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Former U.S. Sen. Jeremiah Denton, who died March 28, had ties to Elon

The former Vietnam POW made headlines when he visited campus in March 1973.

Vietnam POW Jeremiah Denton speaks shortly after arriving at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in 1973. 

Former U.S. Sen. and U.S. Navy Admiral Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, who died March 28 at the age of 89, had ties to Elon and made headlines when he spoke at the college's 1973 Founders Day event. 

Denton's plane was shot down in 1965 and he was tortured during eight years of captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He spent four years in solitary confinement. During his years as a POW, he made friends with a fellow POW at the "Hanoi Hilton," U.S. Navy Cmdr. Eugene McDaniel. McDaniel was a 1955 Elon graduate and Denton's son Jim Denton was a student at Elon and was student body president.

During a 1966 televised press conference which Denton was forced to participate in by his North Vietnamese captors, he blinked his eyes in Morse code to confirm for the first time that American POWs were being tortured. At the news conference, he bravely spoke out, saying "Whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully. Whatever the position of my government, I believe in it, yes sir. I am a member of that government, and it is my job to support it, and I will as long as I live." While a prisoner, he was promoted to the rank of Captain, and he later received many other awards for heroism.

Denton was the first American POW to return from Hanoi during Operation Homecoming in 1973. Speaking on the tarmac, Denton 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."

About a month after his return home, Denton gave a dramatic address and news conference at Elon's Founders Day. Just hours before, the last U.S. troops and POWs had left Vietnam, so he felt free to publicly describe the extensive and brutal torture he had endured. McDaniel provided the closing prayer at the event. The story was carried by the Associated Press and revealed the extent of the suffering U.S. soldiers faced in the prisoner-of-war camps.

Denton wrote a book about his experiences, which was later adapted for a made-for-TV movie. In 1980 he became the only retired admiral to be elected to the United States Senate, as well as the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate.

Denton died of complications from a heart ailment at a hospice in Virginia Beach, Va.

Information sources for this article: Associated Press archives, the Times-News archives and Wikipedia.

 

Dan Anderson,
Staff
3/28/2014 7:20 PM