On July 18, 1965, Navy Commander Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr. took off from the aircraft carrier Independence and headed for North Vietnam. He was squadron leader of 28 A-6 Intruder jets tasked with the mission of bombing military warehouses 75 miles south of Hanoi. Over the Ma River, his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. Denton and his bombardier-navigator, Lt. Bill Tschundy, bailed out and were captured by the North Vietnamese communists.
For the next seven years and seven month Denton was held as a prisoner of war – subject to brutal torture, starvation, and years of solitary confinement. As one of the officers in the camp, Denton helped develop a secret communication system among the POWs by tapping on walls and encouraged others to resist.
Less than a year after Denton was captured, he was featured in an interview for propaganda purposes and brought international attention to the true treatment of the POWs by secretly using his eyes to blink a single word in Morse Code: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” When the North Vietnamese realized what he had done, he was beaten for an entire night.
Describing a session of torture in his memoir When Hell Was in Session, Denton wrote:
[A] special rig was devised for me in my cell. I was placed in a sitting position on a pallet, with my hands tightly cuffed behind my back and my feet flat against the wall. Shackles were put on my ankles, with open ends down, and an iron bar was pushed through the eyelets of the shackles. The iron bar was tied to the pallet and the shackles in such a way that when the rope was drawn over a pulley arrangement, the bar would cut into the backs of my legs, gradually turning them into a swollen, bloody mess.
The pulley was used daily to increase the pressure, and the iron bar began to eat through the Achilles tendons on the backs of my ankles.
Denton remained in the rig for five days and nights, was briefly released and then put back in the rig for an additional five days and nights. He further recounted:
By the fifth morning, I was nearing despair. I offered myself to God with an admission that I could take no more on my own. Tears ran down my face as I repeated my vow of surrender to Him. Strangely, as soon as I made the vow, a deep feeling of peace settled into my tortured mind and pain-wracked body, and the suffering left me completely. It was the most profound and deeply inspiring moment of my life.
A few minutes later, Happy and another guard came into my cell and the two of them began pulling on the rope. Blood began to flow heavily from my legs. I felt nothing, though I still bear the scars and have frequent spasms in my legs from the ordeal.
It’s difficult to think of more terrible circumstances to endure and impossible to imagine a more courageous and heroic response. But the depth of this heroism is further revealed in comments Denton made years after he was freed in an interview about a documentary of his experience.
In the interview, Denton said:
[I]n my case I don’t mind testifying to the main event that happened to me there, which was the shocking realization of the extent of generosity of God. How he would answer prayers. I kinda thought they were my own, but after I got home I realized how much Jane and the children and our friends were praying, but whatever, he surprised us – the prisoners – by the degree to which He was generous and beyond what we asked in His response to our prayers. I can say that my faith in God turned in that experience to knowledge of God, without exaggerating.
To speak of experiencing the “extent of generosity of God” in such a terrible ordeal – a situation where many would see the total absence of God’s presence – is literally awe-inspiring. To recognize God’s generosity amidst horrific torture, terrible mistreatment, starvation, and separation from one’s country, home, and loved ones shows a depth of faith and understanding that is rarely seen except in those who have experienced terrible suffering and took up their cross.
This is a striking testimony to the power of prayer, and not only because Denton was able to recognize its direct and practical results. He also came to realize it was not only his prayers being answered, but also those of his wife, children, and friends – all very far away but closer than any of them understood at the time.
This interview with Denton reminded me of another heroic Vietnam War POW, Retired Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, who in his book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot discusses a “one all-purpose idea” he arrived at in his eight years in a North Vietnamese prison camp:
From this eight-year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea, plus a few corollaries. It is a simple idea, an idea as old as the scriptures, an idea that is the epitome of high-mindedness, an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure. If the pressure is intense enough or of long enough duration, this idea spreads without even the need for its enunciation. It just takes root naturally. It is an idea that, in this big easy world of yakety yak, seems to violate the rules of game theory, if not of reason. It violates the idea of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, our ideas of human nature, and probably the second law of thermodynamics. That idea is you are your brother’s keeper.
Denton, Stockdale, and their fellow POWs lived by this “simple idea” far from home under circumstances few can truly understand. But as Denton came to realize, his friends and family were living this principle as well, although far away and unable to offer direct help. Many often forget the possibility of acting as your brother’s keeper through prayer, especially as we often aren’t aware of or recognize the results of the prayers others offer for us or don’t always see the fulfillment of our prayers for others – even though we are usually not separated by an ocean, war, and imprisonment.
If anything “this big easy world of yakety yak,” as Stockdale so evocatively describes so much of modern life, has only gotten easier and filled with even more “yakety yak,” a reality Denton recognized. To act as our brother’s keeper, it is necessary to transcend this soft world of cheap talk and disordered priorities, and an indispensible means to do this is through prayer.
In doing so, we always must be conscious of the practical, and not just theoretical, power of prayer. During our stay in this world, few if any of us will understand and recognize how dramatically prayer – both our own and others – has impacted our lives. Additionally, even small passing prayers we offer for others and soon forget (but God never does) could have consequences we can never imagine. Only in the next life will we see the fruit of all our prayers. I am totally convinced we will be astonished.
Through his ordeal, Denton experienced and recognized the real, concrete effects of prayer and the generosity God is eager to bestow, if only we ask. Few of us will find ourselves or know others in situations like the Vietnam POWs, but we must remember to be our “brother’s keeper” both for those we do know facing smaller challenges and even for those we don’t know personally – some of whom will be in just such terrible dilemmas.
Retired Rear Admiral and former U.S. Senator Jeremiah A. Denton died earlier this year on March 28, and Retired Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale died in 2005.
May we remember them in our prayers.
– K.G. Montgomery