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Editor’s Introduction: In Hanoi, Going Forward and Backward

It was eerie to enter Vietnam’s airspace for the first time this past October after entering it in my imagination many times since America was at war there so many years ago. I was cruising in the comfort of a well-appointed Vietnam Airlines Airbus cabin, attended by a pleasant and efficient crew. But I was thinking about another plane in another time—an A-6 Intruder attack jet flown by my father, Navy Commander Jerry Denton, who entered this same airspace on July 18, 1965, for what turned out to be a rendezvous with destiny.

A Naval Academy grad, husband, and father of seven, he and his twenty-something navigator and copilot, Lieutenant Bill Tschudy, a husband and father of a young child he hardly knew, had launched from the deck of the USS Independence, stationed in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of what was then North Vietnam.

Three days earlier, Commander Denton had celebrated his forty-first birthday on the ship. And, twenty or so minutes before crossing over North Vietnam’s coastal border, in the midst of the exquisitely orchestrated frenzy of flight operations, he had exchanged a salute from his cockpit with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, there to observe the conduct of the air war over North Vietnam. Then my dad and Lieutenant Tschudy were catapulted into a bright blue sky, pulling g-forces that momentarily disfigured their faces.

Related Essay

The Alcatraz Gang

Alvin Townley’s book is the first to tell the story of the eleven American POWs who were dispatched to a dingy, secret prison camp in Hanoi to endure unspeakable torture for their defiance.

As the flight commander, my father led some twenty-eight other attack and fighter jets that would follow him on a mission intended to wreak havoc on some of North Vietnam’s bridges, roads, and other infrastructure targets. The pre-flight briefers in the ready room had said it would be a “routine” raid against light antiaircraft fire. But that was not to be. A few hours later, seconds after the A-6 dropped the bombs over the Thanh Hoa Bridge, their aircraft was struck and immobilized as flight leader Denton wrestled with the controls to lift the failing jet out of its bombing dive.

My dad has occasionally jokingly described the flying experience of a Navy carrier pilot as “days of boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” But, as he drifted to the ground under his bright white parachute, he was beginning seven years and seven months of imprisonment that would be defined by terror, mercifully interrupted by moments of solitude and isolation that tested his capacity to resist, endure, and survive.

 

In all, some six hundred and sixty-one known American servicemen would be captured and held prisoner in Vietnam, most in a sprawling structure they nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Within the larger constellation of prisons in the country were buildings, wings, halls, and sections that were given names like New Guy Village, the Zoo, the Briar Patch, Little Vegas, Stardust, the Mint, Riviera, and Heartbreak Hotel. Among them was also North Vietnam’s own Potemkin village—the Plantation, a French colonial–era villa where prisoners would be taken to be filmed in staged settings, sometimes to meet with Western visitors naively sympathetic to the communist regime’s motivations and intentions, and eager to gush about Hanoi’s excellent treatment of American prisoners.

Alvin Townley’s gripping new book Defiant, reviewed by Jim Robbins in this issue, is the first to tell the story about the most barbaric of North Vietnam’s prison camps, Alcatraz. Due for release in early February, the book chronicles the individual stories of the eleven Air Force and Navy aviators who were condemned to Alcatraz for nearly two years to face a regime of brutal torture, isolation, and solitary confinement—usually in leg irons—in windowless concrete cells that measured nine by four feet. The men were sent to Alcatraz and separated from the larger POW population that was mostly imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton because they had demanded that the Camp Authorities treat the prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Conventions; had resisted efforts to divide the prisoners and break their morale; and perhaps most importantly, they had led the fight againt their captors’ relentless efforts to diminish and dishonor them and their country, and use the POWs for propaganda in ways that would fuel the antiwar movement back home.

Having failed to break their defiant resistance, their captors singled out this core group of “troublemakers”—the Alcatraz Gang, as they became known—and dispatched them to this dingy hell on earth in order to decapitate the leadership of the POW resistance. As Townley recalls, the guard the prisoners nicknamed Rabbit had called Alcatraz “‘a dark place’ for the ‘darkest criminals who persist in inciting the other criminals to oppose the Camp Authority.’” Throughout their time in prison, as Townley tells it, the American prisoners never submitted until tortured beyond their capacity to endure, to the point, as my father told us in his hospital room the night he returned home years later, that he would drive a truck over his grandmother, if only they’d stop. And then, after a day or two passed when they could once again grip a pen or speak words, they’d scribble or make a raw-voiced recording of a meaningless and largely incoherent “confession” that allowed their captors a way to save face and the Americans a respite before their strength was sufficiently renewed to resist again. One American aviator, US Air Force Captain Ron Storz, died in Alcatraz. My father was among the ten survivors.

