WASHINGTON—U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), spoke on the Senate floor earlier today to pay tribute to former Alabama U.S. Senator and Vietnam War hero, Jeremiah Denton, who passed away last Friday. The Senator’s remarks, as prepared, follow:
“Mr. President, I rise today to mourn the passing of a friend and to pay tribute to a remarkable man. Jeremiah Denton served this country as a pilot, a Prisoner of War, a Rear Admiral in the US Navy, and as a United States Senator. He passed away last Friday morning at the age of 89.
From time to time men and women are born into this world who are made of something special. Individuals who seem to have an unlimited reservoir of strength and courage. Who are made of sterner stuff. People who carry themselves with grace and dignity even as the weight of the world rests upon their shoulders. Jeremiah Denton was such a man.
A proud son of Mobile, Alabama, Denton attended local Spring Hill College and from there graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, becoming a pilot and commander.
What happened next would etch Denton’s name into the annals of American history. On July 18th, 1965, Denton led a squadron of 28 jets on a bombing raid when he was shot down over North Vietnam. Captured by the North Vietnamese, he would be a captive in prison camps the next 7 years and 7 months.
During his time as a prisoner of war, Denton endured constant and excruciating torture.
He was held captive at prisons the POWs called ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ ‘the Zoo,’ and ‘Alcatraz.’ He endured merciless beatings, as well as solitary confinement for four years. As a senior officer he was a leader among the prisoners and rebelled against their brutal efforts to extract propaganda. Denton explained in an interview to the New York Times: ‘I put out the policy that they were not to succumb to threats, but must stand up and say no. We forced them to be brutal to us.’
Denton wrote a memoir, ‘When Hell Was In Session,’ recounting his time as a POW. Denton describes a torture session in which his captors placed a nine-foot cement-filled iron bar across his shins. Denton wrote that his captors ‘stood on it and… took turns jumping up and down and rolling it across my legs. 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... They were in a frenzy alternating the treatment to increase the pain until I was unable to control myself. I began crying hysterically, blood and tears mingling and running down my cheeks.’
In May 1966, Denton would defy and outsmart his communist captors and display to the whole world the depth of American courage and ingenuity. His captors interrogated Denton for a propaganda interview. While answering their questions, Denton was simultaneously and repeatedly blinking out a message, letter by letter, in Morse code. That message was ‘T-O-R-T-U-R-E.’ It was the first official message informing Americans and the world that American POWs were being tortured by the North Vietnamese.
During the interview Denton further displayed his unshakable resolve by boldly declaring to his captors: ‘whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully... I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.’
North Vietnam’s most ruthless interrogators couldn’t break the iron will of this rock-ribbed Alabama native.
More than seven long years later, on February 12, 1973, Denton would be freed as part of ‘Operation Homecoming’ following the signing of the Paris Peace accords. Denton was the senior officer of the first planeload of released POWs at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Denton brought tears to the eyes of a nation as he declared in his first official words upon release: ‘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 earned the Navy Cross, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, three Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, five Bronze Stars, two Air Medals, two Purple Hearts and numerous other campaign awards.
Denton rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and retired from the Navy in 1977.
In 1980, the proud and grateful state of Alabama would send its native son Jeremiah Denton to the United States Senate. A man of deep faith, Denton believed in the dignity of public service and the selflessness required of those who serve.
Denton fought alongside Ronald Reagan to rebuild America’s defenses to fight the spread of communism and to help bring about the end of the Cold War. He was a firm believer in ‘peace through strength.’
President Reagan recognized Senator Denton during his 1982 State of the Union Address, saying: ‘We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes. 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.’
I had the privilege of getting to know Jeremiah Denton. He was a very special man. His word was his bond and his loyalty was unshakable. And he was modest. While he was a fierce advocate for his profound beliefs, it was never about him. In fact, he was very uncomfortable with the term ‘hero’ being applied to him. His comeback was always: ‘We were only doing our duty.’ That was Jeremiah Denton.
They said, after his time in a communist prison, he was out of touch. He didn’t know the 60s had occurred. Perhaps so. In plain fact, much had occurred while he was imprisoned and tortured. It was among other things a culturally momentous time. Many of those changes he did not like. He said so in plain language. He didn’t like the surge of crime and drugs. He believed in loyalty to one’s spouse. He opposed abortion. He lamented the consistent weakening of the family bond. The sexual promiscuity. The decline in decency. He cared enough to speak out and give again of himself for his faith and his country. He represented the best that America has to offer. His grit and bravery shined through from his dark prison cell deep in Vietnam, and it lit up the world.
He loved his country, he loved his faith, and he loved his family.In 1996, when I was considering running for the U.S. Senate, I sought his counsel. He graciously agreed to come by my house in Mobile. It was a very valuable discussion. Near the end, we talked of his service. He told me a story of his time in prison that he had not put in his very fine and moving book. After President Nixon’s bombing and strong action had brought the North Vietnamese to the conference table, Denton had no doubt they were defeated and they too knew they were defeated. Concerned over possible war crimes trials, one prison official demanded that Denton tell them what he would say to the world about his treatment if they were released. He sought to avoid the question, saying, ‘Why do you ask me, I’m not the senior officer in the camp? They pressed and he asked, ‘Why me?’ several times. Finally, the prison official looked at him and replied, ‘because you are incredible, Denton.’
That is the flat truth. He was incredible.
When he told the world and his captors during that ‘show’ press conference before Japanese television where he blinked ‘t-o-r-t-u-r-e,’ that ‘whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully… I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live.’ It was a moment of great courage, historical significance, and fidelity to duty that few in this nation would be able to match. He knew the captors would not like it. And they didn’t. They beat him brutally for his disrespect before they even knew he had blinked ‘torture.’
His family was his life. He was married to the late Kathryn Jane Maury for 61 years, with whom he had seven children. He is survived by his second wife, Mary Belle Bordone, and his children Jeremiah, William, Donald, James, Michael, Madeleine Doak, and Mary Lewis.
The entire United States Senate sends our prayers to his loved ones. And we send our promise that Jeremiah Denton will never be forgotten.”