America loses one of its finest.
Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., a retired Navy rear admiral and former U.S. senator who survived nearly eight years of captivity in North Vietnamese prisons, and whose public acts of defiance and patriotism came to embody the sacrifices of American POWs in Vietnam, died March 28 at a hospice in Virginia Beach. He was 89.
The cause was complications from a heart ailment, said his son Jim Denton. Adm. Denton was a native of Alabama, where in 1980 he became the state’s first Republican to win election to the Senate since Reconstruction.
Adm. Denton lost a reelection bid six years later. But he remained widely known for his heroism as a naval aviator and prisoner of war, and particularly for two television appearances that reached millions of Americans through the evening news during the Vietnam War.
In the first, orchestrated by the North Vietnamese as propaganda and broadcast in the United States in 1966, he appeared in his prison uniform and blinked the word “torture” in Morse code — a secret message to U.S. military intelligence for which he later received the Navy Cross.
In the second television appearance, during Operation Homecoming in 1973, he became the first freed POW to step off a plane at a U.S. air base in the Philippines. He spoke through tears before cameras, expressing his gratitude for having had the opportunity to serve his country under “difficult circumstances.”
Adm. Denton was shot down south of Hanoi on July 18, 1965, about a month after his deployment to Southeast Asia. A former test pilot — and the father of seven — he was a commander at the time and was flying an A-6 Intruder on a bombing mission near the Thanh Hoa Bridge. When his plane came under antiaircraft attack and fell into a tailspin, he ejected and was captured.