POW hero Jeremiah Denton to speak at Marine Corps Museum

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

There are moments in Jeremiah Denton's past that he wishes he could forget. One of the highest-ranking American officers to be captured during the Vietnam War, the retired rear admiral spent seven years and seven months as a POW, four of them in solitary confinement.

Denton, who went on to become a U.S. senator from Alabama, will revisit some of that history Saturday at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle with a lecture on his book "When Hell Was in Session." Recently re-released, the volume is a firsthand account of Denton's time in some of the most infamous prisons of North Vietnam.

"It's hard to go back and dwell upon . . . some things," Denton said last week in an interview. "It's taken a bit out of me."

Denton's lecture is open to the public and coincides with the anniversary of the first days of Operation Homecoming, which brought prisoners of war home from Vietnam. Thirty-seven years ago, Denton stepped off the first plane to land at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. As the senior officer on the flight, he was invited to say a few words.

"We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances," Denton said. "We are profoundly grateful to our commander in chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America."

With that, he was on his way home.

Today, Denton, 85, lives in Williamsburg. He remains one of the most highly regarded of former Vietnam POWs.

Retired Navy Capt. Mike McGrath, a historian of his fellow Vietnam POWs, said he could not communicate with Denton during their imprisonment, but he recalled that Denton's reputation was "among the best in the leadership." To fellow POWs, McGrath said, Denton's words at Clark Air Base were "like the Gettysburg Address."

"It expressed our thanks to our nation, our loyalty, our pride in being able to serve our country in a difficult time and return with honor," he said. "He represented us all."

During the Vietnam War and in the years following Denton's release, he was best known for an interview recorded in 1966, which his captors intended to be a forced confession. The North Vietnamese obtained such statements from as many as 80 percent of American prisoners.

"Not even the most rock-ribbed and strong-willed . . . could resist indefinitely if the captor turned the screws tight enough," wrote Stuart Rochester, co-author of "Honor Bound," a definitive narrative of American POWs during the Vietnam War, in notes provided by Navy historian John Darrell Sherwood. "Each individual had a different threshold of pain, but all had an eventual breaking point. Denton, however, was one of the toughest of the tough."

During his questioning, Denton repeatedly blinked the word "torture" in Morse code -- the first clear message to U.S. intelligence about the POWs' living conditions.

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