UPDATE: This article is written by Alabama NewsCenter. Learn more at: http://alabamanewscenter.com
On July 18, 1965, U.S. Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton took off from the aircraft carrier USS Independence leading a 28-plane mission over the city of Thanh Hoa in North Vietnam.
Denton’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during the attack, and for the next eight long years, he would battle the North Vietnamese as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. As the senior American officer at the prison, Denton was forced by the North Vietnamese to participate in a press conference and told he must say the POWs were being treated well. Looking haggard, weak and beaten from the severe punishment he had undergone, Denton took advantage of that opportunity to send a secret message home, blinking out the letters T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code.
In this new Alabama Public Television original film, “Jeremiah,” premiering Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. on APT, family, friends and fellow POWs help tell the story of this American hero who led the way for prisoners in Hanoi and returned from Vietnam to become a U.S. senator from Alabama. Six of Denton’s children are interviewed: Jeremiah III, James, Don, Mike, Mary and Madeleine. Other interviewees include Senate staffer Joel Lisker, who worked for Denton; Alvin Townley, author of “Defiant”; and Heath Hardige Lee, who is writing a history of the POW wives and the POW/MIA movement.
Along with Denton, the three veterans interviewed in the film – Robert Shumaker, James Mulligan and George Coker – were part of the Alcatraz Eleven, a group of hardline resistors that the Vietnamese removed from the Hanoi Hilton and sent to a worse prison that the POWs named Alcatraz. There they spent 2 1/2 years in solitary confinement in cells that were 3 1/2 feet wide and 9 feet tall with solid walls and a solid door.
To help viewers picture the conditions Denton and fellow prisoners were living in, “Jeremiah” producer Mark Fastoso asked skilled theater designer Paige Hathaway to create miniatures of the hallways and cells of the North Vietnamese prisons. Director of photography Dennis Boni used his skills to make them look like the real thing.
“Jeremiah” also tells the story of what was happening back home to Denton’s wife, Jane, and their seven children, who wondered if he would ever return as they faced the turbulent social changes of the 1960s. Jane Denton managed to overcome grief over her husband’s imprisonment by becoming an activist and helping start the POW/MIA movement, which was partially responsible for the Vietnamese ending their program of torture.
“Jeremiah” explores the power of faith in unbelievable circumstances, and the qualities of leadership Jeremiah Denton brought to the difficult task of guiding fellow POWs to survive years of imprisonment and torture. In the end, it leaves no doubt that he was “the hero among heroes.”