Defiant also takes us inside the other story: how the prisoners’ wives were fighting for their release back home as the POWs were fighting to maintain their sanity—and their honor—in prison. In the early years of the war, the wives kept a low profile, having been assured by the Johnson and Nixon Departments of Defense and State that everything possible was being done to gain their husbands’ release and that raising their public profile would, in fact, endanger them. Eventually, however, the wives’ frustration over Washington’s inaction led them to unite and do the opposite—dramatize a story that the administration, I believe with good intentions, wanted to suppress. So, in 1969, with key support from freshman Senator Bob Dole and the Texas millionaire Ross Perot, the wives began to organize and take their cause to the public with a defiance comparable to their husbands’. In time, their effort to raise public awareness of Hanoi’s mistreatment of the prisoners and its failure to follow international norms grew and spread, and the storm of international pressure that eventually gathered vastly contributed to improving the prisoners’ treatment in their sojourn in hell on the other side of the planet.

By coincidence, I write these words on November 22nd, the sixth anniversary of my mother Jane Denton’s unexpected Thanksgiving Day death after undergoing cardiac surgery. As the Christmas holiday season approaches, I’m reminded, as always, that during my father’s captivity this was the time of year when our family had a mostly unspoken pact to remain optimistic and not be overwhelmed by the void looming large in the house. While my mother bravely disguised her suffering and my father’s behind a remarkable veil of stoicism and gentle toughness, her heartbreak was clear. Usually during or after Christmas Day Mass, one of us would clumsily try to console her by whispering, “He’ll be home next Christmas.” We said that for years.

 

Soon after the Paris Peace Accords brought America’s involvement in the war to an end, the American POWs were released over the course of about two months, in the order of their “shoot down” date. Having been the lucky thirteenth American captured, my father was in the first wave of prisoners to return home. He was the senior officer on the first flight out and upon arrival in February 1973 on friendly soil at Clark Air Force Base near Manila, he offered three sentences on the tarmac, finishing spontaneously with “God bless America”—a lost phrase at the time (starting at 2:50 in this video). His image and these three sentences were headline news around the country over the next days and seemed momentarily to exhilarate, rehabilitate, and unify a despondent and war-weary nation. Nine years later, President Ronald Reagan recalled that moment and those words in his first State of the Union address, in January 1982, with the newly elected US Senator Jeremiah Denton seated before him in joint session, in the House of Representatives chamber, with the senator’s wife, Jane, watching from the gallery (starting at 38:00 in this video). I believe it was the first time a president singled out a citizen in the chamber for extraordinary accomplishment or gallantry—a presidential State of the Union tradition that has continued unbroken to this day.

After a few days’ stopover in Manila for medical examinations, my dad returned to the US, arriving just after midnight on February 15, 1973, at Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia along with a handful of other released POWs to be reunited with their families. Once my dad landed and disembarked, we were hustled off to the hospital room where he stayed for about a month for medical treatment and debriefing. On that first night, he asked if we’d allow him to talk about his imprisonment, because he said he wanted to tell the story and then not talk about it to us again. We agreed, of course, having absolutely no idea what was coming. He spoke almost nonstop for maybe three hours, mostly about his shoot down, his capture and his three-day journey to Hanoi, the camp conditions, the shocking and horrific torture of his first four years of captivity, how the men occupied their time, the secret communication codes used to subvert the camp’s “No Talking!” orders, some of the more memorable exchanges with guards and Camp Authorities, and the dreaded “quizzes” that often preceded a two-to-three-day torture session, all the while referring to the guards and officers by the names the prisoners had given them—Rabbit, Dip Shit, Mickey Mouse, Spot, JC, Fox, Chihuahua, Pimples, Big Ugly, and the expert torturer, Pigeye, a.k.a. Old Straps and Bars, a reference to his tools and methods.

My father spoke about his POW comrades, how they supported each other before and after torture sessions, communicated and relayed orders through the command structure, and how they would “tap” messages using a matrix code, ingenious in its simplicity, that allowed them to circumvent the camp’s restrictions on all communication among the prisoners to give orders, file condition reports, identify newly arrived prisoners, send birthday greetings, exchange Bible verses, pass along some hilarious “gallows humor,” teach physics, and even play chess.

