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His 34-year naval career included service on a variety of ships and on aircraft, including airships (blimps). His principal field of endeavor was naval operations. He also served as a test pilot, flight instructor, and commanding officer of an attack squadron flying the A-6 Intruder.
In 1957, he was credited with revolutionizing naval strategy and tactics for nuclear war as architect of the "Haystack Concept." This strategy called for concealing aircraft carriers from radar by intermingling with commercial shipping and avoiding formations suggestive of a naval fleet. The strategy was simulated in maneuvers and demonstrated effectiveness, allowing two aircraft carrier fleets thirty-five simulated atomic launches before aggressor aircraft and submarines could repel them. He went on to serve on the staff of the Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet at the rank of Commander (O-5) as Fleet Air Defense Officer.
Denton graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College and the Naval War College, where his thesis on international affairs received top honors by earning the prestigious President's Award. In 1964, he received the degree of Master of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University's School of Public and International Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Denton served as a United States Naval Aviator during the Vietnam War. In February 1965, he became the Prospective Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five serving aboard aircraft carrier USS Independence (CV-62).
On July 18, 1965, Commander Denton was piloting his A-6A Intruder jet (BUNO 151577) while leading a twenty-eight aircraft bombing mission over North Vietnam off the Independence which was stationed in the South China Sea. He and LTJG Bill Tschudy, his bombardier/navigator, were forced to eject from their plane, damaged by one of their own Mark 82 bombs exploding shortly after its release after which it went down out of control near the city of Thanh Hoa in North Vietnam. Both men were quickly captured and taken prisoner.
Denton and Tschudy were held as prisoners of war for almost eight years, four of which were spent in solitary confinement. Denton was notable for his leadership during the Hanoi March in July 1966, when he and over 50 American prisoners were paraded through the streets of Hanoi and beaten by North Vietnamese civilians. Denton is best known from this period of his life for the 1966 televised press conference in which he was forced to participate as an American POW by his North Vietnamese captors. He used the opportunity to send a distress message confirming for the first time to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence and Americans that American POWs were being tortured in North Vietnam. He repeatedly blinked his eyes in Morse code during the interview, spelling out the word "T-O-R-T-U-R-E". He was also questioned about his support for the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, to which he replied: "I don't know what is happening, but 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. Denton was later awarded the Navy Cross and other decorations for heroism while a prisoner of war.
Denton was first sent to the Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton", and was later transferred to the Cu Loc Detention Center, nicknamed the "Zoo". In 1967 he was transferred to a prison nicknamed "Alcatraz". Here, he became part of a group of American POWs known as the "Alcatraz Gang". The group consisted of George Coker, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, George McKnight, James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, James Stockdale (who had graduated with Denton from the Naval Academy), Ronald Storz, and Nels Tanner. They were put in "Alcatraz" and solitary confinement to separate them from other POWs because their strong resistance led other POWs in resisting their captors. "Alcatraz" was a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, located about one mile away from Hoa Lo Prison. Each of the American POWs spent day and night in windowless 3-by-9-foot (0.91 m × 2.74 m) cells mostly in legcuffs.
On February 12, 1973, both Denton and Tschudy were released in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese along with numerous other American POWs during Operation Homecoming. Stepping off the jet back home in uniform, 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." The speech has a prominent place in the 1987 documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.
Denton was briefly hospitalized at the Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Virginia, and then was assigned to the Commander, Naval Air Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, from February to December 1973. In January 1974, Denton became the commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk (now known as the Joint Forces Staff College), to June 1977. His final assignment was as special assistant to the Chief of Naval Education and Training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, from June 1977 until his retirement from the Navy on November 1, 1977 with the rank of Rear Admiral.
He wrote his book in 1976, When Hell was in Session, detailing his detention as an American POW in North Vietnam, which was made into a television movie of the same title in 1979, starring Hal Holbrook as Denton.
Denton accepted a position with the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) as a consultant to CBN founder and friend, Pat Robertson, from 1978 to 1980. During his time with CBN, both Denton and Robertson repeatedly expressed support for the Contra forces in Nicaragua. In 1981, he founded and chaired the National Forum Foundation. Through his National Forum Foundation, Denton arranged shipments of donated goods to countries in need of aid.
Denton founded the Coalition for Decency, which tried to clean up television by urging boycotts of sponsors that promoted sexual promiscuity.
In 1980, Denton ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat from his home state of Alabama, and was supported by Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. In the primary election, he easily defeated former U.S. Congressman Armistead Selden, a Democrat who had switched parties and garnered the support of the Republican establishment in the state. He then achieved a surprise victory with 50.2 percent of the vote in November over Democratic candidate Jim Folsom Jr., who himself had defeated the incumbent, Donald W. Stewart, in the Democratic primary election. In doing so, Denton became the first retired Navy admiral elected to the United States Senate. He was the second retired Navy admiral to serve in the U.S. Senate, as Admiral Thomas C. Hart, U.S. Navy (ret.) of Connecticut was appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat and served from November 15, 1945 to November 5, 1946.
He was the first Republican to be popularly elected in Alabama since the direct election of U.S. Senators began in 1913, the first Republican senator since Reconstruction to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate, and the first Catholic to be elected to statewide office in Alabama.
As a Senator, Denton was most outspoken on issues related to the regulation of sexual promiscuity and the preservation of the nuclear family, a goal that he sought to pursue through a $30 million bill to push chastity among teenagers. In 1981 he was able to pass the Adolescent Family Life Act (nicknamed the "Chastity Bill") as a part of the 1981 omnibus.
Denton was also outspoken on national security issues, particularly with regard to the Soviet Union. By the mid-1980s, he told Time magazine at the outset of the decade, "We will have less national security than we had proportionately when George Washington's troops were walking around barefoot at Valley Forge." Along with Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and John East, Denton set up and later chaired the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, which focused on communist and Soviet threats. Citing testimonies from journalist Claire Sterling, former CIA director William Colby, neoconservative writer Michael Ledeen and journalist and spy thriller writer Arnaud de Borchgrave, the committee alleged that left-wing activist groups, publications and think tanks had been infiltrated by Soviet agents of the KGB. Media at the time referred to committee's role and its accusations bearing similarity to the Red Scare tactics used by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1986, Denton narrowly lost his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate, receiving 49.7 percent of the vote against U.S. Congressman Richard Shelby, a conservative Democrat who later became a Republican.