On July 18, 1965, during the height of the Vietnam War, Jeremiah Denton, a naval aviator, was shot down during an attack on enemy installations near Thanh Hoa. He spent the next seven and a half years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps, becoming the first American military captive to suffer four years in solitary confinement. Promoted to the rank of captain while imprisoned, Denton’s name first came to the attention of the American public in 1966 during a television interview arranged by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi.
Throughout the interview, while responding to questions and feigning sensitivity to harsh lighting, Denton blinked his eyes in Morse Code, repeatedly spelling out a covert message: “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” The interview, broadcast on American television on May 17, 1966, was the first confirmation that American POWs in Vietnam were being tortured.
Denton was finally released on February 12, 1973, when he again received international attention as the spokesman for the first group of POWs returning from Hanoi to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. As he stepped from the plane, Denton famously 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.” Denton’s powerful story is memorialized in his book When Hell was in Session.
Since his retirement from active service at the rank of rear admiral, Denton has been active in public affairs. He has especially emphasized the connection between family strength and national morality and the defense of civilization. In 1980, he was elected to the United States Senate from Alabama, where he served on the Judiciary Committee, the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, and the Armed Services Committee.