A 1947 Naval Academy graduate, Jeremiah Denton was piloting an A6 Intruder over North Vietnam on July 18, 1965, when he was shot down and taken prisoner. Denton was held for nearly eight years, during which time he was tortured repeatedly and thrown in solitary confinement for long periods. In 1966, while appearing in a forced TV interview, Denton famously blinked his eyes in Morse Code to spell out the word “torture.” After retiring from the Navy with the rank of rear admiral, he served one term as U.S. senator from Alabama from 1981-87. Denton’s 1975 memoir, When Hell Was in Session, was recently reissued with an updated epilogue. Jeremiah Denton, now 85, spoke recently with journalist and Vietnam veteran Marc Leepson in Arlington, Virginia.
What new insights will readers find in the reissued edition of your memoir?
The first book was all about what happened to me in Vietnam and picked up a few months maybe after I got back. The main thing the new edition does is continue on to put into context my reactions during and after the Vietnam War.
Your reaction to what, the changes in society and culture?
You can imagine if you were out of the country from 1965 to ’73, you’d notice some changes when you came back in the culture. I was shocked by that. But the greatest shock to me was realizing that when Nixon authorized Linebacker II and the blockades of Haiphong and the other big ports—it broke the North Vietnamese’ backs. It destroyed everything, the missile bases, all the airplanes, all the power stations, the bridges.
In your book, you describe a strange meeting with your captors in 1972.
Although I wasn’t the most senior POW, just before my release, my captors called me in to a conference, which scared the heck out of me. Around 35 of the highest ranking Vietnamese civilian and military people were there, about two days before our release. I thought, what are they going to do, ask me to make a statement I can’t make, and I’ll be here the rest of my life?
I was astounded when the captors took me to the conference. There were about 17 guys along each wall, and this little pipsqueak was running the show. He called me “Commander Denton” and stuff like that and did all the talking for them.
I noticed that they were very, very agitated, with sweating brows, and holding their breath at what I was going to say. The leader said, “We called you here because we are concerned that when you return to the United States the prisoners will exaggerate about your treatment.” I said, “Whether we exaggerate or not, you guys are going to be recorded as having treated us worse than we treat animals and you didn’t accord yourselves with the Geneva Convention and so what are you talking about?”
And he said, “We don’t know what you are going to say.” I said, “I can’t answer your questions unless I get permission from my senior officer.” There were two of them there, Robinson Risner and James Stockdale. I said, “If you want to, I’ll come back tomorrow and answer you, depending on whether or not they tell me it’s OK.” They agreed, and I talked to Risner and Stockdale. They told me, “Well, shit, yeah, you can say anything you want; you know how to handle them as well as we do.”
Back at the conference, I began to have a feeling about what the captors wanted me to say because I had been set up before. They talked to me about the change in treatment after Ho Chi Minh’s death. They tried to lay [the previous treatment] at his feet and pretend that most of them were unwillingly following his will to torture us.
How did the treatment change after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969?
Right after Ho died, my captors caught me communicating. I was always tortured for this. But this time, the guy said to me: “I want you to know we’re not going to torture you. We’re going to change your treatment. And in the next camp, you will meet the colonel who is head of the prison program for the military, and he will ask you to offer suggestions about how we can improve the treatment.”
I went back to my cell and told the other prisoners—there were 11 of us—what was going on, and they thought I was crazy because I was talking about a change in treatment, which had never occurred. Then Sam Johnson, who is now a congressman from Texas, was caught communicating five minutes after I got back, and the captors didn’t say anything to him except that he wouldn’t be tortured this time. When Johnson came back and told us that, the guys knew I wasn’t entirely out of my mind.
When we were returned a year or so later to the main camp, I was met by the colonel who had been our chief tormentor all the way through our imprisonment. He tried to shake my hand. I wouldn’t extend my hand. He asked what would we want them to do. I said: more exercise, better food, maybe some reading material, and all that was granted. The colonel asked if we would like to go to the kitchen because they didn’t understand American taste, and we could help with the menu. I said, “No.” Then he said, “But that’s where the girls are.” I wouldn’t let those hungry rats go back there!
