What can you say without saying a word? Can you inspire those around you to give just a little bit more of themselves? When all hope seems lost, can you tell your loved ones how much they mean? Or can you tell the entire world everything—all without saying anything at all?
This is the Forgotten History of the Blink of an Eye.
The steely-eyed commander gave a nod to his men as their carrier approached enemy territory and they climbed into their attack jets. A veteran Navy man hardened by two decades and now three major wars, he knew his mission was dangerous, but he had to be the man to lead it. Their target was a North Vietnamese warehouse complex, and to get there, they had to fly over the Thanh Hoa Bridge. The commander understood that this bridge would be heavily defended, but he gritted his teeth and led his bomber group overhead.
Suddenly antiaircraft shells pierced the sky. The commander’s plane was hit. He was going down, and going down fast. He and his bombardier-navigator, Lt. Bill Tschudy, bailed out and were captured as soon as they hit the ground.
On July 18, 1965, the commander became one of the earliest and easily the highest-ranking prisoner of the Vietnam War.
Almost immediately, he was beaten and tortured. He was deprived of both food and water and interrogated daily. But he would give his captors only his name, rank, and serial number. He was Jeremiah Denton, and he wasn’t saying a word.
And without saying a word, he was able to communicate with his fellow POWs. They tapped on walls and coughed in Morse code. They left signs for each other on walls leading to the torture chambers. Commander Denton imposed order and kept up the morale of his men as the weeks dragged on into months.
After nearly a year behind bars, the commander was severely beaten and told he was going to appear on Japanese television to tell the world that his captors were treating him well and that it was the Americans who were the real barbarians. If he didn’t answer correctly, he would be beaten again…or worse.
He was taken from his cell into a small room and blinked as the camera’s bright lights shined in his eyes. But then he kept blinking, even as his eyes adjusted to the light. As the questions started, he kept blinking.
He was asked about American atrocities, and he blinked as he gave his 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."
Once the interview aired, the world realized why Commander Denton was blinking so much. He was using Morse code, blinking out T-O-R-T-U-R-E. Without saying a word, he had told the world that he and his fellow POWs were being tortured. It was the first confirmation of the atrocities that the North Vietnamese were committing.
All around the world, Denton was hailed as a hero. He was promoted to captain and awarded the Navy Cross.
When his captors learned what he had done, Commander Denton was beaten and tortured even more severely than he was before. He endured seven years and seven months of hell, before he was among the first group of POWs freed following the Vietnam peace agreement in 1973.
Jeremiah Denton was a national hero. He became a prominent conservative Christian Republican activist and was even elected to a term in the Senate in 1980. But he was always best known for what he said to the world by saying nothing to his captors—and by what he said when he first came home, expressing not relief for escaping his yearslong ordeal, but gratitude to his commander in chief and his country for giving him the opportunity to serve, even among the worst circumstances imaginable.
"We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances," he said. "We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America."
After seven long years, Jeremiah Denton had spoken. And he said it all.