Jeremiah Denton, former Alabama Senator and a Vietnam War hero, died of heart problems Friday morning at the age of 89.
According to the Associated Press, family members surrounded Denton when he passed away at 8 a.m. at a Hospice facility in Virginia Beach, Va.
The Mobile, Ala., native was elected to the Senate in 1980 — the first Republican to represent Alabama since Reconstruction. During his one term in the Senate, Denton established himself as a staunch social conservative. Denton narrowly lost his 1986 reelection bid to then-Democrat Richard C. Shelby.
After attending Spring Hill College, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and receiving his master’s degree from George Washington University, Denton served in the Vietnam War.
In 1965, Denton was shot down by the North Vietnamese and was held as a prisoner of war for more than seven years. Denton eventually rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and retired from the Navy in 1977.
Denton gained national attention while he was a prisoner of war when he repeatedly blinked “torture” in Morse code during a television interview. This message was the first direct evidence that the North Vietnamese were brutally torturing American prisoners. Denton chronicled his time as a prisoner in his book When Hell Was in Session, which later became a film.
One of Denton's fellow POWs, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., mourned his colleague and compatriot on Friday.
"As a senior ranking officer in prison, Admiral Denton’s leadership inspired us to persevere, and to resist our captors, in ways we never would have on our own. He endured unspeakable pain and suffering because of his steadfast adherence to our code of conduct. Throughout his seven years and seven months in prison, and for his decades in public life after he was released, Admiral Denton exemplified our POW slogan: ‘Home with honor.’ My thoughts and prayers are with Admiral Denton’s family as our nation bids farewell to this true American hero,” McCain said in a statement.
In President Ronald Reagan's 1982 State of the Union Address, Denton was lauded as the epitome of heroism.
"We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They are all around us,” said the president.
Remembering Denton’s return from Vietnam, Reagan said, “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."
After serving in the Senate, Denton continued his public service by establishing the National Forum Foundation, an international aid organization that is now known as the Admiral Denton Legacy Initiatives/IMEC.
Denton is survived by his second wife, Mary, his brother Leo, his seven children, fourteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Jane, Denton’s first wife of 61 years, passed away in 2007.
A fellow Mobile native, Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said in a statement Friday, that he will strive to follow in Denton's footsteps. "Senator Denton was a true American hero," said Byrne. "He served the state of Alabama with distinction in the United States Senate, and we are proud to claim him as a native son of Mobile."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in a statement that Denton "was a man of grit and character that can’t be manufactured. His word was his bond and his loyalty was unshakable."