Former Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton, regarded by President Reagan as one of America’s greatest living heroes, died today at age 89.
The retired Navy rear admiral survived nearly eight years in captivity in Vietnam, including time in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” after his Navy A-6A Intruder jet was shot down on a bombing mission in 1965.
Four of those years in incarceration were in solitary confinement where he endured starvation and torture in horrendous conditions.
He tells the story in his book “When Hell Was in Session.”
In 1980, he became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama since Reconstruction. He was a strong supporter of the traditional family and chaired a subcommittee on internal security and terrorism that focused on communist threats.
Reagan, who relied on him for advice on foreign policy, lauded Denton in his 1982 State of the Union address.
“We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes. They are all around us. One who sits among you here tonight epitomized that heroism at the end of the longest imprisonment ever inflicted on men of our armed forces,” Reagan said.
“Who will ever forget that night when we waited for the television to bring us the scene of that first plane landing at Clark Field in the Philippines – bringing our POWs home? The plane door opened and Jeremiah Denton came slowly down the ramp. He caught sight of our flag, saluted, and said, ‘God Bless America,’ then thanked us for bringing him home.”
He died this morning in Virginia Beach, Va., at Sentara Hospice House, said his son, Jeremiah A. Denton 3rd. He is also survived by his second wife, Mary Belle Bordone, four other sons, William, Donald, James and Michael; two daughters, Madeleine Doak and Mary Beth Hutton; a brother, Leo; 14 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
In “When Hell Was in Session,” Jeremiah Denton, the senior American officer to serve as a Vietnam POW, tells the amazing story of nearly eight years of abuse, neglect and torture. This historic book takes readers behind the closed doors of the Vietnamese prison to see how the men fought back against all odds and against all kinds of evil.
Denton achieved widespread recognition during his imprisonment. In an internationally televised press conference in 1966 staged by the North Vietnamese for propaganda purposes, he answered the interviewer’s questions while simultaneously blinking, in Morse code, the message “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” The message confirmed to the U.S. for the first time that U.S. POWs were being tortured in captivity.
Further, he shocked his captors when answering questions about what he thought of U.S. actions.
“I don’t know what is going on in the war now because the only sources I have access to are North Vietnam radio, magazine and newspapers, but whatever the position of my government is, I agree with it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.”
When he returned on Feb. 12, 1973, he landed at Clark Air Force Base, walked to a waiting microphone and said: “We are honored to have 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.”
How explained how he survived when so many didn’t.
“My principal battle with the North Vietnamese was a moral one, and prayer was my prime source of strength,” he said.
The Navy Cross was among the recognitions for his service.
Reagan showed profound respect for Denton.
“Jerry and I came into office in the same year, 1981, and for the last four and a half years, he’s been a pillar of support for our efforts to keep America strong and free and true,” Reagan said.
“He’s been rated the most conservative senator by the National Journal. That’s my kind of senator,” Reagan said. “His voting record has been rated 100 percent by the American Conservative Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Conservatives Against Liberal Legislation – I like the name of that one – The National Alliance of Senior Citizens, the Christian Voters Victory Fund, and some others.”
Reagan also noted a poll by the magazine Conservative Digest ranked Denton as the second most admired senator.
“Now, knowing Jerry, he’s probably wondering where he slipped up,” Reagan quipped.
His humanitarian work, however, began in his Senate years with the Denton Program, which allowed the U.S. military to haul humanitarian aid on a space-available basis at no cost to the donor. The program now is administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and Defense Department.
His foundation summed up his life in a statement last year.
“It is his belief in, and knowing of God, that is his pillar. This is the central guiding force in his life not only today, but throughout his life,” the foundation said. “Especially in the small, dark jail cell as a POW … for over seven years during the Vietnam war.”
Born in Mobile, Ala., on July 15, 1924, his mother and father divorced in 1938. That experience, he said, was one reason why he became such a strong advocate for the nuclear family.
“He didn’t send mother much money for us,’’ Denton said in an interview, according to AL.com. “It was a terrible experience for me and my brothers, who were younger than I, to go through.”
He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946 and earned a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1964.
He married his first wife, the former Kathryn Jane Maury of Mobile, in June 1946, and had seven children with her.
