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July 15, 1924 - March 28, 2014

NEW YORK – Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., a former U.S. senator from Alabama and a celebrated Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and tortured in his years as a prisoner of war, at one point signaling Americans of the abuse by blinking in Morse code during a televised interview, died Friday in Virginia Beach, Va. He was 89.

Denton, a retired rear admiral, died at Sentara Hospice House, said his son, Jeremiah A. Denton III.

He called himself “an average product of Middle America,” but his story was anything but ordinary – a war hero appalled by what he called America’s moral degeneracy, a crusading spokesman for right-wing Christian groups, a one-term Republican senator in the patriotic matrix of President Ronald Reagan. It was a political life shaped by indelible experiences in Vietnam.

On July 18, 1965, Denton, leading a squadron of 28 A-6 Intruder attack jets and flying his 12th mission over North Vietnam, took off from the aircraft carrier Independence in the South China Sea. As he came in over the heavily defended Thanh Hoa Bridge on the Ma River, anti-aircraft batteries opened up. The fliers bailed out and were captured.

“Dazed and bleeding as I was, my principal emotion was fury,” Denton recalled. “I was mad as hell at being shot down, and even angrier at being captured.”

Over the next seven years and seven months, Denton was held in various prison camps, including the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” and endured beatings, starvation, torture and more than four years of solitary confinement, including periodic detentions in coffin-like boxes. He was often punished for urging others to resist. He also devised ways for prisoners to communicate by signs or numbers, tapping on a wall or coughing signals in a sequence. Ten months after his capture, he was selected for a propaganda interview to be broadcast on Japanese television.

To a question about American “war atrocities,” the commander said: “I don’t know what is happening in Vietnam because the only news sources I have are North Vietnamese. But whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.”

It was a daring answer, but the North Vietnamese, who lost face, were even more outraged when they learned that the interview, broadcast on U.S. television on May 17, 1966, held a secret message – the commander, in Morse Code, blinking out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” It was the first confirmation that American POWs were being tortured. The commander was beaten all night.

During his captivity, Denton was awarded the Navy Cross and promoted to captain. In 1973, after President Richard M. Nixon announced a Vietnam peace agreement, Denton was in the first group of prisoners released.

In 1980, capitalizing on his war-hero image and running on a platform of strong national defense, he was elected to the Senate, defeating the Democrat, James E. Folsom Jr. He was Alabama’s first Senate Republican since Reconstruction and the first former admiral elected to the Senate. He served from 1981 to 1987.

His second wife, Mary Belle Bordone, survives him.