For the State of Alabama, he was always be remembered as Senator Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr. But for the entire United States, he was a Vietnam War hero.
At the time when the communists published their propaganda to the world, he was the only American prisoner of war who bodly sent the message to the world, in a very unconventional way, on the actual treatment prisoners had been enduring in the hands of the North Vietnamese Army (NVAs).
Because of his courage and intelligence, many POWs were released from prison.
Denton was born July 15, 1924, in Mobile, Alabama, the oldest of three brothers and the son of Jeremiah Sr. and Irene (Steele) Denton. He attended McGill–Toolen Catholic High School (Class of 1942) and Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama.
In June 1943, he entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated three years later in the accelerated Class of 1947 on June 5, 1946, with a Bachelor of Science degree, the same class as future President Jimmy Carter.
Career in US Army
Denton's 34-year naval career included service on a variety of ships, aircraft, and airships. His principal field of endeavor was naval operations. He also served as a test pilot, flight instructor, and commanding officer of an attack squadron, flying the A-6 Intruder.
In 1957, he was credited with revolutionizing naval strategy and tactics for nuclear war as architect of the "Haystack Concept." This strategy called for concealing aircraft carriers from radar by intermingling with commercial shipping and avoiding formations suggestive of a naval fleet.
The strategy was simulated in maneuvers and demonstrated effectiveness, allowing two aircraft carrier fleets thirty-five simulated atomic launches before aggressor aircraft and submarines could repel them. He went on to serve on the staff of the Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet at the rank of Commander (O-5) as Fleet Air Defense Officer.
Landed at enemy's line
By 1965, at the height of the Vietnam War, Denton served as a U.S. Naval Aviator. He became the Prospective Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five, serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62).
On July 18, 1965, Independence was stationed in the South China Sea. Denton was piloting his A-6A Intruder jet while leading a twenty-eight aircraft bombing mission over North Vietnam.
He and his bombardier, Bill Tschudy, were flying inside the air space of North Vietnam near Hanoi when they got hit by the NVA anti-aircraft fire.
The incident caused their plane to crash out of control and smashing into the ground. Denton and Tschudy, were forced to eject from their aircraft and parachuted near the city of Thanh Hoa.
Both found themselves surrounded by the enemies, and they had no choice but to surrender.
American POWs at the Zoo
There are several prisons the NVAs had in North Vietnam, but the most notorious of them all was the Zoo. It was known as the place where Prisoners of War were tortured. It was also the area where the communists filmed their propaganda to show that they were following the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners' treatment.
Unfortunately for Denton and his partner, they were held at the Zoo. Denton, being a high-ranking officer, was placed in solitary confinement, often in darkness.
Prisoners were regularly shackled with leg irons and beaten with bamboo poles and rubber whips. Denton would be frequently interrogated by his captors but stayed steadfast. He would give them nothing, but his name, rank, and serial number, as he had been taught in military training. Denton's resistance in the face of the abuse gave courage to his fellow captives, and he quickly became a leader among the other American POWs.
Increasingly frustrated, the NVA prison guards decided to show force to break their captives down. They would hold a press conference where the captured soldiers would be used as propaganda against their own country. And the stubborn commander Denton would be the star attraction.
On May 22, 1966, Denton and several of his fellow prisoners were hauled out of their cells and brought before a visiting Japanese reporter, who asked them questions about their conditions inside the prison. And how they are beating treated by the NVAs.
The communist guards were just on-site, watching their every word. The reporter prodded Denton to give his opinion on his government's actions. However, Denton defied his captors and stated that he stood with the United States.
He knew the interview was drawing to a close, and he would likely face more torture for his defiance. That moment could also be his last chance to get a message out to the U.S. command. But by saying the wrong word would end the interview and end his life.
What the North Vietnamese didn't know that Denton had a secret weapon - Morse Code.
Because he knew this standard method in telecommunication to encode text characters, he translated the codes during the television interview through blinks. He utilized quick blinks for dots and longer blinks for dashes.
- A long blink for - T
- Three long blinks for - O
- A short blink, a long blink, and a short blink for - R
- Another long blink for - T
- Two short blinks, followed by a short blink for - U
- A short blink, a long blink, and a short blink for - R
- A short blink for - E
The word was "TORTURE," Denton sent this message via television, hoping someone back home would figure it out.
No one knew then about the actual conditions of the American POWs at that time. Denton was the first soldier who could tell the world that they were being tortured inside the NVAs' camps.
Denton was fortunate that his captors did not figure out what he was doing. The interview was broadcast worldwide, and the U.S. Navy intelligence quickly caught the message Denton conveyed. Therefore, the U.S. sent the torture message out to the media, and the world started to pressure the communists for better treatment of the prisoners or merely release them.
However, the hard times were just beginning for Denton. He was harshly punished because of his defiance during the interview. He got longer hours in isolation confinement and transferred from one notorious prison to another.
Two months after the interview, Denton and other POWs were forced to participate in the infamous Hanoi march. They were with thousands of enraged Vietnamese civilians who pelted them with bottles and stones and beat them with sticks. Delton and the rest barely escaped for their lives.
European journalists documented the Hanoi march, and it added to the mounting outrage against the North Vietnamese. Because of international pressure, the torture stopped.
Denton was clueless that his "torture" message was actually a global headline until February 12, 1973, when he and his partner Tschudy were released from prison as part of Operation Homecoming.
Stepping off the jet back home in uniform, Denton said:
"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." - Jeremiah Denton
His speech has a prominent place in the 1987 documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.
As a reward for his heroic conduct during his years in captivity, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. He also received a Naval Cross award, according to his citation:
"Displaying extraordinary skill, fearless dedication to duty, and resourcefulness, he reflected great credit upon himself, and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces."
He eventually entered politics in in the '80s, and became a senator for the State of Alabama.
In 2014, at the age of 89, Denton passed on due to heart complication. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife Jane.