When Jerry Coffee died on Nov. 13, tributes immediately poured out recalling the former U.S. Navy aviator’s nearly seven years as a prisoner of war in the notorious "Hoa Lo (Fiery Forge)" prison in downtown Hanoi.
Coffee, who was 87 at the time of his death, was shot down by the enemy while on an intelligence-gathering mission over North Vietnam on Feb. 6, 1966. Captured by the communist enemy and marched to Hanoi over a grueling 10 days, Coffee would be transferred to other prisons over the next seven years.
Fed two meager meals a day, repeatedly beaten, and tortured to the limit of human endurance, Coffee displayed near-superhuman powers of resistance to his captors.
He also helped craft the "tap code"— superimposing the alphabet over numbers and thus permitting them to spell out messages by tapping on the cell walls. For helping make communication possible among his comrades and boosting morale, Coffee was later awarded the Silver Star.
"I would follow Jerry as a POW on Nov. 11, 1966, but would not meet him until late 1971 or early ’72," Orson Swindle recalled to Newsmax. "We lived together with our friends Bud Day, John McCain, and others for about a year at the end of the POW experience. Our friendship was renewed in 1990 after I had moved to Honolulu."
Along with friend Jeremiah Denton, who would go on to be an admiral and U.S. senator from Alabama, Coffee was one of the longest imprisoned POWs and thus released in the first wave of C-141 transport planes to touch down at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
An entire nation seemed to weep with joy as they watched on television when Denton, emaciated and worn from torture, saluted and declared: "We are honored to have had the opportunity to have served our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander-in-chief for this day. God bless America!"
But the careers of Denton and Coffee were intertwined in an earlier life, as rumors of war — World War III, in fact — were rampant amid the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. As President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were "eyeball to eyeball" over whether Russian missiles should be in Cuba, Cmdr. Denton (having just completed his A-1H Skyraider training) was in the cockpit of his fighter plane on the deck of a battleship.
"He told his LSO [landing signal officer] he’d better get his orders straight and bring the right flag down," recalled his son Jim Denton at Jeremiah’s funeral on March 28, 2014. But as it turned out, the flag to fly and bomb Cuba never came down. Russia removed the missiles from Cuba as the U.S. removed its own missiles in Turkey and the crisis was over.
As Denton prepared for war, Lt. Coffee was on a secret mission — code-named Blue Moon — to fly one of several reconnaissance jets at low altitude (460 feet) over Cuba and photograph evidence of Russian missiles aimed at American cities.
Coffee’s mission was accomplished, and the photographs soon became world-famous, as they were displayed by U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in his storied confrontation with Russian Ambassador Valerian Zorin exposing the Russian’s mendacity denying any of their missiles were 90 miles from the U.S. coast.
Born and raised in Modesto, California, the young Coffee earned his Navy wings almost immediately after graduating from UCLA. Stationed on the USS Saratoga, he flew more than 200 missions throughout Europe.
Retiring to Hawaii in 1985, Coffee soon became a much-in-demand motivational speaker and was voted one of the "Top Ten Main Platform Speakers" by the Million Dollar Roundtable (America’s top life insurance producers).
It was only a matter of time before fellow Republicans began imploring, "Run, Jerry, run." He finally did run in 2004, seeking a seat in the Hawaii House of Representatives. In the Democrat-leaning 33rd District (Aiea-Halawa), Coffee lost by 54 votes to Democratic Rep. Blake Oshiro. He planned to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, but suffered a heart attack and ended the campaign.
"Jerry was a truly gentle man, a sincere and eloquent speaker, a man of strong faith and courage, and a good friend for many years," said Orson Swindle. "Our friendship was renewed in 1990 after I had moved to Honolulu. We maintained close contact ever since, last seeing Jerry in September of this year. We have lost a dear friend."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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