As the fourth highest-ranking officer among the prisoners held in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton set a standard of behavior virtually beyond imagination in fulfilling the rigid expectations of the official Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.
Denton’s seven-and-a-half years—from July 1965 to February 1973—as a prisoner have been well chronicled. That includes When Hell Was in Session, Denton’s 1982 memoir. The latest recreation of Denton’s POW experience is Alvin Townley’s Captured: An American Prisoner of War in North Vietnam (Scholastic Focus, 256 pp. $18.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), a book for Young Adults. The two men were friends until Denton’s death in 2014 at age 89. Captured captures the bravery of the American POWs’ resistance against North Vietnamese torture.
Of the Code of Conduct’s six Articles, Denton—who was promoted to Rear Admiral during his captivity—concentrated on two: First, he took a leadership position among prisoners when he was the senior officer of a group. Second, he emphasized providing the enemy with only name, rank, service number, and date of birth.
“And if you say more,” Denton ordered, “make them beat it out of you.” He stressed that a prisoner’s ultimate goal was to maintain personal integrity in order to return home with honor.
“[Jerry] defined leadership with a fearless sense of bold, almost unthinking, self-sacrifice,” Townley says. He “took the punches and the rope first. If he didn’t, how could he expect others to follow his orders?”
The North Vietnamese favorite (and most effective) type of torture was to bind a prisoner in ropes that compressed his body and drastically reduced blood circulation and breathing, and then leave him in that position for hours. Other tortures included long stretches of solitary confinement, often in darkness; imprisonment in a four-by-four-foot concrete cell; a parade through Hanoi that allowed the public to abuse the prisoners; feeding the men soup laced with human feces; and bombarding them with propaganda.
Denton advised his subordinates to “take torture and before you lose your sanity, write something harmless or ludicrous.” At the same time, he believed “a prisoner should not make any statement disloyal to the United States.”
Although he advocated a hard line, Denton understood that no one can hold out forever in the face of torture. During periods of unrelenting, brutal torture, all prisoners “signed the apologies, the confessions,” Townley notes.
The North Vietnamese viewed American prisoners as political tools whose confessions could validate the United States as an aggressor nation in the eyes of the entire world.
In my mind, the degree of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is incalculable. From that premise, I attempt to quantify the degree to which political, racial, and economic differences affect a jailer’s treatment of his prisoners. I often have wondered if the men who originally wrote the Code of Conduct ever had even an inkling of similar thoughts.
Retired Navy Capt. Allen Colby Brady spent more than six years as a prisoner in Hanoi during the time Denton was there. He recently published an account of that experience in Witnessing the American Century: Via Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and the Straits of Florida. His attitude and actions as a prisoner slightly differed from Denton’s. Still, considering the intensity of their environment, even the slightest differences provide extremely interesting comparisons.