The word ‘hero’ is grossly over-used today, and has become degraded as a result. Nevertheless, there is still true heroism in the world. Jeremiah Denton possessed it in full measure. The Los Angeles Times reported in his obituary today:
Jeremiah Denton, the downed Navy pilot who was paraded before television cameras by the Viet Cong and confirmed U.S. suspicions of prisoner maltreatment during the Vietnam War by blinking out the word “torture” in Morse code, has died. He was 89.
. . .
With leg injuries he suffered after ejecting from his stricken plane, Denton was dragged from a muddy riverbank by Viet Cong soldiers. It was the start of an unrelenting ordeal that would become especially painful with each of Denton’s many refusals to comply with his captors’ demands.
He was held in isolation for lengthy periods totaling about four years. At points, he was in a pitch-black cell, a cramped hole crawling with rats and roaches. His beatings opened wounds that festered in pools of sewage. Frustrated that Denton would not confess to alleged American war crimes or reveal even basic details of U.S. military operations, jailers subjected him to horrific abuse.
At the start of one three-day torture session, guards tied his arms behind his back so tightly his elbows touched, he wrote in his memoir.
“Agonizing pain began to flow … as my heart struggled to pump blood through the strangled veins,” he wrote. Meanwhile, his tormentors cuffed a cement-filled, 9-foot-long iron bar across his ankles, repeatedly jumped on it, lifted Denton by his manacled arms and, for hours, dragged his lower body across the floor.
Taking command of fellow POWs he usually could not see, Denton fashioned a secret prison communication system using the sound of coughs, hacks, scratching, spitting and throat-clearing keyed to letters of the alphabet.
He ordered resistance, regardless of pain.
“When you think you’ve reached the limit of your endurance, give them harmless and inaccurate information that you can remember, and repeat it if tortured again,” he told his men. “We will die before we give them classified military information.”
Thinking they’d broken him, Denton’s captors allowed a Japanese TV reporter to interview him on May 2, 1966.
“The blinding floodlights made me blink and suddenly I realized that they were playing right into my hands,” he wrote. “I looked directly into the camera and blinked my eyes once, slowly, then three more times, slowly. A dash and three more dashes. A quick blink, slow blink, quick blink … .”
While his impromptu blinks silently told the world that prisoners were being tortured, he was unabashed in the interview, which was later broadcast around the world, in his denial of American wrongdoing.
“Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it — yes, sir,” he said. “I’m a member of that government and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”
Denton was tortured afterward.
Here’s a video clip of the TV interview in which then-Commander Denton blinked out the word ‘TORTURE’.
We can ill afford to lose men of such character and courage. May he rest in peace.