Jeremiah Denton, the downed Navy pilot who was paraded before television cameras by the Viet Cong and confirmed U.S. suspicions of prisoner maltreatment during the Vietnam War by blinking out the word “torture” in Morse code, has died. He was 89.
Denton, a former U.S. senator from Alabama, died Friday in Virginia Beach, Va. He had been in failing health for several years, a grandson, Edward Denton, said in confirming his death to the Associated Press.
From 1965 to 1973, Denton was held at the “Hanoi Hilton” and several other infamous Vietnamese prisons.
Systematically starved, beaten and humiliated, he was among the first U.S. prisoners freed, declaring as he stepped from a plane at Clark Air Field in the Philippines on Feb. 12, 1973: “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our commander in chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”
A conservative and a war hero, he became the first Republican elected to the Senate from Alabama in more than a century. Taking office in 1981, he was known for his uncompromising stands on defense and social issues, including abortion, adultery and homosexuality.
“He has kept his distance from the rolling carnival of legislative deal-making as if convinced that contact would taint his beliefs with shadows,” the National Journal said in 1986.
In an interview, he told the publication that the Senate “reminds me of the way things were in prison: You could always get things easier if you played the game.... In that sense, it was good training.”
However, Denton’s reluctance to “play the game” -- he told a TV interviewer he couldn’t accomplish much in Washington if he were down in Alabama “patting babies on the butt” -- took a toll. He was not elected to a second term.
Denton received numerous military honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.
Born July 15, 1924, in Mobile, Ala., he attended at least 13 grammar schools throughout the South. His father was an itinerant hotel clerk, a gambler and heavy drinker whom Denton later described as loving but undependable.
Drawn by a more structured life, Denton was inspired to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy after seeing a movie about the school -- “Navy Blue and Gold,” starring Robert Young, James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.
“I knew I would have to do my best simply to survive at the Naval Academy,” he said in “When Hell Was in Session,” a 1976 memoir he wrote with Ed Brandt. “And the service of a naval officer appeared to be something I could give my all to without feeling that I was wasting myself.”
Denton graduated from Annapolis in 1946 and stayed in the Navy until he retired as a rear admiral in 1977.
He was leading his 12th combat mission in Vietnam when his A6 Intruder was shot down on July 18, 1965, over Thanh Hoa, about 75 miles south of Hanoi.
At that moment, his wife, Jane Maury Denton, was at a Virginia drive-in movie theater with three of their seven children, watching “Mary Poppins.”
With leg injuries he suffered after ejecting from his stricken plane, Denton was dragged from a muddy riverbank by Viet Cong soldiers. It was the start of an unrelenting ordeal that would become increasingly painful with each of Denton’s many refusals to comply with his captors’ demands.
He was held in isolation for lengthy periods totaling about four years. At points, he was in a pitch-black cell, a cramped hole crawling with rats and roaches. His beatings opened wounds that festered in pools of sewage. Frustrated that Denton would not confess to alleged American war crimes or reveal even basic details of U.S. military operations, jailers subjected him to horrific abuse.
At the start of one three-day torture session, guards tied his arms behind his back so tightly his elbows touched, he wrote in his memoir.
“Agonizing pain began to flow ... as my heart struggled to pump blood through the strangled veins,” he wrote. Meanwhile, his tormentors cuffed a cement-filled, 9-foot-long iron bar across his ankles, repeatedly jumped on it, lifted Denton by his manacled arms and, for hours, dragged his lower body across the floor.
Taking command of fellow POWs he usually could not see, Denton fashioned a secret prison communication system using the sound of coughs, hacks, scratching, spitting and throat-clearing keyed to letters of the alphabet.
He ordered resistance, regardless of pain.
“When you think you’ve reached the limit of your endurance, give them harmless and inaccurate information that you can remember, and repeat it if tortured again,” he told his men. “We will die before we give them classified military information.”
Thinking they’d broken him, Denton’s captors allowed a Japanese TV reporter to interview him on May 2, 1966.
“The blinding floodlights made me blink and suddenly I realized that they were playing right into my hands,” he wrote. “I looked directly into the camera and blinked my eyes once, slowly, then three more times, slowly. A dash and three more dashes. A quick blink, slow blink, quick blink... .”
While his impromptu blinks silently told the world that prisoners were being tortured, he was unabashed in the interview, which was later broadcast around the world, in his denial of American wrongdoing.
“Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it -- yes, sir,” he said. “I’m a member of that government and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.”
Denton was tortured afterward.
Conditions for the POWs improved somewhat as negotiations on the 1973 Paris Peace Accords progressed. In his book, Denton said his jailers eased up because they feared being tried as war criminals.
After he arrived back in the U.S., Denton signed on for a different kind of war -- a never-ending battle against what he believed were immoral and godless forces destroying America from within.
When he was recuperating in a naval hospital, he viewed films of Woodstock, the 1969 rock festival, and vomited at the sight of “hippies fornicating publicly, high on drugs,” he wrote in a 2009 epilogue to his book.
“To me it was a nightmare,” he continued. “This nation, firmly founded as One Nation Under God, was in the process of becoming a pagan nation with a shocking degeneration of national integrity.”
After serving from 1973 to 1977 as commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., Denton left the military to take up a full-time moral crusade. He founded a group called the Coalition for Decency and, in 1980, promised that as a senator he would help stem the tide of American moral degradation.
“Strategists of the New Right saw him as a Jesse Helms with aviator’s wings,” The Times wrote in 1981, “a Pied Piper who would enlist fresh armies in the march against pornography, promiscuity and permissiveness ... a man on a white horse come to reinstate Norman Rockwell’s America.”
Denton’s effectiveness was limited. He was sometimes inflammatory, particularly on moral issues. In 1981, he drew national condemnation by insisting to Senate colleagues that spousal rape should not be covered by the same criminal charge as nonspousal rape.
“Damn it,” he said, “when you get married, you kind of expect you’re going to get a little sex.”
He later said he opposed the law because it seemed to equate marital and non-marital relations.
More quietly, Denton tried to help Amerasian children, fathered mostly by U.S. soldiers, who were struggling for survival in Vietnam.
Denton is “a man of draining intensity,” liberal Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote in 1981. “When he talks about immorality and military unpreparedness and the horrors of communism, the two lines perpendicular to his eyebrows deepen to the point where they almost split his forehead. But if the matter is not cosmic, his manner has much warmth and sweetness.”
He was defeated in 1986 by Richard C. Shelby, a Democrat who had served four terms in Congress.
Denton’s wife of 61 years died in 2007, an event he called “more traumatic than Vietnam.” He is survived by his second wife, Mary Belle Bordone; five sons and two daughters from his first marriage, 14 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and a brother.
Over the years, he remained active in veterans causes and served on the boards of several colleges, including Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.
He remained convinced that family values were under attack.
“All is not yet lost, but our position is extremely perilous,” he wrote in 2009. “If I had known when I stepped off that plane to freedom ... what I know now, I would not have said, ‘God bless America.’ I would have said, as I say now, ‘God save America!’ ”