Jeremiah Denton Jr., who as an American prisoner of war in Vietnam made the world aware of the abuse POWs were suffering, died Friday at 89 in a Virginia Beach hospice.
He was a naval aviator based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach when his A6 Intruder was shot down over Vietnam in 1965. He subsequently endured seven years and seven months of confinement.
Denton was incarcerated in several prisons including the infamous Hoa Lo complex, which became known among U.S. servicemen as the Hanoi Hilton. A commander at the time, he was one of the highest-ranking American officers to be captured in Vietnam and became known for his defiant attitude toward his captors.
He wrote a book about his POW experience, "When Hell Was in Session," co-written by Ed Brandt, a former editor of The Virginian-Pilot, and published in 1975. It includes a well-known episode in which Denton, in a TV propaganda interview, spelled "torture" in Morse code by blinking.
After his release, Denton became commandant at the Armed Forces Staff College, now the Joint Forces Staff College, in Norfolk. He retired from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1977 and went into politics, serving six years as a Republican U.S. senator from his home state of Alabama in the 1980s.
An updated version of his book, published in 2009, picks up his story after his military career and details his subsequent engagement in another kind of combat: the culture war.
Always known as an uncompromising conservative, Denton was a vocal proponent of a strong military. But even more important, he came to believe, was rescuing the nation from what he regarded as a slide into moral degeneracy.
The signs were everywhere, he wrote in his book: abortion, pornography, drug abuse, premarital sex, gay marriage.
"In this world of weapons of mass destruction, yes, we could get wiped out tomorrow," he said in a 2009 interview with The Pilot.
"But I think the decline in our culture is a surer poison. Every nation that has gone the same route has disappeared within 200 years. I'm trying to draw our national attention to that."
During his captivity, God once spoke to him out loud, Denton said.
It was 1967, two years into his incarceration. He was pacing in his cell, shackled in irons, on the brink of despair. The prison was quiet except for an occasional scream from the torture room.
In his hyper-conscious state, he heard a soft voice -- authoritative, kind, well modulated -- telling him: "Say, 'Sacred heart of Jesus, I give myself to you.' "
It was a prescription for prayer, Denton said: "He meant, 'Don't sweat it. You can't control anything. Just give your thoughts, yourself, to me.' "
Denton was the recipient of numerous military decorations, including the Navy Cross.
"The valor that he and his fellow POWs displayed was deeply inspiring to our nation at the time, and it continues to inspire our brave men and women who serve today," President Barack Obama said in a statement Friday.
"He was a man of grit and character that can't be manufactured," U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement. "Vietnam's most ruthless interrogators couldn't break the iron will of this rock-ribbed Alabama native."
Denton lived in Williamsburg. He is survived by his wife of three years, Mary Belle Bordone; seven children, Jerry Denton and Bill Denton, both of Virginia Beach; Don Denton of Haverford, Pa.; Jim Denton of Washington, D.C.; Madeleine Doak of The Woodlands, Texas; Michael Denton of Richmond; and Mary Beth Hutton of Atlanta; a brother; 14 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
His first wife, Jane Maury Denton, to whom he was married 61 years, died in 2007.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.