Back to that strange 1972 meeting, what happened after you went back in?
I said: “Why are you gentlemen so on edge? Why are you asking me this question?” They said they were afraid that if the prisoners too accurately reported what went on that Mr. Nixon would fail to come through on his side of the agreement that was signed and wouldn’t send economic aid to the Mekong Valley so that they could become agriculturally and economically much better off than before.
And of course, the agreement also said that South Vietnam would go free. I came home expecting that to be the case. If I had known what was going to happen, I would not have had the optimism to say, “God bless America.”
Then, in a matter of days, you were home—and hit with culture shock.
When they released me, my wife picked me up in Norfolk. As we drove from the airport, I saw these massage parlors and X-rated movie theaters. I was shocked. The doctors wanted to update us POWs about what was going on so we were shown some movies. When I saw Woodstock, I threw up and I wouldn’t look at any more of the movies.
In the updated book, you describe how you reacted and how it shaped your thinking.
The book takes up from where I realized that the security situation resulting from our country’s copout was going to mean a great loss of credibility for the United States, affecting any other war or confrontation in which we were positioning ourselves and saying we were going to win. Well, hell, we copped out halfway in Korea, and then we did 100 percent-plus in Vietnam.
I say at the beginning of the book’s new epilogue that I’ve been not just thinking about or shocked by that idea, I’ve been reacting to it. I go through what I did in the Senate and what I did afterward with the Admiral Jeremiah Denton Foundation. I also write about my feelings about our military posture now. I believe we don’t have deterrence any more. I don’t believe mutually assured deterrence exists, because although we blocked the Soviets from hitting us with our nuclear power, we don’t have the same kind of power that we had back when President Reagan was able to say, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
There are things that indicate that Russia is not our deadly enemy anymore. The Russians may decide to keep going the way they are for a while, but sooner or later they’re going to recognize that if they want to take Georgia or Afghanistan or India with China—any of those things—they could do it. We don’t have the means by which to be able to confront the Russians conventionally and stop them.
Do you believe that the North Vietnamese released all of our POW’s?
I have no way of knowing. If they kept some POWs out of Hanoi, we don’t know that, but our count of MIAs is pretty close to the numbers we’re sure were shot down and captured. Every prisoner whose name we got or who came into our system, either came home or was finally called KIA. That’s not to say there can’t be some POWs, but we can’t see any advantage for keeping them. They’re not going to trade them in; they’re not going to be ransomed. What are the Vietnamese getting out of them? The POWs don’t know anything.
Yet many influential people believe the Vietnamese kept some Americans.
Ross Perot called me when I was in the Senate and said: “Jerry, I want you to go on the floor and call Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush liars. There are plenty of guys in Vietnam. I know it because I landed in Hanoi and talked with this general in the Vietnamese army and he told us this stuff.” I already knew about that general. The CIA made contact with him, and he promised to give us all of this information. They gave him a million dollars for this, a million dollars for that. And it never turned out to be true. He was just making up this crap.
Why, almost 40 years later, is this issue still alive?
It is because of the poisonous psychological effect of what went on in Vietnam, which has impeded our ability to come to an informed consensus.
Why did the public treat POWs as heroes and the rest of us veterans like crap?
They treated us like heroes because the war ended when we came home. But the guys who came home in normal fashion were insulted, spat upon. It was horrible. They were the most red-headed stepchildren in our military history. I hope the veterans get over being treated like crap, and get a better perspective on our national security affairs.
Do you agree with how the Vietnam War has been treated in history?
The Vietnam War is wrong in history. We’ve got that false idea—the belief that we lost in Vietnam—and the ignorance of the fact that we won it militarily and completely. We did win. We showed the Communist world that if they tried to do something, we’d at least fight ’em a war—but not a winning war.
There were some atrocities committed by U.S. troops. There always are in any war. It was done by some nuts who were assholes in the first place.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.