Bomber Pilot, Rear Admiral, Senator
Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr., was an American naval hero, senator and patriot from Alabama. He was born in Mobile July 15, 1924, and attended McGill Institute and Spring Hill College. Denton joined the U.S. Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and spent 34 years in a distinguished career as a naval aviator. He rose to the rank of rear admiral and retired from the Navy in 1977.
Denton's career was marked by notable achievements. In 1957, he wrote and convinced the Pentagon to implement the "Haystack Concept" of deploying navy ships so as to prevent an entire fleet from being destroyed by a single attack. He attended and graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College, which he later served as commandant, and he graduated from the U.S. Naval War College with a master's degree in international affairs.
Denton, however, is best known for his courageous service as a pilot leading a bombing mission over North Vietnam and its aftermath. On July 18, 1965, Denton led a squadron of 28 jets over enemy territory. He was captured after being shot down and held for the next seven years and seven months in brutal North Vietnamese prison camps. It was during this time that Denton etched his name into the annals of America history.
Denton was interviewed by what the North Vietnamese planned as a propaganda display, but the American captive turned it into a ringing endorsement of U.S. policy in Vietnam. "Whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully," he said. "Whatever the position of my government, I believe in it."
While making the statement, pretending to blink in reaction to bright lighting, Denton blinked out the letters T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code, confirming to the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies that the North Vietnamese were torturing captive American pilots. For this and other acts of resistance, he was placed in a solitary confinement cell nine feet long for four years.
Upon his release at the end of the war, Denton was the first prisoner to make a public statement, saying, "We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances." At his 1982 State of the Union Address, President Ronald Reagan said, "We don't have to turn to history books for heroes. They are all around us." He identified Jeremiah Denton, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 1980.
Denton served one term in the Senate, working for humanitarian causes then and afterward. He and wife, Jane Maury Denton, also a native of Mobile, were parents of seven children. Following Jane's death in 2007, Denton married Mary Belle Bordone. Denton died at age 89 on March 28, 2014.