The earliest depictions of sailing vessels are on ceramics from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of South Eastern Europe, dating back to 6000 BC. Several thousands of years later the characters of Daedalus and Icarus appeared in Greek mythology, crafting wings to sail in the air. a few thousand years after that Marco Polo told of Chinese kites that could carry a man skyward (often used as a punishment). Ballooning and other lighter than air forms of flight became common beginning in the eighteenth century, and following advancements in the design of gliders in the nineteenth century (learning to sculpt the air with the design of the the airfoil, in other words trimming the sails), powered, controlled flight traveled from dream to reality at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Understanding the connection between sailing on the seas and sailing in the skies helps to open the mind to the subtle difference between Naval Aviators and their brothers who fly in Air Force, Army, or civilian craft. It is indescribable, but in civilian clothes having a picnic in the park, you can tell the origins of each. They all have an aura about them, but the ones who use floating runways stand out.


A-6 intruder taking off from carrier

On 18 July 1965, attack squadron 75 took off from the USS Independence for a bombing mission over Vietnam. Leading the twenty eight craft in an A-6A Intruder was the squadron commander, Jeremiah Denton, and Lieutenant Bill Tschudy, his navigator/bombardier. As the squadron neared their target of Thanh Hoa, Commander Denton’s craft was struck by anti-aircraft fire, and he ejected along with Lieutenant Tschudy. They were taken prisoner, and incarcerated at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. I do not understand why prisoners of war are tortured, I suspect the anger of a weak mind is easier to express when the enemy is in chains. The treatment of prisoners of war in Vietnam set a new low, so depraved I will not attempt to describe it here.

Ten months into his captivity he was selected to be part of a propaganda broadcast (the least of Geneva Protocol violations). Commander Denton used the opportunity to send a message. As he provided the required answers, he blinked repeatedly from the camera lights. At least that is what the Vietnamese captors believed. Watch this forty two second video to see if you can pick up a pattern:


He is blinking Morse code. T-O-R-T-U-R-E. At the end of the interview, he states he still supports the actions of his government, earning him a transfer to another prison camp. After the segment was broadcast on American television his messages was decoded, and in Vietnam Commander Denton received an all night beating. He spent most of the remainder of his stay in isolation, as his captors found his presence increased resistance among the other prisoners he was exposed to.

He was released on 12 February, 1973, and returned to service stateside. Promotions led to his retirement in 1977 at the rank of Rear Admiral. In 1976 his book “When Hell was in Session” was published, which some of you may remember as the TV film of the same name starring Hal Holbrook as Denton. In 1980 he was elected as Senator by his home state of Alabama.

Admiral Denton’s details of the treatment of Prisoners of War were required reading when I was in the Air Force, and have been used in training at the survival schools of the various military branches. Let it suffice “When Hell was in Session” is a watered down treatment of the actual events, and the novel is more than some people can stomach.

Admiral Denton died last week at age 89. He was under hospice care for a heart ailment.

I have personally known only one Prisoner of War, my grandfather emeritus Captain Fred Turnbull. Fred was also a Naval Aviator. Both men displayed amazing grace under pressure, continuing the struggle against the enemy while captives. Both men saw themselves as just ordinary guys. Fred would say “Well, what would you have done?”, because he believed he was not extraordinary. By that he displayed his faith in humanity. Both men illustrated the ultimate struggle is fought with strong wills more than strong weapons.