Former Alabama Republican Sen. Jeremiah Denton, a retired Navy rear admiral who spent nearly eight years as a captive in brutal North Vietnamese prison camps, died Friday in Virginia. He was 89.
Denton is remembered for bravely defying his communist captors as an American POW in Vietnam and being a conservative leader on Capitol Hill. In 1980, he became the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Alabama since Reconstruction.
Denton was part of a 12-seat gain that gave Republicans their first majority in either house of Congress since 1955, aided by Ronald Reagan’s 44-state landslide. He defeated Democrat Jim Folsom, Jr., the son of legendary former Gov. “Big Jim” Folsom, who would go on to become governor himself.
An ally of Jerry Falwell and other social conservatives, Denton championed pro-family causes in the Senate. “No nation can survive long,” the Washington Post quotes him as saying, “unless it can encourage its young to withhold indulgence in their sexual appetites until marriage.”
Denton was also an advocate of a strong national defense and a firm anti-communist, complaining before the Reagan military build-up to Time magazine that by the mid-1980s “we will have less national security than we had proportionately when George Washington’s troops were walking around barefoot at Valley Forge.”
“Most men come to the Senate to build a career,” Time reported in 1981. “In the manner of his biblical namesake, Jeremiah Denton came to sound an alarm.”
In 1986, his Senate career ended when he was taken out in a Democratic wave that cost Republicans their majority. Denton was defeated by Richard Shelby, a conservative Democrat who became a Republican after the 1994 elections.
Denton spent less time in the Senate than he did as a prisoner in Vietnam, where he showed courage and resilience. He was shot down near Hanoi on July 18, 1965, only a month after deploying. He was already 41 and the father of seven children.
“My dad has occasionally jokingly described the flying experience of a Navy carrier pilot as ‘days of boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of sheer terror,’” son James Denton later wrote in World Affairs Journal. “But, as he drifted to the ground under his bright white parachute, he was beginning seven years and seven months of imprisonment that would be defined by terror, mercifully interrupted by moments of solitude and isolation that tested his capacity to resist, endure, and survive.”
The American people caught a glimpse of that capacity in a 1966 television appearance. After ten months of imprisonment and torture, the North Vietnamese forced Denton into an interview with a Japanese reporter for propaganda purposes.
Denton — who assured the reporter “whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully” — blinked the word “torture” in Morse code. The North Vietnamese tortured him again, but the U.S. government awarded him the Navy cross.
“Vietnam’s most ruthless interrogators couldn’t break the iron will of this rock-ribbed Alabama native,” said Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions in a statement.
Held at the “Hanoi Hilton” and “Alcatraz,” the two most infamous Vietnamese prisons, Denton led his men in resisting their captors at every turn. “As a senior ranking officer in prison, Admiral Denton’s leadership inspired us to persevere, and to resist our captors, in ways we never would have on our own,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a fellow POW, recalled in a statement.
One of the highest-ranked American prisoners taken during the Vietnam war, he was finally freed in 1973. He was the first POW to step off the airplane at the U.S. military base in the Philippines. He retired from the Navy four years later.
Denton received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, three Silver Stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Born on July 15, 1924, in Mobile, Ala., Denton graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946. After his wife of 61 years died in 2007, he remarried. He is also survived by a brother, seven children, 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Shelby, Denton’s Senate successor, praised him as “a war hero, an honorable senator, and a family man who cared deeply about his country.”
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