Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr. was a military officer who served as a U.S. Senator representing Alabama from 1981 to 1987. Denton was previously United States Navy Rear Admiral and Naval Aviator taken captive during the Vietnam War.
Denton was widely known for enduring almost eight years of grueling conditions as an American prisoner of war (POW) in North Vietnam after the A-6 Intruder he was piloting was shot down in 1965.
He was the first of all American POWs released by Hanoi to step off an American plane during Operation Homecoming in February 1973. As one of the earliest and highest-ranking officers to be taken prisoner in North Vietnam, Denton was forced by his captors to participate in a 1966 televised propaganda interview which was broadcast in the United States.
While answering questions and feigning trouble with the blinding television lights, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse code, spelling the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”—and confirming for the first time to U.S. Naval Intelligence that American POWs were being tortured.
Denton was born July 15, 1924, in Mobile, Alabama, the oldest of three brothers, and the son of Jeremiah Sr. and Irene (Steele) Denton.
In June 1943, he entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and graduated three years later in the accelerated Class of 1947 on June 5, 1946.
His 34-year 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 the A-6 Intruder.
In 1957, he was credited with revolutionizing naval strategy and tactics for nuclear war as architect of the “Haystack Concept.” This strategy called 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 served as a United States Naval Aviator during the Vietnam War. In February 1965, he became the Prospective Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five serving aboard aircraft carrier USS Independence.
On July 18, 1965, Commander Denton was piloting his A-6A Intruder jet while leading a twenty-eight aircraft bombing mission over North Vietnam off the Independence which was stationed in the South China Sea.
He and LTJG Bill Tschudy, his bombardier/navigator, were forced to eject from their plane, damaged by one of their own Mark 82 bombs exploding shortly after its release after which it went down out of control near the city of Thanh Hoa in North Vietnam. Both men were quickly captured and taken prisoner.
Denton and Tschudy were held as prisoners of war for almost eight years, four of which were spent in solitary confinement. Denton was notable for his leadership during the Hanoi March in July 1966, when he and over 50 American prisoners were paraded through the streets of Hanoi and beaten by North Vietnamese civilians.
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 send a distress message confirming 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 effort 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 other decorations for heroism while a prisoner of war.
Denton was first sent to the Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton”, and was later transferred to the Cu Loc Detention Center, nicknamed the “Zoo.”
In 1967 he was transferred to a prison nicknamed “Alcatraz”. Here, he became part of a group of American POWs known as the “Alcatraz Gang”. The group consisted of George Coker, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, George McKnight, James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, James Stockdale (who had graduated with Denton from the Naval Academy), Ronald Storz, and Nels Tanner.
They were put in “Alcatraz” and 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 3-by-9-foot cells mostly in legcuffs.
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 briefly hospitalized at the Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Virginia, and then was assigned to the Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, from February to December 1973. In January 1974, Denton became the commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, to June 1977.
Denton was also outspoken on national security issues, particularly with regard to the Soviet Union. By the mid-1980s, he told Time magazine at the outset of the decade, “We will have less national security than we had proportionately when George Washington’s troops were walking around barefoot at Valley Forge.”
Denton died of complications from a heart ailment at a hospice in Virginia Beach on March 28, 2014, at age 89.
Awards and commendations include:
In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Bronze Star and the John Paul Jones Award, Rear Admiral Denton has the Navy Expeditionary Medal (Cuba); American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; Navy Occupation Service Medal, Europe Clasp; National Defense Service Medal with bronze star; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Cuba) and the Vietnam Service Medal with two silver stars and four bronze stars (fourteen campaigns). He also has the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device.
Source: Giant Killer