He told us of the torture sessions that preceded and followed a press interview his captors planned for him at the Plantation, which was part of a scheme to break and exploit him in a televised propaganda coup. In the early spring of 1966, as he prepared for what he believed would be the worst and final torture session with Pigeye, punishment for refusing to submit and sign a confession, he told us how he had whispered through a small opening in his cell to Navy Commander Jim Stockdale—his classmate at the Naval Academy and soon-to-be prison mate at Alcatraz—“Tell Jane that I love her, but that I want her to remarry.”

As Townley recounts, he barely survived the session, which ended after he submitted to the pain and agreed to confess his crimes against the Vietnamese people. The next day, after he had recovered enough strength to grip a pen, he offered an innocuous and barely comprehensible “confession” that was dictated by the guard Mickey Mouse. However innocuous, the confession the Camp Authorities extracted was sufficient to convince them that “Den-ton” had been broken and would cooperate thereafter. And thus the Plantation interview was on. A few weeks later, after the swelling and bruises had disappeared, and after undergoing several days of inexplicable re-education sessions on the war’s history with Mickey Mouse, he was taken to the camp commander, Cat, who told him he would be interviewed by a journalist the following day and warned, “Be polite and do what you are told. Remember what punishment you have received in the past. I need not say more.”

The night before his scheduled encounter with the visiting journalist (a Japanese reporter), the senior American prisoner, Air Force Colonel Robbie Risner, urged dad to talk around the issues and avoid the directness that would surely bring crippling torture. After some soul-searching, my dad replied, tapping, “I’ll go blow [the interview] wide open,” vowing to refute the communist line before the camera. His captors had underestimated their reluctant guest’s resilience and determination.

I was fourteen when I watched that interview with my family at home a few days later, in May 1966, when it was nationally broadcast on the evening news (video here). In the following days, the gaunt Navy commander in prison garb would be described in the media as “haggard and drawn” and blinking oddly in the glare of the television lights. He’d lost maybe forty pounds in ten months of captivity. The TV’s black-and-white screen was grainy. But when asked what he thought about American conduct in the war (the bombing of churches, etc.), he replied that he couldn’t comment because his information was limited to what his captors had told him. And after a few more leading questions offering him an opportunity to betray his country, he said, in a voice clear and becoming firmer with each passing word, “I don’t know what is happening but whatever the position of my government is, I support it—fully. Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, yes sir. I’m a member of that government and it’s my job to support it and I will as long as I live.” When he uttered those words, he thought they might be among his last. We also learned that night in the hospital room what US intelligence had known for nearly seven years, but we had not been told—that his odd and random blinking was actually transmitting the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” repeatedly, in Morse code, throughout the interview.

There was much more discussed in the hushed hospital room that night. But, suffice it to say, it was a staggering moment of catharsis that is forever frozen in time for us all. What struck me most, what I will never forget, was his “malice toward none” attitude and how his faith had nourished him and how he was committed to its message of forgiveness and compassion. He said through tears that he had forgiven those who had tortured and beaten him relentlessly. We knew he meant it, and although nightmares haunt his sleep unmercifully to this day, he’s never uttered a word since that cold February night that suggests anything to the contrary. He was a bit weepy, as we all were, but he broke down only once—when he spoke of his bus ride to a US Air Force plane a few days earlier from the Hanoi Hilton, where he’d been returned several years earlier from Alcatraz. It was the first time he’d been transported outside prison without being blindfolded or shackled. He wept there before us, not for himself or the other POWs, but for the Vietnamese people who had lined the streets and stared blankly at them as they drove by, telling us, choking on his words, “My heart went out to them because they live such miserable and impoverished lives.” I was twenty-one years old and this was the second time in my life that I saw my father break down. The first was exactly fifty years ago today, when he gathered us young kids in my parents’ bedroom to talk about the loss of President John Kennedy.

In his first months back home, as did other returned prisoners, he spoke to the media about his treatment in captivity. He also wrote a book about his experience. Otherwise, he’s barely uttered a word to me of his imprisonment since that first night in his hospital room. On the other hand, I have heard him say many times, “That’s over. I don’t want to be a professional jailbird.”

