After 10 months of brutal captivity, Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton Jr. looked haggard as he sat for the taping of a propaganda interview orchestrated by his North Vietnamese captors. Despite extreme coercion, he refused to denounce America’s involvement in Vietnam. What’s more, he managed to transmit a secret message to U.S. intelligence officials. At first glance he appeared to be having a reaction to the glare of the film crew’s lights, but Denton’s series of short and long blinks were in fact the dots and dashes of Morse code, spelling out the same series of letters over and over: T-O-R-T-U-R-E. It was the first concrete evidence of the atrocities being endured by captive U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
Denton’s plane was shot down during a bombing raid south of Hanoi on July 18, 1965. He spent the next seven and a half years in prisoner-of-war camps and “endured beatings, starvation, torture, and more than four years of solitary confinement,” said The New York Times. But Denton, one of the highest-ranking officers taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese, retained his sense of duty and urged his men not to cooperate with their captors. Released in 1973, Denton gave a tearful homecoming interview in which he expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve his country “under difficult circumstances.” For a brief moment, said USA Today, “a polarized nation came together to honor” the returning veteran.
“Many things had changed in the U.S. during Denton’s long absence,” said The Washington Post. The devout Catholic despaired at what he saw as a widespread decline in morality, and after leaving the military in 1977, he created a family-values group called the Coalition for Decency. Denton ran for office in 1980 and became the first Republican elected to the Senate from his native Alabama in more than 100 years.
Despite being awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery in delivering the secret message, Denton always believed the words he spoke to his interrogator required greater courage. “Whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully,” he said into the cameras, “and I will as long as I live.”