In July 1965, then-Commander Jeremiah Denton was shot down over North Vietnam while piloting a carrier-based A-6 Intruder. He and his bombardier/navigator, Lieutenant (junior grade) Bill Tschudy, spent the rest of the Vietnam War in captivity, housed in a number of different prison camps as a POW, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
As the commander of his attack squadron based on the USS Independence, Denton was leading 28 planes on a bombing mission. He and Tschudy had to eject over Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam and were immediately captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
A few months into their captivity, Denton was forced to lead 49 other prisoners of war on what became known as the “Hanoi Parade.” The NVA marched the POWs through the streets of the North’s capital at Hanoi while North Vietnamese civilians brutally beat them as they moved.
That same year, Denton was forced to be part of a North Vietnamese propaganda campaign. His captors made him do a public interview with a Japanese reporter. He would be remembered for the rest of his life for what he did next. During the interview, Denton dotted out a secret message while on camera. He spelled T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code by blinking his eyes. Pretty brave for a POW at his captor’s mercy.
The reporter then questioned his support for the war, to which Denton replied, “I don’t know what is happening, but whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully. Whatever the position of my government, I believe in it, yes sir. I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”
Denton’s secret message was the first time a POW was able to communicate with the outside world. It also confirmed for the first time that American prisoners in Hanoi were being tortured. Denton and the CIA both believed the NVA didn’t catch Denton’s message until 1974.
He and many other American POWs were locked up in separate rooms in the same building. Denton’s group was notable not only for its rank (many officers were held together) but for the prisoners’ resistance to torture and to their captors. These prisoners were held in nine-foot by three foot, windowless concrete rooms for the duration of their captivity.
He was released in February 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming, when all American POWs in Vietnam were repatriated to the U.S. For seven years and seven months, Denton endured long stretches of solitary confinement and brutal mistreatment from his NVA captors. He spent at least four of those years in solitary. Once back in uniform and with Americans, now-Captain Denton spoke to the press shortly after leaving the plane:
“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.”
He would later write a book about his experience as a POW. Denton retired from the Navy in 1977 at the rank of Rear Admiral. In 1980, “The Admiral from Alabama” became the first Republican from Alabama elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.