When Hell Was In Session

In the spring of 1968, we celebrated Easter weeks ahead of the rest of the world. We didn’t know when it was to fall (April 14, as I discovered many years later), so we guessed and chose a Sunday in March. I said that we should pray for a sign that would deliver us from our long ordeal.

I composed a poem in three stanzas. One stanza I “recited” on Holy Thursday, the second on Good Friday, and the third on Holy Saturday. Almost all of us at Alcatraz had a deep belief in God. Thus, each stanza was eagerly awaited, and the following morning the others would scrape back their comments on my effort.

The poem was titled “The Great Sign.” It represented a conversation on Holy Saturday night, about thirty hours after Christ was crucified, among the three women who found the stone rolled back from Christ’s tomb on Easter. I made up the first stanza for Joanna, one of the holy women. It went:

His manger birth drew kings in awe,

His smile the former blind men saw,

In Him divine and mortal merged,

Yet He’s the one the soldiers scourged.

The second stanza I composed for Mary, the mother of James:

He praised the humble and the meek,

The grateful deaf-mute heard Him speak,

His face was love personified,

Yet He’s the one they crucified.

The third was spoken by Mary Magdalene:

Now our tears with doubts combine,

How could He die yet be divine?

We must dispel this faithless gloom,

Let’s pray at dawn beside His tomb.

The poem illustrated as well as anything the desperate hopefulness of the prisoners in our dark and lonely cells as we looked for a “great sign.”

And the sign came on April 1, when, early in the morning, Rat flung open the door to my cell and half-shouted: “Denton, we have defeat you! There will be no more bombing! Johnson has quit!”

Using our “180-degree” rationale, we assumed this meant that the North Vietnamese had made a tremendous concession to President Johnson, who in turn had ordered a halt to the bombing. We concluded that peace should not be far off. To me, and to many of the others, it was the sign for which we had been looking. It had come too close on the heels of our fervent prayer to be coincidence.

We held to our hope for a long time, although Mulligan began to waver after a while. He began to believe the end of the bombing meant we would sit there for years and rot. Eventually, I also began to waver, but neither one of us expressed our doubts, and it was a full year before I would completely lose faith in my great sign. In the meantime, our purgatory would continue.

Having beaten them in my last two torture sessions in 1966, I thought I could do it again. In an effort to deter the punishment, I wrote Mickey Mouse a note reminding him of my previous success and said that if they were determined to torture me, they would have to torture me to death. That was a mistake. It was a pledge I couldn’t keep.

The next stage was rear cuffs and leg irons. A guard dragged me around the rough cement floor until the leg cuffs began tearing into my ankles. He jerked me left and right, lifted me by the rear handcuffs—the same mess all over again for hours. Then I was left on the floor for a day.

Mickey Mouse gave me one more chance to write the letter, and again I refused.

In the months since my last torture, the Vietnamese had developed a rig that was unknown to me, and it was the perfect answer to my ability to take pain until passing out. As soon as Mickey Mouse left the room, a guard slammed open the door and held out a rope and a four-and-a-half-foot pole, pointed at one end.

“Ah, Denton,” he shouted, grinning, “here is your old friend!” Actually, the pole was new to me.

Two more guards came into the room, and the three of them began tying my wrists and lower forearms together in front of me. They forced my elbows apart and forced my knees between them, and pushed the pole through the hole created by my elbows and knees. Then they tipped me back on my spine and propped my feet on an overturned stool so that my feet were raised about a foot off the ground.

In essence, I was in the fetal position, my thighs pressed against my chest so tightly that I could hardly breathe, My body was tipped at such an angle that most of my weight was on the tip of my spine. The pole was the key to the rig. If the rig was properly tied, I would pass out eventually and fall on my side; the end of the pole would hit the floor and slide out of the rig, easing the pressure on my arms and restoring circulation. The pain that came with the blood circulation would bring me back to consciousness; thus the prisoner couldn’t beat the rig by passing out.

But the guards had tied the ropes poorly. They had allowed some of the loops to overlap, and by working at the rope I could eliminate the overlaps, thus loosening the rope and allowing enough circulation so that I lasted about four hours without passing out. The rig was still painful, but I could stand it. Mickey Mouse came in, obviously worried that the rig wasn’t working and that I would beat it, as I had promised.

He had the guards untie me and I was brought some food, but I couldn’t eat it. I dawdled with the food to buy time, but Mickey Mouse became impatient and with a wave of the hand said, “Denton, we will break you now.”

I was retied, but again ineffectively, and I was able to last four more hours. Finally, a guard named Sad Sack inspected the rig, criticized the guards for their incompetence, and supervised the retying. This time the rig worked, and after an hour of agony, during which time I watched my hands slowly swell and turn black, I passed out and fell over. The end of the pole hit the floor and slipped from the rig, as intended, and the rush of blood to my arms brought me back to consciousness and renewed pain. By then, six or seven guards were in the room kicking and punching at me.

There was one big guard we called Jack Armstrong who was much decorated and treated with deference by the others. He was a husky, strong fellow and as he swung at me I spat at him and tried to butt him. Surprisingly, tears came to his eyes and he stopped and turned his back. As I looked up in wonderment, Mickey Mouse brusquely ordered him to hit me again. Jack Armstrong turned around, dutifully gave me a little poke in the face, and left the room.

