On March 28, United States Navy Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton (Ret). died of heart failure at the age of 89. In late 2009, Denton released an updated version of his autobiography, “When Hell Was In Session”, which detailed his nearly eight years of imprisonment, torture, solitary confinement and other atrocities suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
In a wide ranging interview, Denton, who also served as a U.S. senator from Alabama, talked about the barbaric treatment he suffered, how an anti-war Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam for purely political reasons and his disdain for the commanders-in-chief both then and now.
In July 1965, Denton’s A-6A Intruder was shot down over North Vietnam. While he expected his Communist captors to be tough customers, he was shocked at the extent of their brutality.
“I was aware that I was the captive of a totalitarian, communist, atheistic government and the brutality of the Russian communists,” said Denton. So I expected that we would have some rough treatment but there had been no torture. When I was shot down, I was the thirteenth captive they got out of the air and I became the senior officer. After I was shot down, I didn’t even get to communicate with anybody for weeks.”
Denton soon joined his fellow prisoners in communicating through tapping Morse Code into the wall with a nail, a practice that carried severe punishment if they were caught.
“Then pretty soon they started torturing for confessions, biographies or to get you to make a propaganda statement in their favor. Every time you were caught communicating, you were tortured. That went on from October ’65 ’til October ’69, when they changed the treatment thinking they were going to be tried with war crimes trials. With Nixon in, they thought he was going to be more aggressive about ending the war and that they might best change the treatment, which they did,” said Denton.
While strong leadership and fierce patriotism played roles in Denton’s enduring of the torture and his refusal to become a propaganda tool of a communist regime, Denton says his greatest strength clearly came from God.
“The greatest and the ultimate strength can come through God’s intervention, His answers to your beseeching Him for help. That happens with ladies having babies with difficulty in the delivery, people in the hospital with cancer, people injured in automobile wrecks. Anybody about to die, no matter what he lived or what he thought before then, if he’s got five minutes or five seconds to recollect what’s confronting now, he will say, ‘God, help me,'” said Denton.
Denton and his fellow prisoners were not released until 1973, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Denton says he was shocked to learn we hadn’t won the war when he was released. But to his final days, he insists the U.S. had it won until liberals in Congress abandoned South Vietnam out of a political calculation.
“We had won the war at that point. The armistice struck and signed by Vietnam and the United States entailed the freedom being granted to the South Vietnamese and our country coming through to give them the aid to develop some resources, particularly in the Mekong Valley and along that river,” said Denton.
“I thought things were great when I came back home. Then I found out a couple years later that Congress abrogated that unilaterally and passed legislation saying that we could not, in any event at all, send any more military aid to [South] Vietnam,” said Denton.
“I know from personal experience and personal conferences with them that when we finished the bombings and the blockades…that we destroyed their capability to wage war. We destroyed all of their logistic bases, all of their (surface-to-air missile) sites, all of their airplanes, all of their warehouses with ammunition, a lot of their troops. They had a conference with me just before I came home, begging me not to let prisoners exaggerate so that Nixon wouldn’t come through on his promise to them,” said Denton.
“But Congress, anti-war and influenced by the media and the academics, the elite liberals, were able to defeat Nixon. If we’d won that war, they were anti-war all the way through. They thought Nixon would be re-elected and they’d be villains. So that was what was tied up in that,” he said.
Denton says America and the world endured a painful lesson through the U.S. abruptly ending support for South Vietnam. And he believes it’s an episode that continues to make us vulnerable today.
“We still suffer from not comprehending the overall picture with respect to our national security. We are in worse shape now, in my opinion, in terms of the percentage of certainty we have about the fact that we’re nationally secure than we’ve had in our history, since about Washington’s time,” said Denton in that 2009 interview.
“Yet, President Obama, while campaigning and in office, says that he’s going to cut appropriations for armed services by 25 percent. President Obama is an intelligent man. He could be earnest. He could be honest with himself, but he doesn’t know diddly squat. He knows even less than President Johnson did when he came into office about war and peace and what it takes to maintain it,” said Denton, noting that Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, only had the experience of running Ford Motor Company before coming to the Pentagon.
“Some of the czars and advisers that President Obama has hired are even more dubious in terms of what their backgrounds are,” said Denton. “The jury is still out on whether we can survive if we have a president that unaware and not willing to listen to those who are more aware and knowledgeable.”