It was eerie to enter Vietnam’s airspace for the first time this past October after entering it in my imagination many times since America was at war there so many years ago. I was cruising in the comfort of a well-appointed Vietnam Airlines Airbus cabin, attended by a pleasant and efficient crew. But I was thinking about another plane in another time—an A-6 Intruder attack jet flown by my father, Navy Commander Jerry Denton, who entered this same airspace on July 18, 1965, for what turned out to be a rendezvous with destiny.
A Naval Academy grad, husband, and father of seven, he and his twenty-something navigator and copilot, Lieutenant Bill Tschudy, a husband and father of a young child he hardly knew, had launched from the deck of the USS Independence, stationed in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of what was then North Vietnam.
Three days earlier, Commander Denton had celebrated his forty-first birthday on the ship. And, twenty or so minutes before crossing over North Vietnam’s coastal border, in the midst of the exquisitely orchestrated frenzy of flight operations, he had exchanged a salute from his cockpit with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, there to observe the conduct of the air war over North Vietnam. Then my dad and Lieutenant Tschudy were catapulted into a bright blue sky, pulling g-forces that momentarily disfigured their faces.
As the flight commander, my father led some twenty-eight other attack and fighter jets that would follow him on a mission intended to wreak havoc on some of North Vietnam’s bridges, roads, and other infrastructure targets. The pre-flight briefers in the ready room had said it would be a “routine” raid against light antiaircraft fire. But that was not to be. A few hours later, seconds after the A-6 dropped the bombs over the Thanh Hoa Bridge, their aircraft was struck and immobilized as flight leader Denton wrestled with the controls to lift the failing jet out of its bombing dive.
My dad has occasionally jokingly described the flying experience of a Navy carrier pilot as “days of boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” But, as he drifted to the ground under his bright white parachute, he was beginning seven years and seven months of imprisonment that would be defined by terror, mercifully interrupted by moments of solitude and isolation that tested his capacity to resist, endure, and survive.