Jeremiah Denton, Former Senator, Alabama

RADM, USN, (Ret.), Ex-POW, Vietnam

My creed for life is the Apostles’ Creed. My code of conduct is de-rived from the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ command to “love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” As an American naval officer, I derived motivation to serve my nation because of my love for my country. I also believe that Americans have a special justification to love their country derived from a love of God. America was founded as “one nation under God.” Our founding fathers deliberately based their experiment in democracy upon the premise that the compassion and the self-discipline required for the success of a democracy can only come from citizens who believe strongly in God.

Due to our nation’s founding premise, I found it easy to serve in a profession that protected our land. My generation helped to protect and ensure the survival of our nation against Fascism and Soviet Communism. Now our greatest enemy is the threat that would do away with America’s belief in the founding premise, its founding thesis.

If we continue to increase our forgetfulness of God’s ultimate significance, then America will not survive. I strive for the ultimate significant success —heaven—by loving and serving God, country and family.

To those who are non-Catholics among the readers, let me preface the story with an explanation of the Roman Catholic devotion to “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” Jesus, of course, has both a human and divine na-ture and took on a human body, and all natural characteristics of a human when he was on earth. His brain and sensory system enabled him to think and feel as a human being. His divine nature rendered him a sinless soul but he felt the temptations of a human being, and all the physical pains, pleasures, sights, and emotions of a human being. Thus the immensity of his suffering for our salvation is more palpably understood and appreciated by us. It is a Catholic tradition to regard his heart as the center, the symbol of his own humanity, the “source” of his human compassion and his love as he felt it and showed it on earth.

The love resulting in the miracle of Cana is one example of what could be attributed to his Sacred Heart. We feel we can “get to him” better, if you will, by appealing to that copiously loving heart. I had adopted that devotion and frequently uttered the prayer, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in Thee,” which was the standard prayer of that de-votion. I said it frequently, at least every night in prison.

Okay, with that said, let’s go back to 1967, about two years after I was shot down. Those years were probably the worst in terms of suffering for me. For a considerable portion of that time I had served as senior of-ficer for all the American POWs, responsible for issuing orders defining specific lines of resistance on unexpected challenges which arose, repre-senting our complaints about out treatment to our captors, and generally feeling responsible for our morale and performance of duty. Simply being a POW involved plenty of stress, long periods of physical and mental suf-fering. but for those finding themselves senior over an isolated group of POWs there was extra pressure.

The context of the timeframe of the incident I am about to relate was in the middle of the four years of intense mistreatment: mid 1967. Robbie Risner, then I, then Jim Stockdale had served as Senior Ranking Officer, (SRO), in that sequence since October 1965 when torture began. At this particular point in time, they were both isolated, and I was trying to act as SRO again in a camp called “Las Vegas” where most of the POWs were being kept. Vegas was like a hotel with fairly small cells, most of them were sharing common walls with one or two other cells.

Many of us had been moved to Vegas from the “zoo” where there were separate buildings, perhaps eight, holding a total of upwards of 100 prisoners. This arrangement permitted the North Vietnamese to erect bamboo walls cutting off visual contact between the buildings, and this greatly impeded audio contact because the walls limited maximum range of sound. The guards could use the walls to hide behind and catch people in one building trying to communicate with one another. Torture was al-ways bestowed on POWs caught communicating, along with other un-pleasant measures intended to intimidate the man from communicating in the future. This rendered communications difficult compared to the Vegas situation. We had been doing pretty well with tapping on the walls at Vegas for a number of months, but then the purge came that caused Stockdale’s temporary isolation, and I inherited the sack.

To inhibit and virtually prevent me from communicating as SRO, they stationed a guard in a chair at the door of my cell. At all times, his chair was leaned back against the door and the back of his head rested against the door. The acoustics were such that he could easily hear any tap, no matter how soft. Communications and prayer were by far the biggest factors supporting our morale and performance of duty.

At that time morale was low for three reasons: First, for a number of months, torture was being applied more intensely because the war was being intensified, the enemy was in an ugly mood and we knew prisoners were being promptly and severely tortured. We could hear their screams from a distance in another part of the prison complex. Also a purge among those POWs who had been in captivity longer was underway in an effort to break our chain of command and destroy our will to resist. Second, the news about the war which we were receiving was such that it was becoming evident that it was extremely unlikely the POWs would be released in any reasonable or early timeframe, and the conclusions that we would never be released were floating around in our minds. Third, com-munication was almost nil.

I was intensely frustrated and chagrined at my lack of ability to com-municate. Though I would have never admitted it, I was also of the belief that the U.S. was beginning to experience a growing anti-war movement. This sentiment would not likely improve our victory chances or any escala-tion of the scope and intensity of the U.S. offensive campaign which I and most others felt was necessary. Less importantly but of considerable effect on us, the end of the war did indeed seem further away, and release less certain. The screams of the prisoners in torture did not help my morale. During this phase I was enjoying the company of Jim Mulligan, my occasional cellmate. At this point in time, Jim was sleeping in the upper bunk. It was midday, siesta time, and the screams occasionally broke the normal silence for that time of day. I was praying, as usual, that God’s will be done, but that I hoped His will would include, among other things, improving our present situation because I was in leg irons and a guard was looking right at me. I prayed especially that He would let me come up with a means of communications that could be effectively used even when I was unable to move. Finally, as my last prayer, with special earnestness, I uttered the words, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in Thee.” In only a few seconds, I clearly heard an incredibly kind, dignified but commanding voice, which was taken by me to be the voice of Jesus Himself. The voice said clearly and rather slowly, “Say, Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give myself to you.” I was almost knocked down with a wave of awe upon hearing the voice. It was the most real and the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. The speaker of those words, of course, was not only assuring me of having heard my prayer, but had instructed me to deliver it in the future with new wording and meaning. I was not to say I merely trusted Him, but transcending that, I was to GIVE MYSELF, (all of me, all of my concerns) not just to THEE, as to a formal, omnipo-tent other type of suprem being, but to give myself to YOU, the familiar designation of a friend or a brother. And the tone and inflection of the voice conveyed the same mood of brotherly familiarity and assurance. It may sound kooky, but I know it happened, and I know it was real, more than I know my name is what it is, or that my wife is really my wife. For what it is worth, I can assure you that for me the prayer has worked. A few months later at a camp called Alcatraz where eleven of us were iso-lated for over two years, I did have a brainstorm which permitted me todevise the reliable, undetectable communications method for which I had specifically prayed. In many other painful situations, the prayer has since brought relief to me and to others who used it after I confided to them about the prayer.