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.
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.
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 graduated from U.S. Naval Academy 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 July 18, 1965, about 75 miles south of Hanoi.
With leg injuries after ejecting from his 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.
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, 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.
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.
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!’”