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The Admiral’s Legacy

11/1/2014

Cmdr. Joseph McInerney

Supreme Knight John W. McDevitt (right) presents the Freedoms Foundation medal to Adm. Denton during the States Dinner at the 1976 Supreme Convention. Also pictured are Supreme Chaplain Bishop Charles P. Greco of Alexandria, La., and Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, archbishop of Boston. (Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives)

On Oct. 25, 1967, U.S. Navy pilot Jeremiah A. Denton Jr. found himself in a new home. A prisoner of war since his A-6 Intruder was shot down in North Vietnam two years earlier, then-Cmdr. Denton was brought to a windowless 3-by-9-foot cell, ventilated by a few small holes and lit by a 10-watt bulb. Affectionately known to its residents as “Alcatraz,” this detention center was reserved for prisoners that the North Vietnamese had identified as the “diehard” leaders of American POWs.

A choking feeling welled up in Cmdr. Denton’s throat as the heavy wooden door closed behind him and its bolt slid into place. “Alcatraz” would mean solitude, torture and desolation for the next two years of his captivity.

During his seven-year and seven-month odyssey in the prison camps of North Vietnam, Denton distinguished himself as a leader of many heroic men serving their country in horrific conditions. Upon his return to the United States in 1973, he continued to serve his nation as a civic and political leader, with a special concern for the poor and defenseless.

When Adm. Denton died March 28 at age 89, he left behind the legacy of an extraordinary life. As a committed Catholic and Knight of Columbus, Denton’s many accomplishments — together with his hope amid the direst of circumstances — were grounded in the firm foundation of his faith.

LIFE IN PRISON

It was a hot and sunny day in July 1965 when Cmdr. Denton led his A-6 squadron on an attack of Tan Hoa Bridge, about 75 miles south of Hanoi. The 41-year-old father of seven had deployed just a month earlier. According to his 1976 memoir, When Hell Was in Session, he was diving toward his targets when his plane was hit twice, forcing him and his navigator, Lt. Bill Tschudy, to eject over enemy territory. During their slow descent toward the Ma River, Denton devised an escape plan: to swim underwater, away from his equipment and away from the soldiers watching him drift down to the water. However, a tendon in his leg had been torn during the attack, and his swim instead became a desperate fight for survival. He struggled to the surface of the river’s brown water and soon found himself captured by North Vietnamese soldiers.

Fifteen years earlier, the Korean War had demonstrated that communist POW camps did not invite prisoners to sit on the sidelines of a conflict. The North Vietnamese, like the North Koreans, were intent on manipulating prisoners to further their goals, and torture was the means of extracting propaganda that might turn the tide of American popular opinion, thereby taking the war from the jungles of Vietnam to the streets of the United States.

Mistreatment in the form of humiliation, malnutrition and lack of adequate medical care afflicted Denton and his fellow prisoners from day one of their captivity, and the brutality of physical torture followed shortly thereafter.

“They beat you with fists and fan belts,” Denton later recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They warmed you up and threatened you with death.”

The men were further subjected to exposure to the cold, the use of ropes to cut off circulation and cause intense muscle spasms, and other torture devices.

Despite the suffering they endured, Denton and his companions resisted the torture to such a great extent that when they finally broke and agreed to provide information, they physically could not write or speak in a way that was useful to their captors. Once they had adequately recovered, their will had recovered as well, and their resistance to the torture would begin anew.

Even among this group of heroes, Denton stood out among his peers. As one of the most senior officers in captivity, he often had the obligation of leading his fellow prisoners in resistance. In circumstances that were anything but encouraging, he earned the nickname “president of the optimist club.”

Due to what his captors saw as a “negative” influence over his fellow prisoners, the North Vietnamese subjected Denton to solitary confinement for more than four years of his captivity, two years of which were spent in the claustrophobic confines of the “Alcatraz” cell.

