When Hell was in Session, 46 years ago today

While the enemy fought hard, our Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines routed the North Vietnamese. While our news media spun this as a defeat for us, in point of fact we won decisively. A firsthand account contrasts the heroism and gallantry of Americans and South Vietnamese against the media whitewash. Ironically and sadly, Vietnam would end with the victors contemplating surrender and the defeated walking away with victory in sight.

As we remember the Tet Offensive, we must never forget that Vietnam provided a stark contrast in societies. Our enemy denied God and, in turn, assaulted basic human dignity. Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who spent nearly eight years as a Prisoner of War (POW) in Vietnam, chronicled this great chasm in his book When Hell Was in Session.

Denton, a Naval Aviator, and his navigator, Bill Tschudy, were shot down on July 18, 1965. Denton would endure the next several years in an assortment of POW camps in Hanoi. The conditions were reminiscent of the Japanese treatment of Allied POWs in World War II.

And yet, Denton–a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, a student of history who understood the Christian heritage of the United States, and, most importantly, a devout Christian, exemplified the best of America: his spiritual strength and leadership was instrumental in saving the lives of many American POWs.

He was prominent among the “Alcatraz Gang”, a special group of POWs who defied their captors and stirred other POWs to do the same. Most importantly, they provided spiritual leadership, praying for other POWs and–in the cases of Denton and Robinson Risner–even having religious services.

In spite of severe torture, they kept the faith, persevered, and emboldened the other POWs.

In Denton’s account, he shouted the Lord’s Prayer at the top of his lungs every Sunday.

In describing how he coped with his conditions,

How best to resist? I needed to build up my body, but there was the necessity of physical accommodation to my new life. It did no good to do push-ups, for instance: they only strengthened the shoulder and arm muscles, making the rear cuffs more painful. Finally, running in place proved to be the best form of exercise. It was one of the small lessons that makes such a large difference for a prisoner.

But mainly, I had to build a reservoir of psychological strength. Prayer and meditation were immediate answers, but I also needed the bread of a prisoner’s life, communication. This was always extremely important to us, providing the comfort of friendship and information in our common misery. Each man’s strength was reflected in another’s, and together we knew that we could prevail.

Denton also clearly understood the nature of his battle:

My principal battle with the North Vietnamese was a moral one, and prayer was my prime source of strength.

Another source was my country; no sacrifice was too great on her behalf…National interests, objectives, policies, and commitments depend on adherence to the nation’s principles. Founded on faith in God, the United States has been blessed as no other nation. The main tenet of that faith is “Love God; love thy neighbor as thyself.” Because of our faith, we have managed to cooperate effectively to achieve great prosperity and security. While prosperity and security are not everything, they are evidence that “A good tree shall bring forth good fruit.”

The strength of our nation is more than a material strength. We are a strongly moral people, and our country is based on spiritual strength. Lose that and we lose everything.

The Declaration of Independence has established certain moral confines, and governs in a manner consistent with the spirit under which our nation was founded: Love God; love thy neighbor as thyself.

God is denied by the Communists, and this denial is reflected by the way they treat their own subjects.

A chief component of that code of conduct for a POW reads: “I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.” Denton exemplified this in word and deed.

After torturing Denton, the North Vietnamese figured they could control him. They lined him up for a press conference, expecting him to tell of the great “crimes” of America.

In a great act of courage drawn from his deep Christian faith, Denton turned the tables on the enemy. As he was interviewed, he used his eyes to blink out the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code. The American military picked that up, and this became the first indication that Americans were subjected to torture. For this, Denton would receive the Navy Cross.

When asked about his views of our government’s action, Denton gave a priceless answer: “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, I believe in it, yes sir. I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”

Those defining moments—securing Denton’s place in history—would not have been possible except for his deep Christian roots, which enabled him to boldly face down his adversaries.

Our military has, from its inception, understood the importance of prayer to God as integral to mission readiness. First Principles Press has chronicled the history of prayer in our Armed Forces, from the Revolutionary War to Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, published in one volume: Endowed By Their Creator: A Collection of Historic Military Prayers 1774-Present.

Sadly, today, secular revisionists are working tirelessly to divorce all aspects of American life, to include our military, from her Christian roots. The Christian, once prized among military recruits, is now being increasingly marginalized by a wave of secularism promoted by a small but vocal and well-connected faction. In the process, they undermine our troops by undermining their spiritual orientation, which is critical to their combat-readiness.

Unless we unite to reverse this trend, we will continue to undo the very foundation that made America exceptional.

In the words of Denton:

Americans now in government must begin to honestly face themselves in the mirror, and try to sense the many threats to our country from within and without which demand a degree of bipartisanship to overcome. National interest must replace party and self-interest. Love of God and neighbor must replace pagan self-indulgence! If we do not effect these replacements, we will deserve the horrible fate we shall reap. It may be stylish today to laugh at “family values,” but when that type of liberal progressive theme prevails, national suicide is the inevitable result. I swore to defend this country “against all enemies, foreign AND DOMESTIC.” I am trying to fulfill that oath. All is not yet lost, but our position is extremely perilous. In conclusion, I must say that if I had known when I stepped off that plane to freedom at Clark Air Force Base in February 1973 what I know now, I would not have said, “God bless America,” I would have said, as I say now, “God Save America!”

Well said, Admiral.

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