Obituary: Jeremiah A. Denton / Vietnam War hero, U.S. senator from Alabama

July 15, 1924 - March 28, 2014

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Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., a former U.S. senator from Alabama and a celebrated Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and tortured in his years as a prisoner of war, at one point signaling Americans of the abuse by blinking in Morse code during a televised interview, died Friday in Virginia Beach, Va. He was 89.

Mr. Denton, a retired rear admiral, died at Sentara Hospice House, said his son, Jeremiah A. Denton 3rd.

He called himself "an average product of Middle America," but his story was anything but ordinary -- a war hero appalled by what he called America's moral degeneracy, a crusading spokesman for right-wing Christian groups, a one-term Republican senator in the patriotic matrix of President Ronald Reagan. It was a political life shaped by indelible experiences in Vietnam.

On July 18, 1965, Mr. Denton, leading a squadron of 28 A-6 Intruder attack jets and flying his 12th mission over North Vietnam, took off from the aircraft carrier Independence in the South China Sea. His bombardier-navigator was Lt. Bill Tschudy, and the target was a complex of military warehouses at Thanh Hoa, 75 miles south of Hanoi.

As he came in over the heavily defended Thanh Hoa Bridge on the Ma River, anti-aircraft batteries opened up. Shells riddled the Intruder, knocking out its sophisticated guidance system. The aircraft went into a tailspin, and pain shot through the commander's left thigh; a tendon had ruptured as he desperately tried to regain control, but it was hopeless. The fliers bailed out and were captured.

"Dazed and bleeding as I was, my principal emotion was fury," Mr. Denton recalled. "I was mad as hell at being shot down, and even angrier at being captured."

Over the next seven years and seven months, Mr. Denton was held in various prison camps, including the notorious "Hanoi Hilton," and endured beatings, starvation, torture and more than four years of solitary confinement, including periodic detentions in coffinlike boxes. He and other officers nevertheless maintained a chain of command and a measure of discipline among the prisoners.

"I put out the policy that they were not to succumb to threats, but must stand up and say no," he told The New York Times in 1973. "Figuratively speaking, we now began to lie on the railroad tracks hoping that the sheer bulk of our bodies would slow down the train. We forced them to be brutal to us."

The commander was often punished for urging others to resist. He also devised ways for prisoners to communicate by signs or numbers, tapping on a wall or coughing signals in a sequence. Ten months after his capture, he was selected for a propaganda interview to be broadcast on Japanese television.

It became famous. Haggard after days of beatings and threats of more if he did not respond properly, he stumbled before the cameras and sat hunched over, arms squeezed between his legs. Pretending to be blinded by spotlights, Mr. Denton began blinking -- seemingly random spasms and tics -- as he answered his interrogators, mostly handpicked Communist journalists.

To a question about American "war atrocities," the commander said: "I don't know what is happening in Vietnam because the only news sources I have are North Vietnamese. But whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live."

It was a daring answer, but the North Vietnamese, who lost face, were even more outraged when they learned that the interview, broadcast on U.S. television May 17, 1966, held a secret message -- the commander, in Morse Code, blinking out "T-O-R-T-U-R-E." It was the first confirmation that American POWs were being tortured. The commander was beaten all night.

During his captivity, Mr. Denton was awarded the Navy Cross and promoted to captain. In 1973, after President Richard M. Nixon announced a Vietnam peace agreement, Mr. Denton was in the first group of prisoners released. "We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances," he said at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

His ordeal in Vietnam was graphically chronicled in a 1976 memoir written with Ed Brandt, "When Hell Was in Session," and made into a 1979 NBC television movie starring Hal Holbrook and Eva Marie Saint.

Promoted to rear admiral, he was named commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., a post he held until his retirement in 1977. Dismayed by what he regarded as a widespread failure of morality in America -- from adolescent promiscuity to political disunity and disrespect for authority -- Mr. Denton in 1977 established the Coalition for Decency, dedicated to family values and good citizenship.

A Roman Catholic, he also became a consultant to the Christian Broadcasting Network and to his friend Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, and began lecturing on domestic and foreign affairs, voicing support for the military services and for the Contra rebels in El Salvador.

In 1980, capitalizing on his war-hero image and running on a platform of strong national defense, he was elected to the Senate, defeating the Democrat, James E. Folsom Jr. He was Alabama's first Senate Republican since Reconstruction and the first former admiral elected to the Senate. He served from 1981 to 1987, compiling a solid conservative voting record. He lost his bid for re-election in 1986 to Richard Shelby, a Democratic congressman who later became a Republican and who continues to hold the Senate seat.

Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr. was born in Mobile, Ala., on July 15, 1924, one of three sons of Jeremiah and Irene Steele Denton. His father, a hotel clerk, moved the family often and the boy attended 13 elementary schools. In 1936, his father left the family, which returned to Mobile, and the parents were divorced in 1938.

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