Jeremiah Denton was the first military
prisoner in North Vietnam to spend more than four years in solitary confinement.
His 34-year naval career included service on a variety of ships, in many types of aircraft. His principal field of endeavor was naval operations. He also served as a test pilot, flight instructor, and squadron commander. In 1957, he was credited with revolutionizing naval strategy and tactics for nuclear war as architect of the "Haystack Concept", while serving on the staff of Commander, South Fleet, as Fleet Air Defense Officer.
Denton graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College and the senior course at the Naval War College, where his thesis on international affairs received top honors by earning the prestigious President 's Award. In 1964, he received the degree of Master of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University.
In June 1965, he began a combat tour in Vietnam as prospective Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five. On July 18, 1965, Denton was leading a group of twenty-eight aircraft from the USS lNDEPENDENCE in an attack on enemy installations near Thanh Hoa, when he was shot down and captured by local North Vietnamese troops.
He spent the next seven years and seven months as a prisoner of war, suffering severe mistreatment and becoming the first U.S. military captive to be subjected to four years of solitary confinement.
A Commander when he was shot down, Denton was recommended for and promoted to the rank of Captain while a prisoner. He was confined at several prison camps in and around Hanoi, frequently acting as the senior American military officer of all American POW’s.
Denton's name first came to the attention of the American public in 1966, during a television interview arranged by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi. Prior to the interview, torture and threats of more torture were applied to intimidate him to "respond properly and politely." His captors thought he was softened up sufficiently to give the North Vietnamese their propaganda line at the interview attended by important Communist officials from several countries and by Wilfred Birchett, an internationally known Communist author. During the interview, after the Japanese interviewer’s recitation of alleged U.S. "war atrocities," Denton was asked about his support of U.S. policy concerning the war. He replied: "I don't know what is happening now in Vietnam, because the only news sources I have are North Vietnamese, but whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live." The audience was aghast at his unexpected answer and the room went dead silent.
Without comment, the Vietnamese then renewed the rest of the interview which consisted of a free-flowing debate between Birchett and Denton..
Throughout the interview, while responding to questions and feigning sensitivity to harsh lighting, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse Code, repeatedly spelling out a covert message: "T-O-R-T-U-R-E". The interview, which the Japanese journalist clandestinely took from Hanoi to Tokyo and sold to ABC was broadcast on American television on May 17, 1966, was the first confirmation that American POWs in Vietnam were being tortured.
Denton did not learn until his release that the interview had been shown in the U.S. And the Vietnamese had waited a week or so to punish him for his “misbehavior” at the interview. It was the worst torture session Denton endured during his time there, the guards assigned to two hour shifts watching the all-night torture each shed tears they could not hide.
Denton was released on February 12, 1973, when he again received international attention as the spokesman for the first group of POWs returning from Hanoi to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Denton was advised that as the senior POW onboard, he might be expected to say something on behalf of the group upon arrival. As he stepped from the plane, Denton turned to the microphones and 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."
In April 1973, he was promoted to Rear Admiral. In his last tour of duty, Admiral Denton served as Commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, for three and a half years. During his tour, he was credited with reinforcing NATO solidarity and hosted a highly successful NATO symposium of top national and NATO commanders, as well as academic, journalistic and corporate leaders.
Compiled by Thomas George