— Former Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton, who survived 7½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and alerted the U.S. military to conditions there when he blinked the word "torture" in Morse code during a television interview, died Friday. He was 89.
Denton's grandson, Edward Denton, said he died about 8 a.m. at a hospice facility in Virginia Beach, Va., surrounded by family. Edward Denton said his grandfather had been in declining health for the past year and died from heart problems.
Denton, a retired Navy rear admiral, in 1980 became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama since Reconstruction, but he narrowly lost a re-election bid six years later.
As a senator, he was a strong advocate of conservative causes and backer of the Reagan administration. But the iron will that served him in such good stead in captivity gave rise to criticism that he was too rigid as a politician.
Denton first received wide notice as a POW with an unbending patriotic commitment, despite torture and the horrors of years of captivity. He called his book about the experiences "When Hell Was in Session."
In June 1965, the Mobile native and father of seven began flying combat missions for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. The next month, on July 18, he was shot down near Thanh Hoa.
Captured, he spent the next 7½ years in several North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps, including the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." Four of those years were spent in solitary confinement in a tiny, stinking, windowless cell.
"They beat you with fists and fan belts," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1979. "They warmed you up and threatened you with death. Then they really got serious and gave you something called the rope trick." The use of ropes — to cut off circulation in his limbs — left him with no feeling in his fingertips and intense muscle spasms, he said.