T – O – R – T – U – R – E
Fifty years ago this month, American prisoner of war and future U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton blinked out a desperate message in Morse code; it became one of the century’s most famous acts of defiance.
Story of Denton blinking TORTURE featured in New York Times reviewed book DEFIANT by Alvin Townley
A husband, naval aviator and father of seven, Commander Jeremiah Denton was shot down over North Vietnam on July 18, 1965. He soon arrived at Hoa Lo prison – the infamous Hanoi Hilton – where he would be held as a prisoner of war for nearly eight years. He became a leader of the American resistance and refused to cooperate with his North Vietnamese captors – even when they began viciously torturing Denton and other POWs for intelligence and propaganda statements.
For several dreadful weeks in April 1966, North Vietnamese interrogators tried to indoctrinate Denton with propaganda and tortured him brutally so he would understand the price of disobedience. Then in May, they informed he would be interviewed on international television – and he should repeat their propaganda and condemn America.
With his interrogators watching, Jeremiah Denton met with a Japanese journalist who filmed the interview on May 2, 1966; it would air May 17. Denton refused to parrot North Vietnam’s communist propaganda and boldly supported his country and his government. He paid a stiff price, but he would always remain exceptionally proud of the defiant answers he gave that day.
What American history would remember most was not what he said, but what he blinked. Throughout the interview, Denton’s eyes blinked out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code. The North Vietnamese never discovered his subterfuge but American intelligence received one of their first clear signs that American POWs were being severely mistreated.
At home, Denton’s family saw the interview on television when it aired on May 17, 1966. His wife Jane resolved to bring him home and became a leading member of the National League of POW-MIA Families. The national group formed by wives of POWs and missing American servicemen broke the government’s senseless gag order and spoke out about their husbands’ plights. Their National League united a bitterly divided nation around a common idea: Don’t forget our POWs. The National League became one of history’s most extraordinary women’s movements.
In February 1973, Jeremiah Denton was the first American POW to step out of the first C-141 transport to land at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. He said three simple sentences on behalf of his fellow returning POWs: “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.”
In his 1982 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan used that famous quote to honor then-U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton of Alabama. But it is for those silent seven letters, blinked in Morse code during May 1966, that Denton will forever be remembered.
Admiral Jeremiah Denton passed away at age 89 in March 2014, shortly after the release of DEFIANT which tells the story of Denton and his “Alcatraz Eleven” (the eleven POWs who led the resistance) as well as the story of Jane Denton, other leading wives, and the POW-MIA movement.
Video of the May 1966 interview can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgelmcOdS38
Alvin Townley is the nationally-acclaimed author of DEFIANT: The POWs Who Endured America’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned (St. Martin’s Press, New York). Reviews include The New York Times (“gripping”), President Jimmy Carter (“unforgettable”), and former POW Senator John McCain (“riveting”). Learn more at www.AlvinTownley.com. Please contact Joseph.Rinaldi@stmartins.com or AT@AlvinTownley.com.