 

On my October visit to Hanoi, the capital of a now united Vietnam, I thought not only about my father but about an encounter with an articulate and soft-spoken Vietnamese woman sitting next to me on my flight into the city. She was a Ph.D. candidate in her late thirties, a mother of two, and a teaching assistant at a state university who wanted to see an increased American presence in her country. We spoke of her travels in Europe and China for research, and I eventually began to probe cautiously about her politics. She was not hesitant to give her opinion of the long-ruling Communist Party leadership: “They’re all corrupt. They steal everything through so-called privatization. They have no credibility and they are losing control of the people. No one listens to them.” Our flight had originated in Beijing, which had been Hanoi’s lifeline in its war with the US, and she was equally blunt in her opinion of this people’s republic: “Oh, we hate the Chinese—and we fear them more than we hate them.” 

Hers were the last overtly political comments I heard, not only because Hanoi’s taxi drivers do not speak English, but because I was on a pilgrimage that made political chat irrelevant.

Alcatraz, I was told by Alvin Townley some weeks earlier, is either gone or walled off. So I made my way to the Hanoi Hilton, passing under the arch where my dad had been dragged on a sweltering day in July of 1965—bound, swollen, blindfolded, and wounded from the ejection and from the beatings he had endured on the road to Hanoi.

What’s left of the prison has had a cosmetic makeover, but the main building’s bones are very much intact. It’s now a museum that mostly celebrates Vietnam’s heroes who were imprisoned there for resisting and eventually defeating the French colonials (who built the compound in the 1890s), as well as Vietnam’s defeat of the Americans and the country’s subsequent unification. The walls are adorned with tributes to the thousands of Vietnamese who suffered there, proclamations of glorious victories, and the obligatory claims that American POWs were well treated. For those who miss the point that Vietnam’s people suffered extreme cruelty, there is a guillotine on display, complete with bamboo baskets, that was imported and apparently used generously by the French in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

On the day I visited, it was as quiet and solemn as a cathedral, although by listening carefully it was possible to hear echoes of the screams that had filled this grim space some forty-five years earlier. The props of that drama—a quintessentially American story, although our country has had trouble finding a place for the POWs in the years since—are still present as you peer through the small steel-barred openings on the cell doors and see the heavy shackles fixed at the foot of the concrete “bunks.”

Back outside the prison walls, walking the colorful, bustling streets of Hanoi’s old town at first with some unease, I frequently recalled my dad’s words about the suffering and hardship these people had endured. The locals I met—in the plentiful shop stalls, the hotels, the restaurants, the pubs, and on the sidewalks where many eat squatting down and gathered around small stoves spread alongside the streets and alleys—were without exception friendly, warm, and helpful. My instincts told me that the war, which lives on in the ghosts of the prison, is long since over in the minds of the people. And the old paradigm of America as imperialist aggressors and China as utopian model doesn’t work anymore.

I usually devote this space to a tour d’horizon of the contents of World Affairs. This time I have taken a detour because of a trip that took me backward and forward in time, and because of Townley’s extraordinary book, Defiant—a story of authentic heroism that tells the stories of all eleven members of the Alcatraz Gang, in one of whom, as you now understand, I have a deep personal interest. I am certain you’ll find this important book, and Jim Robbins’s excellent review, worth your time. 

I will conclude by telling you that my father, Rear Admiral and former Senator Jeremiah Denton is eighty-nine years old, still playing golf, looking ahead, and feisty as ever. As life turned out, it was my mother who passed away and my father who remarried—and to a generous and patient woman whom my mother loved dearly when she was here and assuredly approves of now that she is not. Since returning from prison, Admiral Denton has received many honors, including the Navy Cross. But perhaps most fitting is that the US Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School, which provides intensive training in survival techniques to “personnel who are designated as high risk of capture due to the nature of their military duties,” was named in his honor a few years ago.

James S. Denton is the publisher and editor of World Affairs.

The Alcatraz Gang

Lieutenant George Thomas Coker (USN)
Commander Jeremiah A. Denton (USN)
Commander Harry T. Jenkins Jr. (USN)
Major Samuel R. Johnson (USAF)
Captain George P. McKnight (USAF)
Commander James A. Mulligan Jr. (USN)
Commander Howard E. Rutledge (USN)
Lieutenant Commander Robert H. Shumaker (USN)
Commander James B. Stockdale (USN)
Captain Ronald E. Storz (USAF)
Lieutenant Commander Charles “Nels” Tanner (USN)

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