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Remembering A Heroic POW

Some of you more “seasoned” readers may re call the infamous “Hanoi March” in June 1966, in which we American POWs, cuffed together in pairs, were paraded through the streets of downtown Hanoi – supposedly en route to our “war crimes” trials – and beaten and bloodied by hundreds of war-weary Hanoians as their screaming communist cadres whipped them into an emotional frenzy. Later that night, back at the prison we called the Zoo, I was blindfolded and tied to a sycamore tree in the courtyard, but my “prison sense” told me I wasn’t alone.

Navy Cmdr. Jerimiah Denton and his cuff partner had led the parade. He describes the aftermath in his book, When Hell was in Session: “From various sounds I guessed that I was one of several men tied to trees. My wrists and back ached, my groin was still sore, and blood continued to run from various cuts on my body. Grit from the rag gag filled my mouth. I thought: “Well, here I am, a sinful man tied to a tree by savage enemies like the thieves tied to the crosses next to Jesus. ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘forgive me.’ I found that despite the gag, I could make a muffled coughing sound. I coughed twice, then five times, paused, then once, then four times; my initials, JD. I was a little shaken when the coughs coming back identified the man on my left as ‘JC,’ but before I got carried away I realized with a smile it wasn’t Jesus Christ but Jerry Coffee.”

One of the tenets of the POW Code of Conduct specifies “If I am senior I will take command; if not, I will obey the lawful orders of those above me and back them up in every way.”

In the early years of the POW situation, when being a proactive leader invited even more discomfort and pain, three men emerged as exemplary leaders: Navy Cmdrs. Jerry Denton and Jim Stockdale, and Air Force Col. Robbie Risner. During those times when torture was common, and it would have been easier for a senior officer to just keep his head down and not make waves, all three of these guys were virtual tsunamis, and I was fortunate to live but a wall away from each of them at various times. Only in writing this column have I realized how much these three men have influenced my life.

We lost James Bond Stockdale in 2005, we lost Robinson Risner last fall and we lost Jerimiah Denton last week. He was 89.

As a POW, Denton will be remembered for his extraordinary self-control and creativity during a propaganda interview with a Japanese journalist. During the interview, he maintained his concentration to actually use Morse Code to blink out the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E. He did it continuously during the filmed interview, letting the world know that we were being tortured and that any spoken or written statements should be judged in that light.

But he may be most remembered for his home-coming statement. As the senior officer on the first “homecoming” flight to land at Clark AFB, standing beside the C-141 that had just brought him out of Hanoi, he said to the crowd gathered there and to the world: “We are proud to have served our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander in chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”

Before his retirement from the U.S. Navy, Denton went on to make admiral. After his retirement, he went on to be Alabama’s first Republican U.S. senator since reconstruction. He was not re-elected, in great part because of his very conservative views on family values in a society becoming more liberal. Not surprisingly, he refused to compromise.