But Denton’s most prominent act of leadership came in May 1966 when he was forced to participate in a propaganda interview that was subsequently aired on U.S. television. During the interview, Denton repeatedly blinked the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code, which gave U.S. intelligence officials their first confirmation that the North Vietnamese were in fact torturing American prisoners of war. Adm. Denton later wrote that what took more courage than his blinking was the answer he gave to one of the interview questions. When asked what he thought of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he answered, “I don’t know what’s going on in the war now … but whatever the position of my government is, I agree with it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.”

Denton’s leadership, courage and optimism so impressed President Lyndon Johnson that he wrote to Denton’s wife, Jane, on May 12: “I wish to share with you and your seven children sincere pride in the courageous statement made by Commander Denton of support for the United States and for our policy in Vietnam. It has given me renewed strength.”

‘ONE NATION UNDER GOD’

In the days following the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973, nearly 600 American prisoners of war left Hanoi, beginning with those who had been imprisoned the longest. Denton had been promoted to captain while in captivity, and as the senior officer in the first group of 40, he stepped off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines 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.”

Denton soon attained the rank of rear admiral and in 1977 retired from the Navy, returning to his home town of Mobile, Ala. Three years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first Catholic ever to hold statewide office in Alabama and the first Republican to represent the state since post-Civil War Reconstruction.

During the years immediately following his return to the United States, Adm. Denton exerted leadership in two areas where he saw an acute need: addressing the rapid moral decline in American culture and alleviating the suffering of the poor throughout the world.

Denton lamented the increase of vulgarity in the media, the stark decline in church attendance and rising divorce rates sweeping the country in the 1970s.

In 1975, he contributed an article to Columbia in which he shared his story of imprisonment and reflected on the American way of life, which he said was based on an equation of two principles: love of God and neighbor + 

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free enterprise. Without the former, he argued, America would drown “in a sea of materialism.”

The following year, Adm. Denton — by this time a member of the Knights of Columbus — was welcomed at the 94th Supreme Convention in Boston. Addressing the delegates, he called the Knights “valiant fighters for the preservation and application of values which I, as a Catholic, as a professional Navy officer and former captive of communism, see as essential, not only to pleasing God, but to the survival of this nation and of the free world.”

After retiring from the Navy and before his election as a U.S. Senator in 1980, Denton established a non-profit called the Coalition for Decency. Based in Mobile, the coalition supported family life, reported on the content of television programming and collaborated with other organizations to promote integrity in American culture. In addition to his domestic efforts of moral reform, Denton’s post-military career also focused on humanitarian relief abroad. As a senator, he established what became known as the Denton Program, which allowed private donors to ship humanitarian aid cost-free to countries in need by using extra space on U.S. military aircraft. Since it began, the program has helped to transport more than 20 million pounds of supplies.

To continue his own international humanitarian relief efforts after his six-year term as senator, Denton founded the National Forum Foundation. He also formed a partnership with IMEC America, an organization that seeks to support impoverished communities throughout the world. Now known as the Admiral Denton Legacy Initiatives and operated by IMEC, the humanitarian programs that Denton established more than 25 years ago continue today.

A celebrated war hero, a respected national politician and a humanitarian with international impact, Jeremiah Denton’s life was filled with remarkable accomplishments. Nonetheless, Denton would assert that at the foundation of his extraordinary achievements was something very ordinary: his love of Christ and the Church.

“We were drawn closer to God by much suffering and deprivation,” he wrote in his 1975 Columbia essay, reflecting on his and the other prisoners’ experience.

During one of his most difficult torture sessions, Denton uttered a simple, desperate prayer: “God, I’m putting it all in your hands now. I’ve taken all I can take.”

According to his account, God’s response was instantaneous and powerful. “Never before have I had a prayer answered so spectacularly. From the instant I phrased it, it was answered. I never before have experienced such physical comfort and serenity of mind.”

Such is the example that Adm. Denton offers to those who remember his legacy. Human greatness is to be found above all in humble witness and is accessible to anyone who calls on the name of Christ in faith.

CMDR. JOSEPH MCINERNEY is permanent military professor of applied ethics in the Leadership, Ethics and Law Department at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He is a member of Annapolis Council 1384.