Jeremiah Andrew Denton, Jr. (born July 15, 1924 in Mobile; died March 28, 2014 in Virginia Beach, Virginia) was a Rear Admiral and Naval Aviator in the United States Navy and, following his retirement from naval service, was a United States Senator from Alabama.
He spent almost eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and later wrote a book that became a film about those experiences. Denton is best known from this period of his life for the 1966 televised press conference in which he was forced to participate as an American POW by his North Vietnamese captors. He used the opportunity to communicate successfully and to confirm for the first time to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence and Americans that American POWs were being tortured in North Vietnam. He repeatedly blinked his eyes in Morse code during the interview, spelling out the word, "T-O-R-T-U-R-E".
Early life and military career
Denton was oldest of three brothers born to Jeremiah Denton, Sr and Irene (Steele) Denton of Mobile. He attended McGill Institute and Spring Hill College before entering the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1943. He graduated in 1946 as part of the accelerated "Class of 1947". That year he married the former Katherine Jane Maury.
Over the next 34 years, his naval career included service on a variety of ships and on aircraft, including airships (blimps). His principal field of endeavor was naval operations. He also served as a test pilot, flight instructor, and commanding officer of an attack squadron flying an A-6 Intruder.
In 1957, Denton was credited with developing the "Haystack Concept", a strategy for concealing aircraft carriers from radar by intermingling with commercial shipping and avoiding formations suggestive of a naval fleet. The strategy was simulated in maneuvers and demonstrated effectiveness, allowing two aircraft carrier fleets thirty-five simulated atomic launches before aggressor aircraft and submarines could repel them. He went on to serve on the staff of the Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet at the rank of Commander (O-5) as Fleet Air Defense Officer.
Denton graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College and the Naval War College, where his thesis on international affairs received top honors by earning the prestigious President's Award. In 1964, he received the degree of Master of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Prisoner of war (POW)
Denton served as United States Naval Aviator during the Vietnam War and was the Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five (VA-75) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence (CVA-62). On July 18, 1965 then-Commander Denton was flying an A-6A Intruder off the Independence with Lieutenant Bill Tschudy, his navigator/bombardier, leading twenty-eight planes on a bombing mission. They ejected when their jet was shot down over the city of Thanh Hoa in North Vietnam, and they were captured and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.
Denton and Tschudy were both held as prisoners of war for almost eight years, four of which were spent in solitary confinement. Denton is best known from this period of his life for the 1966 televised press conference in which he was forced to participate as an American POW by his North Vietnamese captors. He used the opportunity to communicate successfully and to confirm for the first time to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence and Americans that American POWs were being tortured in North Vietnam. He repeatedly blinked his eyes in Morse code during the interview, spelling out the word, "T-O-R-T-U-R-E". He was also questioned about his support for the U.S. war in Vietnam, to which he replied: "I don't know what is happening, but whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully. Whatever the position of my government, I believe in it, yes sir. I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live." While a prisoner, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Denton was later awarded the Navy Cross and several other decorations, mostly for heroism while a prisoner of war.
Denton was put in the "Hanoi Hilton" and the "Zoo" prison and prison camp and "Little Vegas" and "Alcatraz" prisons. In "Alcatraz", he became part of a group of American POWs known as the "Alcatraz Gang". The group consisted of James Mulligan, George Thomas Coker, George McKnight, James Stockdale, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, Ronald Storz and Nels Tanner. They were held in solitary confinement to separate them from other POWs because their strong resistance led other POWs in resisting their captors. "Alcatraz" was a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, located about one mile away from Hoa Lo Prison. Each of the American POWs spent day and night in windowless cells mostly in irons.
On February 12, 1973, both Denton and Tschudy were released in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese along with numerous other American POWs during "Operation Homecoming". Stepping off the jet back home in uniform, Denton said: "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." The speech has a prominent place in the 1987 documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.
Denton was hospitalized briefly at the Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Virginia, and then was assigned to the staff of Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. In January 1974, Denton became the commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College, now known as the Joint Forces Staff College. He stepped down as commandant in April 1975 and continued to work at the college until June 1977. He finished his active duty service at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, and retired from the Navy on November 1, 1977 with the rank of Rear Admiral. He detailed his detention as an American POW in North Vietnam in the 1976 book When Hell was in Session, which was adapted into a television movie of the same title, starring Hal Holbrook as Denton. He accepted a position with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) as a consultant to CBN founder and friend, Pat Robertson, from 1978 to 1980. In 1981 Denton founded and chaired the National Forum Foundation, which merged with the Washington D.C.-based Freedom House in 1997.
Denton ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat from his home state of Alabama and achieved a surprise victory over Democrat Jim Folsom, Jr, who had defeated the incumbent, Donald Stewart, in the Democratic primary. In doing so, he became the only retired admiral to be elected to the United States Senate, as well as the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate, and the first Catholic to be elected to statewide office in Alabama. In the U.S. Senate, he compiled a solidly conservative voting record. He was featured in a 1981 article in Time magazine: "The Admiral from Alabama".
Denton retired to Williamsburg, Virginia. He died of complications from an heart ailment at a hospice in Virginia Beach in March 2014.
|U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Alabama