Many gathered together to remember and celebrate the life of the late former U.S. Senator and war hero Admiral Jeremiah Denton, Jr. at Battleship Memorial Park on July 15, which would have been Denton’s 90th birthday. The memorial celebration honored the life, service and achievements of Denton, a Mobile native, who died on March 28 in Virginia Beach Va.
“Today we only have minutes to recognize years of achievements,” USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park Commissioner and Retired Naval Captain Hal Pierce said as he opened the ceremony.
Admiral Denton, who served the majority of his naval career as an aircraft carrier-based pilot, spent 7½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before going on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1987.
“It’s hard to come back to Mobile without getting pretty emotional,” Denton’s son Michael Denton said. “Every family member is asked ‘how did he do it?’”
After Denton’s A6 Intruder aircraft was shot down during a mission over North Vietnam, he was held captive for seven years and seven months in Hanoi, where he endured repetitive and prolonged torture.
For four of his seven years as a POW, Denton was held in solitary confinement, and two years were spent in the prison camp Alcatraz.
“He said Sister Josephine,” Michael Denton said, referring to one of Denton’s teachers at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Mobile when he convinced the entire class to play hooky; however, instead of just scolding him, Sister Josephine “chose to encourage,” Michael Denton said.
“’You obviously are a leader,’ she said. ‘You couldn’t have done something so outrageous to lead the class to play hooky,’” Michael Denton said with tears in his eyes as he recalled the story his father had told him in his last year of life.
“He chose to live up to it. To live up to that potential. And he learned that potential in this town. On these grounds. In these waters.”
While held captive, Adm. Denton served as a leader for other POWs. In a television interview arranged by the North Vietnamese for propaganda purposes, he blinked repeatedly in Morse code to spell the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” His actions confirmed to the American government that POWs were being tortured.
“I don’t know how anyone could survive under those conditions,” Admiral Denton’s brother Leo Denton said. “… He was obviously born with gifts. He put God first in everything he did. That’s what got him through prison camp.”
Adm. Denton retired from the Navy in 1977 and returned to settle down in Mobile, to enjoy his family, fishing and golfing; however, his strong desire to serve the country still lingered. Denton was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1981, where he served until 1987.
While in office, one of Denton’s most notable achievements was the establishment of “the Denton Program,” which allowed American military aircraft flying missions to third world countries to provide humanitarian aid.
Alvin Townley, author of “Defiant,” a book about 11 Vietnam POWs known as the Alactraz Gang, which included Adm. Denton, told a story about the summer of 1966. He gave a descriptive account of history when American soldiers were forced to march through the streets with their heads down. He said people were jeering and throwing things at them when all of a sudden, “came this Alabama roar, that said ‘you are Americans, keep your heads up!’”
“That was Jeremiah Denton,” Townley said. “And all of those American heads that were down, snapped back up.”
In addition to many other accolades, Adm. Denton received the United States Navy’s highest medal, the Navy Cross, for his courage as a prisoner of war.
Townley also recalled the first time he met Adm. Denton.
“’I was a senator, but I’ll always be Admiral,’ [Denton] told me,” Townely said with a smile. “I think I was supposed to call him Admiral.”
A funeral mass and interment for Adm. Denton will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors July 22.