Jeremiah Denton blinked Morse Code as a POW. Who figured that out?
November 7, 2016 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Jeremiah Denton was an American POW in Vietnam. When interviewed for a propaganda video by the North Vietnamese, Denton provided confirmation of conditions by blinking "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" in Morse code while feigning light sensitivity. How did American intelligence know he was blinking Morse code?

The story is incredible. His presence of mind and skill are laudable. But it wouldn't have worked unless someone noticed it. Who noticed it and how? And is watching for Morse Code (etc) a standard intelligence technique now?
posted by jefficator to Law & Government (5 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't remember the details, but the book Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison tells the story of how American intelligence officers realized what he was doing. Denton was also providing information to American intelligence through mail to his wife, with both knowing he would have been executed if caught. I highly recommend the book if this story interests you.
posted by FencingGal at 1:00 PM on November 7, 2016 [14 favorites]

Best answer: And is watching for Morse Code (etc) a standard intelligence technique now?

I doubt there's much in the way of publicly available documentation on how intelligence is analyzed (there are books out there on spycraft and CIA procedures that are declassified, and it's a hell of a rabbit-hole), but it's fair to assume that videos are scrutinized frame-by-frame by experts in every kind of code from common sign languages to binary, and in a case like this they'd probably bring in anyone they can get a hold of who trained the person in question, or trained with them, in case there's some sort of very localized code being used.

Also pretty much anyone headed into hostile territory is given at least baseline training in what to do if captured, and one of those things is to try to pack as much encrypted information as humanly possible, by whatever means at hand, at every opportunity*. So they would have expected him to be trying. And in Vietnam, there was so much call for silent movement that Morse probably came easily to anyone who'd been there a while.

None of which reduces the remarkable presence of mind it takes to probably practice the blinking routine ahead of time, deploy it believably, and get it right.

*Civilians who will be working in volatile areas are often trained by the same people to do the same things, but they can't talk about it in detail either.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:43 PM on November 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

Anyone who might be captured (like pilots) goes through a survival, evasion, resistance and escape course. Methods of communicating after capture like this are taught, along with the 25-letter POW tap code. They are all classified, although one of the signals from that era, the so-called walking K, may have been inadvertently disclosed in congressional hearings.

As a humorous aside, SERE school is one of the only schools in the military where the instructors are allowed (required even) to hit their students-- to prepare them for probable torture after they are captured. I once knew a Navy linguist who went through the school, and after graduation he was asked to fill out a customer satisfaction survey and provide feedback to improve the course. His top recommendation was to hire some left-handed SEALS, so that both sides of his face would hurt equally, instead of all the slaps landing on just the left side.
posted by seasparrow at 3:15 PM on November 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

I was just learning about a different Morse Code incident that is even more convoluted. This article on the Verge from last year is good reading.
posted by jessamyn at 8:00 PM on November 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

From seasparrow's 'walking K' link:

At Dong Mang (Dong Vai) prison, on June 1992 photography, (one of two outside consultants) observed what he believed to be a "GX 2527" etched in a field near the prison. He rated this at 100 percent level of confidence in his initial report, and did not change his position during the joint review. JSSA has confirmed that "2527" matches the authenticator number of a serviceman still unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.


Six analysts...sought to reconcile the final differences between the two outside consultants. The six task force members agreed that, "none of the suspect symbols could be identified as intentionally prepared man-made markings." Their conclusions on ...Reported Symbol GX 2527: The consensus of the team was that although portions of what could be interpreted as letters/numbers were observed in the field, they appeared to be too haphazard and ill-defined to be a man-made distress signals.

Jesus - nightmare fuel.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:25 PM on November 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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