Our American Hero: Congressman Sam Johnson

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Photo by David Downs

Isolated, alone and in the dark, a 35-year-old Sam Johnson rots in a 4×9 foot cell of the Hanoi Hilton. Labeled a diehard resistor, he’s endured endless hours of torture and severe starvation. He feels alone and forgotten. He does not know if he’ll ever see his wife and three children again. He’s on the brink of despair. It is his darkest hour.

“I was struggling to keep what little shred of hope I had left. It was during solitary, and I had spent 74 days in leg stocks—unable to move from my cement bed. It had been a long time since I had seen the sky and the sun. I felt finished. I remember falling asleep and thinking it would be okay if I never woke up again. But that night, a typhoon tore through the city of Hanoi. The floor of my cell filled with water, and I huddled against the wall as far away from the incoming rain as the leg stocks would allow. I didn’t know if I would drown. I began to pray as I had never prayed before. And I began to feel a strange sense of peace in the darkness.

The next morning, my cell was flooded with the light of dawn. The storm had ripped the boards off my window. I had an overwhelming sense of the presence of God at that moment. I knew I was going to be all right. And just a few hours later, a guard came into my cell and removed my legs from the stocks.

Those years shaped my perspective on faith and service unlike any other experience in my life.”

A prisoner of the Viet Cong for almost seven years, Sam’s experience as a POW had a profound impact on his life. And yet this experience is by no means his greatest achievement, or indeed his greatest service to our nation. What came next was a lifetime dedicated to public service, to the people of the United States, to God, to defending freedom and fighting for our civil liberties.

This is his legacy.

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Congressman Sam Johnson in Korea 1953, on wing of F-86 named “Shirley’s Texas Tornado.”

A Decorated War Hero

While Sam Johnson may be one of Texas’ longest-serving Congressmen, he is a veteran whose experience has helped create a clear vision of what is important for his family, community and country.

During his 29-year career in the U.S. Air Force, he flew 62 combat missions during the Korean War and 25 during the Vietnam War. It was during his 25th combat mission of his second tour in Vietnam that he was shot down and captured by the Vietnamese. He would spend much of his time as a POW in “Alcatraz,” a special prison for diehard resistors, where he spent 74 days in leg stocks, 2 ½ years in leg irons and 42 months in solitary confinement.

And while flying may have landed him in a hellhole—the literal translation of Hao Lo, the name of the POW camp which would change his life—he considers flying one of his most memorable and exhilarating experiences.

“I had a lot of incredible experiences while flying as a Thunderbird—the Air Force’s world-renowned precision flying demonstration team. I flew the solo and slot positions in the F-100 Super Sabre. We were the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team. And I’ll let you in on a little secret…back when I was a Thunderbird, sometimes the solo position would fly supersonic. Granted, it was never an official part of the show. Well, one time I decided to fly supersonic as a surprise—and I blew out all the windows at the air show! Not everyone was happy about that…and the Thunderbirds don’t fly supersonic anymore.”

He considers his greatest military achievement, however, to be co-authoring an air tactics manual revolutionizing military air dominance by incorporating three-dimensional flight.

“My buddy, Colonel John Boyd, and I had a lot of fun creating 3-D models in our homes and testing out different tactics, and I’m proud to say that these efforts have helped revolutionize American military air dominance. This manual is still used today.”

He also served as the director of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School—the Air Force’s version of the Navy’s Top Gun. He retired as a colonel.

A decorated war hero, he has been awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, one Bronze Star with Valor, two Purple Hearts, four Air Medals and three Outstanding Unit Awards.

“Being a veteran means having a firsthand appreciation for the freedoms so many folks take for granted. We are fortunate to live in a country that defends individual liberty for all…a country where our Founding Fathers designed a Constitution and a government that serves the people rather than dictates how people should live their lives.

During my time as a POW in North Vietnam, there was a quote on the wall etched by a fellow captive that I’ve shared with folks over the years. The quote read, ‘Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.’ I think this statement perfectly captures what it means to be a veteran.”

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Congressman Johnson sits in a T-6 Texan.This was a single engine propeller aircraft and was used for pilot training. Taken shortly before he was deployed to fight in the Korean War.

Sam’s Hero

While Sam and his fellow cellmates spent their days suspended from meat hooks, their arms and legs bound, numb and swollen beyond recognition…back home, a league of women heroes was born.

“For a while, many people were fooled into believing the North Vietnamese were actually adhering to the Geneva Convention and that our treatment was humane. Shirley [Sam’s wife] advocated on our behalf and shed light on our plight.

One of the initiatives she and other wives worked on was creating and distributing silver POW/MIA bracelets bearing the name of a captured or lost soldier. Mind you, this was way before the yellow LIVESTRONG and other wristbands came about. Our wives passed out these bracelets to remind folks of suffering American POWs and MIAs, and it’s always moving when someone brings back a bracelet to me and tells me they were praying for my return. If that doesn’t make you believe in the power of prayer, I don’t know what will!