In 2007, they moved from near Mobile to Williamsburg, Va., to be closer to some of their children. Mrs. Denton died Nov. 22, 2007, at 81.
His book, “When Hell was in Session,” begins with the shock he experienced upon his return to the United States in 1973 to find his beloved nation had drastically changed since his capture in 1965.
“I saw the appearance of X-rated movies, adult magazines, massage parlors, the proliferation of drugs, promiscuity, pre-marital sex, and unwed mothers.”
That scenario, he wrote, was coupled with “the tumultuous post-war Vietnam political events, starting with Congress forfeiting our military victory, thus betraying our victorious American and allied servicemen and women, who had won the war at great cost of blood and sacrifice.”
Reagan’s ‘amazing lift’
Denton wrote that when he began his Senate service he was not optimistic, recognizing he was “joining a Congress that had voted to sell out the freedom-loving people of South Vietnam, a Congress that voted, in spite of our military victory, to abandon Southeast Asia to the Communists.”
But he received an “an amazing lift” to his “morale and hopes” when President Reagan took him aside to tell him of his great admiration and respect and to invite him to call on him personally if he had anything he believed the president needed to hear.
Denton took up Reagan on his offer, hatching a plan to thwart the rise of communism in Latin American led by Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, who was riding a wave of popularity in U.S. media and academia even as he worked to spread revolution to El Salvador.
Denton secured permission from the State Department to divert a scheduled trip to El Salvador and, instead, fly to Nicaragua to put Ortega’s boasts of freedom and democracy to the test.
Denton described his ambitious venture as a nervy game of single-hand poker with Nicaragua’s leadership. With confidence borne from dealing with “similar people” during his eight years of communist captivity, he held his own, warning Nicaragua’s startled regime, face to face, that any further acts of aggression would be met with a “reaction from the United States under President Reagan different from what you found under President Johnson in North Vietnam.”
Later, Denton found himself in the Oval Office with Reagan, proposing a comprehensive strategy for confronting communism in Latin America that the president accepted and successfully implemented.
Denton observed that since Reagan’s time, “things have not gone as well.”
“One malady continues to worsen: the on-going influence exerted by the misinformation campaign waged by the liberal media/academic community continues to confuse the citizenry,” he wrote.
In an interview with WND in 2009, Denton said one of the problems he saw at the time was the disdain for “ideology” by many of the nation’s most influential leaders and lawmakers.
“They are acting like ideology shouldn’t be the point for any discussion of policy,” he said, with energy in his voice belying his 85 years. “[Balderdash!] Ideology is the basis for which you evaluate any policy.”
The most basic principle that distinguishes America as a nation, he said, is the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.
“Nobody is interpreting rights now in terms of the Creator,” he said. “He endowed the rights.”
President Obama, Denton contended, was usurping the rights of God, “as did Hitler and Stalin and the emperors of Rome.”
“They all had gods – but when they didn’t have good enough gods to constitute a culture, they went to hell,” Denton told WND. “And we are too, if we continue to believe that man, all of us individually, or our government, can determine what the rights are and set up everything else to match that. We’re done.”
Denton said he believed the U.S. is in its worst security position since World War II, when Hitler was sweeping across Europe.
He explained that in the aftermath of that war, the U.S. didn’t have to worry as much about its conventional weapons and forces because of its nuclear might and the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” with the Soviet Union.
But now, he said, with a decreasing percentage of America’s GDP devoted to defense – coupled with China’s and Russia’s buildup of conventional forces – America’s security is at risk.
“If Russia were to take over first Georgia, then Ukraine – and maybe China moves into India – we couldn’t go there with a conventional force and stop that, and we wouldn’t have the guts to use nuclear, for good reason,” he said.
Denton said that while the military leaders with whom he spoke agreed with his analysis, President Obama didn’t recognize the problem.
“We don’t really have the proper national intelligence the way we used to have,” he said. “We had people like Clare Boothe Luce and brilliant people from many different fields come in, but we don’t do that anymore. It’s done on a haphazard basis.”
See how Denton sabotaged North Vietnamese propaganda by blinking “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” during an ABC News broadcast.