One of the great heroes of our time, Retired Admiral and United States Senator Jeremiah Denton left this earth to be welcomed into eternity with his Heavenly Father on March 28, 2014. The Biblical meaning of the name Jeremiah is “Exaltation of the Lord”, which he surely lived out in his life on earth. I feel certain that Senator Denton thought many times about how Jeremiah 29:11 applied to him during the dark days of his life.
He left behind a legacy of fierce love for his country, his family and an unabashed faith in God who he relied upon in the best and most challenging times of his life. Denton never hesitated to admit that his faith was instrumental in his survival in the famous prisoner of war camps in Vietnam and in his service as a United States Senator.
>>> Jermiah Andrew Denton, Jr. was born in Mobile on July 15, 1924, to Jeremiah Denton Sr. and Irene Claudia Steele Denton, whose family traced its heritage back to the French Catholic founders of Mobile. Denton graduated from McGill Institute, attended Spring Hill College in Mobile and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He also earned a masters’ degree in International Relations from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in 1964.
On Denton’s 12th combat mission, days after assuming command of an attack squadron, on July 18, 1965, anti-aircraft guns shot down Denton’s A6 Intruder over North Vietnam and he was captured.
Although severely injured when he ejected from his jet, Commander Denton took a leadership role among prisoners. He knew that to do so would result in aggressive physical torture and mental abuse. Denton urged other prisoners to resist their captors to maintain morale and discipline. He spent 48 of his 91 months of imprisonment in solitary confinement, one of the longest periods of any American POW.
The Vietnamese allowed Admiral Denton to participate in a televised press conference on May 17, 1966, during his imprisonment. Denton pretended to be blinded by the spotlights as he began blinking — seemingly random spasms and tics – and spelled out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code. The North Vietnamese were outraged when they learned what Denton had done and he was beaten even more severely. It was the first confirmation that American prisoners of war were being subjected to atrocities during the Vietnam War. When a reporter asked Denton what he thought of his government’s actions, he knew speaking truthfully meant more torture. Still, he replied, “… whatever the position of my government, I agree with it. I support it. I will support it as long as I live!”
After the Paris Peace Accords were signed ending the war, Denton was on the first planeload of U.S. prisoners released February 12, 1973, and as the ranking officer, was the first to exit the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
His first words after finally setting foot back on American soil were, “We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief (President Richard Nixon) and to our nation for this day. God bless America.”
Denton wrote a book, When Hell Was in Session, recounting his POW experiences, that was made into an NBC television movie in 1979 starring Hal Holbrook. Denton strongly defended most of America’s actions in Vietnam.
In April 1973, he was promoted to Rear Admiral and after arriving in his hometown of Mobile, received a hero’s welcome with one of the largest parades in the city’s history. Denton then served as commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, until he retired in 1977. Shortly after returning to Mobile in 1977, Denton founded the Coalition for Decency in response to a perceived decline in America’s moral values. Denton targeted the entertainment industry and was particularly distressed by the legalization of abortion and the increase in illicit drug use and the sexual revolution that had occurred during the time of his imprisonment.
In 1980, Admiral Denton began a new chapter of his already remarkable career. He entered the Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate. He was motivated to enter public service because he believed that President Jimmy Carter’s response to the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was inadequate. He pulled a surprise victory in the Republican Primary defeating former U.S. Rep. Armistead Selden who had served as a Democrat. He then defeated Democrat Jim Folsom, Jr., who was serving on the Public Service Commission at the time. He became the first Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama since Reconstruction and 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.
Denton was also an advocate of a strong national defense and a firm anti-communist. He also advocated positions based in his conservative Catholic upbringing, working to restrict taxpayer funding for abortions, eliminate teenage pregnancy, and allow prayer in public schools. 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.”
President Ronald Reagan specially recognized Denton during his 1982 State of the Union Address: “We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes,” Reagan said. “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. 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.”
After just a few months in the U.S. Senate, Time magazine: “Most men come to the Senate to build a career. In the manner of his biblical namesake, Jeremiah Denton came to sound an alarm”.
When news of Denton’s passing was known, recognition of Denton’s life was poured out at the highest levels of our nation. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a fellow POW, said “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.”
It is obvious to anyone who knew him that it was Jeremiah Denton’s strong inner faith which allowed him be flint in the face of the most severe adversity; he never hesitated to acknowledge his Creator who gave him the composure to take on any adversity. While he will be sorely missed, Denton’s life is an inspiration for our and any generation.
(Resources: When Hell was in Session by Jeremiah Denton; Jeremiah Denton by Joseph P. Duggan, Traditional Press; W. James Antle, III, The Daily Caller News Foundation; Encyclopedia of Alabama, Elbert L. Watson; Jeremiah A. Denton: Vietnam War Hero by Anne Chancey Dalton.)