The POW wives put pressure on our captors, and eventually these efforts spurred changes at camp. We were finally allowed out of ours cells for the first time after nearly two years of total confinement.

There were other improvements as well: a third “meal” was added—though the term “meal” is something I would use loosely. In fact, my extra pair of socks, an extra blanket, and finally the move from Alcatraz back to the main Hao Lo prison all came in response to the efforts of our POW wives and other active American citizens.”

It is with good reason that Sam, who does not consider himself a hero, reserves that honor for his wife.

“Shirley will always be my personal hero. I consider marrying Shirley and starting a family together as the greatest and most fulfilling achievement of my life. Shirley was a tremendous blessing, and the love of my life. It was an honor to share so many years together.”

Native Texans, Shirley and Sam were married 65 years before her passing in December 2015. They have three children and 10 grandchildren.

Following her experience as a POW wife, Shirley dedicated her life to campaigning for veteran issues. This determination to fight in support of those who had served soon ignited a passion in her husband, which would lead him into the political arena.

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Congressman Johnson acknowledging press and crowd at Sheppard Air Force Base, Wichita Falls, Texas, February 17, 1973. (Upon his return to the United States as part of Operation Homecoming.)

Congressman Sam Johnson

“The fact that I experienced firsthand what living in a communist country was like has made me even more passionate about defending freedom and ensuring our country doesn’t forsake or lose our individual liberty.”

Sam started his political career in 1984 and was elected as Congressman to the Third District in 1991, a position he has held ever since. His political career has been defined by his passion and dedication to helping the people and advocating for veteran’s rights.

“Some important legislation I helped write and pass that has been of particular impact for the Third District are efforts like my repeal of the Wright Amendment, which opened up Dallas Love Field to be able to offer direct flights out-of-state. With this repeal, the North Texas region now has two fully functioning airports. In addition to expanded travel destinations, flights are now offered at better times and rates. As a result, families and businesses are reaping the benefits!

On a national level, some of my efforts on behalf of all Americans include several measures to protect folks from identity theft. These efforts include ending the use of Social Security Numbers from being printed on Medicare Cards (now law) as well as in mailed documents sent by the Social Security Administration (recently passed by the House).

Just a few weeks ago, my Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance Act was signed into law! This is a big deal for Korean War veterans and their families. My compatriots and I believe the memorial in its current state does not fully convey the magnitude of the sacrifice made by American service members during this often forgotten war. More than 36,000 Americans gave their lives, and it is important that we honor our fallen in this meaningful way.”

Efforts such as these led to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society bestowing Sam their highest civilian accolade, the National Patriot Award, for his tireless work on behalf of the troops, veterans and freedom.

Now 86, the Congressman continues to do everything in his power to see that the interests of veterans and the people of the Third District are represented in Washington, D.C.

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At the Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for American Fighter Aces. The Congressman introduced this bill to honor “Ace” veterans, which was signed into law in 2014.

Back Home in Plano

“Shirley and I moved to Plano before my two tours in Vietnam, and it’s been our home ever since. We decided on Plano because her brother lived here, and we liked the community. It was a small town with good, friendly people.”

Although Plano has changed a lot since Sam and Shirley chose to live here, Sam remains faithful and committed to our community. He may remember when Plano was mostly farm and prairie land, yet he is excited about our booming future.

“We are a pro-family, pro-business community with smart talent and great schools! The American dream is certainly alive and well in Plano. As a result, folks want to live here, and businesses want to be located here. If we stay true to our roots and continue to uphold our values, I think we’ll continue to see more positive additions to our community. I’m excited to see what the future holds!”

It is at home in Plano, and just a few months ago, that Sam realized what he considers as one of the greatest achievements of his lifetime—the opening of a VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic.

“One of the things I was most proud to do for my community was getting a VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) established in Plano. We have so many veterans in North Texas, and the long commute out to Dallas was very taxing for these families. I’m thrilled that the grand opening in September 2016 had such a great turnout, and I look forward to getting a location decision set soon on a specialty clinic (to work in conjunction with our CBOC).”

The 10,000-square-foot clinic, located at 3804 West 15th Street, is equipped to serve 6,000 veterans per year and provides primary care, mental health, telemedicine, laboratory and X-ray services.

The Legacy of a Fighter

Whether flying as a fighter pilot, fighting back against the Viet Cong or fighting for our freedom and civil liberties, the legacy of Sam Johnson will be that of a fighter, a patriot, a hero.
It is a legacy founded on solid moral values. “I hope that any legacy I leave behind is one that emphasizes the importance of faith, family, service and patriotism.”

Core values Sam Johnson shares with countless other proud servicemen and women—our American heroes.

For more on Plano’s veterans, visit the virtual edition of our November 2016 issue