After a period of time, pain becomes an all-encompassing entity, a fiery, blinding devil that courses into every part of the brain until you literally would do anything to escape it. After three cycles, the rig became too much. It had driven me to the point where I happily would have committed suicide to escape it. I would have run my own mother down with a truck if the price was freedom from pain, but I could do nothing. I felt my heart pumping mightily to force the blood through my strangled limbs and hoped that it would give out.

I prayed to die.

The way the North Vietnamese had concentrated on me, I began to believe that they were trying to break me permanently and I wasn’t certain they couldn’t do it. I was afraid that if they succeeded, they would use me to send improper orders to the others, and I wasn’t sure that I could stand up to one more trip through the mill. I passed the word that if they made me send an improper order, I would precede that order with the letters BS, and the next senior man, Jenkins, should take charge. But that never happened.

Although my last major torture was in February, I was still being pressed to rewrite my biography. One night in March, while I was lying on the floor of the punishment room, my hands cuffed behind me, Mickey Mouse came in and woke me up. This was unusual. It was about two o’clock in the morning and he was out of breath and shaking from excitement.

“Denton, I have something to tell you,” he said, shaking me. “I know you usually don’t believe me, but time will prove I am telling the truth. I have just come from a meeting at headquarters,” he said importantly. “I have receive information to make provision for two more years.”

As I struggled to sit up, he went on: “I must provide for two more Christmas,” and he held up two shaking fingers.

“The war will go on!” he shouted, and left.

I was too beaten down to care at the moment, but later I realized that he was announcing that the North Vietnamese had just come to the conclusion that Nixon’s terms were unacceptable and that, indeed, the war would go on. We would not be leaving Hanoi anytime soon.

From the Epilogue

My reentry into freedom after more than seven and a half years as a prisoner in North Vietnam has been a mixed experience.

I reported back for duty to Admiral Noel Gayler, commander in chief, Pacific. But my happiness on landing at Clark Field in the Philippines was tinged with sadness when I learned that my father had died in 1970. Jane, of course, had written to me of his death, but that letter was one of many I had not received.

Then there was the overwhelming joy of reunion with my family shortly after midnight on February 15, 1973, at the Norfolk Naval Air Station. Of all the emotions that I have experienced, nothing yet compares with my feeling of pride in the strength of character shown by my family, both while I was away and during my recovery period. Jane especially cannot get enough credit.

Slowly, the new America unfolded to me. It appeared cleaner and better groomed. There was obviously a greater sense of common purpose and respect among members of different religions. I witnessed more respect between black and white people, and more freedom of opportunity for black people: The suffocating discrimination was ending.

Unhappily, I also began to note some dark corners in America. I saw the evidence of the new permissiveness, group sex, massage parlors, X-rated movies, and the drug culture. All of these were alien to me. I had to ask Jane what a massage parlor was and what X-rated meant. At the hospital I saw Hustler magazine and other pornographic material that were not allowed on Navy magazine racks in 1965. In the next two months the whole counterculture became evident: the so-called sexual revolution, the drug scene, the antiestablishment mood. TV, the movies, literature, even the academic world, were full of it. America had changed drastically and I was shocked. I also noted a mood of national political disunity that had damaged the foundations of the most powerful, but compassionate nation on earth.

I thought at one point that the title of this book should be Under God, Indivisible, for so performed most of the prisoners in North Vietnam. Imprisonment tends to breed resentment, suspicion, jealousy, hatred, and disunity, and in Hanoi our captors fostered these emotions. But most of the prisoners, finding themselves in desperate circumstances, quickly rediscovered God and became indivisible in their resistance. With the understanding that our way of life, with all its imperfections, is incomparably greater than anything offered by communism, my fellow prisoners and I were resolved to stand as one in its defense. We can add our testimony to those of great heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, who have vividly related what communism really is like.

Sadly, I believe that apathy and disunity at home led to the betrayal of millions of Southeast Asians. We POWs watched from the very center of Hanoi the heavy strategic bombing delivered by Operation Linebacker II in late December 1972. We are irrefutable firsthand witnesses to the fact that that bombing operation destroyed the military capability of North Vietnam and eliminated their will to fight further.

Arms, of course, are just part of the answer; a country must be morally and spiritually strong as well, and believe in its mission. Americans must remember that peace is not simply the absence of war. Those in slavery have no peace, as Solzhenitsyn tells us.

Today, however, slavery does not come in the form of communism, but rather in our moral failings as a nation. The new morality that I discovered upon my return has become the lifestyle of many Americans. The counterculture has become the mainstream, now enforced by the government. I deplored this situation and have fought against it— the remainder of my naval career, as a U.S. senator, and now as a private citizen. The trend is continuing.

As a result of this new edition recounting my experience in Vietnam, I have resolved to write another book that will address these ongoing changes in America. It will contain incidents and observations of the past quarter-century of my American experience. Many of our intellectual elite, for example, who never understood the Cold War, have succeeded in muddling U.S. perspectives on the Cold War in general, and on Vietnam in particular. I will pleasurably engage in trying to clarify these perspectives in my next book.

Wise men have observed that they who control the writing of the history of a nation actually control the nation. The wrong people have been controlling the writing (and rewriting) of our history. I hope and intend that the accounting of my experiences for the past twenty-five years will help establish better public understanding of where the specific problems lie and what, concretely, can be done to solve them.

  • Jeremiah Denton

    Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr. (born 1924) is a retired United States Navy Rear Admiral and a former United States Senator from the state of Alabama. He spent almost eight years as a Prisoner of War (POW) in North Vietnam and later wrote a book which became a film about those experiences.

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