Remembering Sam Johnson

May 29, 2020

May 29, 2020

Remembering Sam Johnson


By John Tirpak

Samuel Robert Johnson, who represented Texas in the House of Representatives for 28 years, was the last Korean War veteran to serve in Congress, and was a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam for seven years, died May 27 at age 89.

Johnson was born in San Antonio, Texas, and grew up in Dallas. While at Southern Methodist University, he joined the ROTC. Activated for Korea, he earned his wings shortly after earning his business degree in 1951.

He flew F-86s out of Suwon, Korea, achieving one kill—a MiG-15—over the Yalu River in May 1953. Nearly out of gas, he glided some 80 miles to Kimpo Air Base, landing just before flaming out. He flew 62 total missions in Korea, and was also credited with one probable MiG kill and one damaged.

After Korea, Johnson was an instructor at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and was selected to fly with the Thunderbirds. He flew F-100s with the team for two years, as solo and then slot, performing demonstrations around the world. In a 2013 oral history, Johnson said he frequently created a sonic boom to open the show, but was ordered to stop when he once “broke every window” on the Mississippi coast, and it “cost the Air Force about $100,000.”

He was assigned fighter duties in France and the U.K., and returned to Nellis as director of operations and training, during which time he wrote gunnery manuals with John Boyd. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was detached for a potential invasion of Cuba, requiring him to complete jump training at the Army’s airborne school. Johnson’s assignment was to parachute into Cuba and stand up a captured air base, but the invasion did not proceed.

After counterinsurgency training and combat crew training in the F-4, Johnson flew the Phantom II out of Thailand. On April 16, 1966, during his 25th mission in theater, Johnson was tasked to hit an anti-aircraft battery and truck park. After several runs attacking at extreme low level, Johnson’s jet was hit by enemy flak and he was forced to eject.

He was captured and held by the North Vietnamese as a Prisoner of War for seven years; half of that time in solitary confinement. Though he was badly injured when he ejected—he sustained a broken back, broken arm, and dislocated shoulder—his wounds were never properly treated by his captors, and he endured lasting debilitation. During his imprisonment, Johnson was tortured by the North Vietnamese, put in leg irons every night, and endured starvation. His defiance earned him extra harsh treatment and isolation from other prisoners.

He communicated with them at Hoa Lo Prison—better known as the “Hanoi Hilton”—by tapping on walls with a tin cup.

In 1969, throughout the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, Buzz Aldrin—a fellow classmate of Johnson’s and lifelong friend—wore a silver POW bracelet with Johnson’s name on it. Aldrin later said that he saw Southeast Asia on the return to Earth and prayed for Johnson, who did not learn of the moon landing until long after the fact.

In 1971 Johnson learned of the “Son Tay Raid”—an attempt to rescue POWs from a nearby camp—from a tiny roll of microfilm embedded in a lollipop the North Vietnamese had allowed through in a parcel from home. It was a New York Times account explaining that the rescue had not succeeded because the POWs there had been unexpectedly moved. The story drew world attention to the POWs’ plight and the North Vietnamese eased conditions for some, explaining the parcels. Upon learning of the attempt, Johnson later recounted, “We knew then that our country had not forgotten us.” He was released with other POWs on Feb. 12, 1973.

He then returned to USAF service, and in 1974 earned a Master’s degree from George Washington University. In 1979, he retired from the Air Force.

Johnson then went into business as a home builder. In 1984, he was elected to the Texas legislature, serving seven years.

He won the first of seven elections to the U.S. House in 1991. In 1998, he formed the House Air Force Caucus, along with Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), promoting a larger and more robust Air Force. He got the 2003 Military Family Tax Relief Act passed, which reduced the taxes of service members and increased benefits to survivors of those killed on Active duty.

The conservative Johnson championed lower taxes and sponsored legislation delaying Social Security benefits to retirees by two years. He also promoted deregulation of the oil industry. He served on the Ways and Means Committee, was chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, and also sat on the Joint Committee on Taxation. He was a member of caucuses for immigration reform, pension reform, and sportsmen.

In 2015, Johnson came to the defense of Sen. John McCain—a 19-month cellmate at the Hanoi Hilton, but with whom Johnson was neither friendly nor politically allied—from attacks by Donald Trump, who said McCain wasn’t a hero just because he had been captured. “I like people who weren’t captured,” said Trump, who was beginning his run for the presidency.

Johnson said he didn’t consider himself a hero, reserving that term for his family who waited for him back home. But, “Diminishing the courage and patriotism it takes to leave your family, face the enemy, and even—God forbid—endure wartime torture has no place in a post-Vietnam America,” he said. Comments like Trump’s, “suggesting that veterans like Sen. John McCain or any other of America’s honorable POWS, are less brave for having been captured, are not only misguided, they are ungrateful and naive … Every single faithful veteran—whether they are alive, no longer with us, a POW, or MIA—deserves our utmost respect and support.”

Though he pledged to stay only 12 years in Congress, Johnson wound up serving more than twice that long. Days after winning his 13th full term in 2018, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. At his retirement, he was the last Korean War vet and last Vietnam POW to serve in Congress. He was also the oldest member of the House.

His autobiography, published in 1992, was titled “Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story.”

Among his decorations, Johnson received the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and two awards of the Purple Heart.

In 2013, AFA recognized Johnson with its Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2018, he donated some of his prisoner-of-war relics, including the tin cup, to the Smithsonian.

AFA President retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright said Johnson “left us with an incredible example for leadership, character, and courage in the most daunting of lifetime challenges—from combat fighter pilot to Hanoi POW to Capitol Hill.”