The stubborn old men of “Alcatraz” had come to bid farewell to the legendary occupant of Cell No. 10.
Along with family and friends, the survivors of the notorious North Vietnamese prison gathered Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery to say goodbye to fellow POW, former U.S. senator and retired Navy rear admiral Jeremiah A. Denton Jr.
They stood beneath the six chandeliers in Fort Myer’s Old Post Chapel on a humid morning and read aloud parts of the 27th Psalm, “Hear, O Lord, hear the sound of my call, have pity on me, and answer me . . .”
They followed the horse-drawn caisson bearing their comrade’s body and stood by as Navy jets roared overhead and the smell of the smoke from the rifle salute drifted on the breeze.
The four — Bob Shumaker, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex), Jim Mulligan and George Coker — were among the scores of people attending the burial of Denton, who had survived nearly eight years of brutal captivity in North Vietnamese prisons during the Vietnam War.
All five were members of the incorrigible, and now dwindling, “Alcatraz 11.”
Denton died March 28 at a hospice in Virginia Beach at the age of 89.
And although he had a distinguished post-Vietnam War career, he is perhaps best known for defiant resistance to his captors after his jet was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965.
During the church service, Denton’s son, James, read a fitting passage from the Bible’s Book of Jeremiah: “I am the one who . . . makes you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze. . . . They will fight against you, but not prevail.”
Beaten and abused, the elder Denton once spelled out t-o-r-t-u-r-e in Morse code by blinking his eyes during a forced television interview.
So troublesome was he that he was placed in solitary confinement in a special prison in Hanoi with 10 other rebellious POW leaders. All were U.S. aviators who had been shot down.
For two years, they occupied 11 tiny concrete cells in a grim compound they dubbed “Alcatraz,” after the federal prison in San Francisco Bay.
Denton occupied Cell No. 10. Shumaker was in Cell No. 4, Johnson in Cell 3, Coker in Cell 7, Mulligan in Cell 11.
Only six of the original 11 survive, according to Alvin Townley, whose book, “Defiant,” chronicles the ordeal of the men and their wives.
One, Air Force Capt. Ron Storz, of Cell 5, died in captivity in 1970. Four others passed away after the war was over.
“I came to truly love my fellow prisoners, and developed a fierce pride that we had been singled out,” Denton wrote in his memoir, “When Hell Was in Session.”
He was 41, married and had seven children when he was shot down on July 18, 1965, while flying a Navy bomber off the aircraft carrier USS Independence.
He had been a prisoner for seven years and seven months when he and hundreds of other U.S. POWs were released in 1973.
During the church service, Johnson remembered how Denton informed him of the way inmates communicated with each other.
“They put me in the cell right next to him,” the congressman said. “All I heard was this banging on the wall. He yelled, ‘I’ll teach you the tap code. Just pay attention.’ ”
“Jerry was a giant for freedom,” said Johnson, 83, who was a veteran Air Force fighter pilot when he was shot down in 1966. “His patriotism knew no bounds. His bravery pushed every limit.”
In a 1981 memoir, Mulligan, now 88, recalled seeing Denton in Alcatraz.
“His face was drawn, his eyes seemed recessed behind a heavy five-o’clock shadow, and he was moving very slowly like he was in physical pain and mental torture,” Mulligan, a Navy pilot who was shot down in 1966, wrote.
“ ‘God, Jerry, what have they done to you now,’ I thought, as I watched him return to his cell.”
Shumaker, a Navy pilot who in 1965 became the second U.S. aviator to be shot down during the war, said in an interview Monday that Denton was a leader.
“He was conscious of his . . . responsibility to provide leadership,” he said. “And he did.”
Shumaker, 81, who lives in Fairfax Station, said Alcatraz was a small prison. It was some distance from a larger North Vietnamese prison for captured Americans called “the Hanoi Hilton.”
Prisoners most often wore pajamas that had vertical maroon and gray stripes, he said.
“The cells were concrete [and] were four feet wide by nine feet in length,” he said. “They were probably 12 feet in height. No windows or anything. They would bolt our legs together . . . for about 16 hours a day. And the light bulb would burn 24 hours a day.
“But we had each other, and we had this ability to communicate,” he said.
Shumaker said he knew French and tapped several words of French each day to Johnson, in the next cell.
After the confinement in Alcatraz ended, Shumaker and Johnson were put together in another prison. “I had never been more than 10 feet away from Sam” in Alcatraz, Shumaker said. “But I had never seen him. The amazing thing was he could speak French better than I could.”
A native of Mobile, Ala., Denton was promoted to the rank of rear admiral after his release from captivity. He later represented Alabama in the Senate as a Republican.
He wasn’t buried until Tuesday because of the cemetery’s complex scheduling demands and the availability of ceremonial resources, a spokeswoman said.
After the church service, mourners walked to the grave site, where a sailor unfurled a rear admiral’s blue flag with two white stars. Artillery and rifle salutes were fired.
Then, two Navy F/A-18C Hornets thundered out of the southeast.
They were from VFA-131 — “Strike Fighter Squadron One Three One” — based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, not far from where Denton lived out his last days.