Sunday, March 8, 2015
Townley: Honoring Lynnhaven's unbroken admiral
By Alvin Townley © March 8, 2015
Rarely does the broad example of one generation truly inspire another. Rather, we are most stirred by the heroism of individuals, by singular and powerful deeds that show us how one man can matter.
We still celebrate the heroes of World War II, such as prisoner of war Louie Zamperini of “Unbroken.” And we should. We should also remember those who fought that lesscelebrated war in Vietnam. It would be particularly fitting to honor those veterans by naming the new bridge spanning Lynnhaven Inlet after one of their greatest leaders, Virginia Beach’s own unbroken POW, Admiral Jeremiah Denton.
In a way, Zamperini first led me to Denton. Over a memorable dinner and quiet lunch together in California, Zamperini inspired me to find a Prisoner of War story that, for too long, the dark shadow of Vietnam had hidden. Beyond those shadows, I discovered the 11 resolute POWs who led the American resistance in Hanoi. Among these heroes, perhaps none proved as subversive and unflinching as Denton. Denton and his fellow troublemakers led nearly 500 POWs through the longest and harshest single deployment in U.S. military history: eight long years of torture and uncertainty, of defiance and faith. Never has America had such a band of brothers. Never have such heroes gone so underrecognized.
In early 1965, American POWs begin filling cells inside North Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison; then-Commander Denton was the 12th to arrive, and he immediately took command. The POWs initially assumed their country would free them by Christmas. In fact, these men would solemnly mark eight Christmases in Hanoi — each spent cold and hungry, many spent beaten and bloodied.
Completing that mission demanded a brand of leadership rarely required and seldom seen, but Denton stepped forward and spearheaded American resistance to a brutal and unrelenting torture regime. Even under threat of severe repercussions, Denton defied his captors in a televised interview, refusing to parrot propaganda and secretly blinking “TORTURE” in Morse code. Men follow leaders willing to take the first punch, and Denton received a storm of them for his answers.
Denton, along with 10 others including future Medal of Honor recipient Jim Stockdale and current U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, rallied the POWs to resist their captors and keep faith, year after agonizing year. By late 1967, Denton’s group had proven so subversive that the North Vietnamese exiled these 11 leaders — Vietnam’s own Dirty Dozen — to a miserable dungeon called Alcatraz. There, they would spend two years (nearly 24 hours per day) in solitary 4by9foot concrete tombs, locked in irons, being tortured with ropes and sleep deprivation. They were known as the Alcatraz 11, and they would emerge triumphant.
On Feb. 12, 1973, Denton was the first freed POW to step onto American soil. Representing his 500 fellow free men, he issued a simple yet poignant statement. “We are honored to have served our country under difficult circumstances,” he said. “We are profoundly grateful to our commanderinchief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.” After all he endured, he humbly thanked his country for bringing him home. Three days later, he came home to his family in Virginia Beach, landing at Naval Station Norfolk, his head held high. He had faced the worst and returned just as he’d aspired: with honor.
Denton passed away near his home in 2014.
Today, we can honor all those veterans who served honorably in Vietnam by honoring one of their greatest leaders — and reminding all who pass over Lynnhaven Inlet how honor and faith can triumph even in the darkest of circumstances.
Alvin Townley is author of “Defiant” (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) about the leading 11 American POWs in Vietnam and their wives at home, who founded the POW-MIA Movement.