Jeremiah Denton, a Navy pilot who survived nearly eight years of captivity in North Vietnamese prisons, and whose public acts of defiance came to embody the sacrifices of American POWs, died last week at a hospice in Virginia Beach. He was 89.
Millions of Americans came to see his heroism in a television appearance broadcast on the evening news in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Orchestrated by the North Vietnamese as propaganda, Denton 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.
Denton was shot down south of Hanoi on July 18, 1965. 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. He ejected and was captured.
Over the next seven years and seven months, Denton was incarcerated in prisons including the infamous Hoa Lo complex, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, and the facility dubbed "Alcatraz" that was reserved for the most willful resisters.
Denton spent four years in solitary confinement. Living in roach- and rat-infested conditions, he endured starvation, delirium and torture sessions that sometimes lasted days.
In one such session, his captors placed across his shins a nine-foot-long, cement-filled iron bar, he recalled in his memoir, When Hell Was in Session. One torturer "stood on it, and he and the other guard took turns jumping up and down and rolling it across my legs," Denton wrote. "Then they lifted my arms behind my back by the cuffs, raising the top part of my body off the floor and dragging me around and around. This went on for hours.''
Ten months into his imprisonment, Denton was ordered to submit to an interview with a Japanese reporter. He said the North Vietnamese tortured him before the meeting in an effort to compel him to assist with their Communist propaganda.
In the footage, Denton walks through a doorway, bows and then, with evident discomfort, takes his seat in a chair. Hunched over, he clasps his hands. Looking into the camera lights as he speaks, he blinks his eyes hard and repeatedly, in a manner that to an untrained observer might have seemed involuntary — and that in Morse code spelled t-o-r-t-u-r-e.
Another torture session followed.
Denton was among the highest-ranking officers to be taken prisoner in Vietnam and retained his full sense of responsibility toward his men. "I put out the policy that they were not to succumb to threats, but must stand up and say no," he told the New York Times.
Denton and hundreds of other POWs were released in 1973, shortly after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that helped end U.S. involvement in the war. He retired from the Navy in 1977 as a rear admiral.
Denton was a native of Alabama, where in 1980 he became the state's first Republican to win election to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.
Years later, Denton reflected on his survival in North Vietnam.
"If I had known when I was shot down that I would be there more than seven years, I would have died of despondency, of despair," he told Investor's Business Daily. "But I didn't. It was one minute at a time, one hour, one week, one year and so on. If you look at it like that, anybody can do anything."