014

Jeremiah A. Denton Jr. had three careers in the course of his 89 years. He was a Navy pilot. He was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for seven years and seven months. And he was a U.S. senator from Alabama.

He excelled in all three, but it was as leader of the POWs at the Hanoi Hilton that he should always be remembered. He spent four years in solitary confinement and was brutally beaten many times. Yet he defied his captors year after year and suffered as much as the POWs he led.

When he and the others were released in 1973, he was the first off the plane. He was smiling. He offered no complaints about a policy that led to their imprisonment. His statement was terse. “It was one of the most remarkable scenes in American history,” said Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who spoke at Denton’s funeral and burial at Arlington National Cemetery last week.

Here’s what Denton said 41 years and six months ago: “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.”

I knew Denton through my wife’s family, close friends of the Denton clan for more than a half-century. Like many others, I referred to him as “Admiral Denton,” never “Senator Denton.” His term in the Senate (1981-87), while important, was not what made him a great man. His actions as a POW did.

It was my father-in-law, Dr. Ralph Beatty, a physicist for the Center for Naval Analysis, who first met Denton when he was a young lieutenant with the Sixth Fleet staff in the Mediterranean in the 1950s. The two developed a strategy for deploying the fleet that revolutionized Navy practice. It was designed to prevent a single Soviet nuclear attack from wiping out a carrier battle group. And the two very different men-a scientist and a Navy flyer-became lifelong friends.

I met the Dentons shortly after my wedding in 1967. Jerry Denton wasn’t there. His A-6 Intruder had been shot down as he led a bombing raid in 1965. He was in Hanoi.

What he did there, along with James Stockdale, John McCain, and others, still amazes me. He was a firm leader. He insisted the lines of authority be followed. The POWs communicated by tapping on the walls of their cells. When Air Force pilot Sam Johnson arrived at the prison, he got his orders from Denton. “I’ll teach you to tap code,” Denton said. “Yessir,” replied Johnson, now 83 and a congressman from Texas. “I salute you,” Johnson said at the end of his eulogy for Denton at the funeral. Then he saluted.

In 1966, Denton was interviewed by his captors for a propaganda film. What did he think of the American bombing campaign? “I don’t know what is happening [in the war], but whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it . . . and I will as long as I live.” As he spoke, Denton blinked “t-o-r-t-u-r-e” in Morse code, confirming suspicions American prisoners were being tortured. For his defiance, Denton was thrown into a concrete cell in a remote prison called Alcatraz.

Last week, his body was taken to his burial plot by a horse-drawn caisson. Navy jets did a flyover in his honor. The Washington Post ran a fine story (with four pictures) the next day, headlined “The defiant POW is free.”

Eleven former POWs attended the services and I talked to four of them. What I learned was surprising, but it shouldn’t have been. Studies found that nearly a third of Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD, a lingering psychological effect of war duty. But only a small fraction of POWs have.

What’s the explanation? It’s not just that extreme misery-the constant beatings, the isolation, the purposely broken bones-brought them together. The larger reason is strong and resourceful leadership, a chain of command in which every prisoner had a place. And one more thing: The POWs were singularly brave men, committed to their mission and their country. Long imprisonment and torture couldn’t shatter that.

The honor given to Denton left me with a worry. The Korean War has been called the forgotten war. Now I fear the Vietnam war faces the same fate, remembered more for the photo of Jane Fonda sitting on the barrel of a North Vietnamese gun than for the courage of hundreds of POWs hidden from cameras. I think the leadership, honor, and unbroken spirit of our POWs transcends the war itself.