Time as Vietnam POW Shaped Indefatigable Congressman Sam Johnson's Career

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 19, 2003.WASHINGTON -- For Sam Johnson, the seeds of a political career were planted in conversations conducted in code - taps so faint that only inmates of the Hanoi Hilton could hear them, pressing tin cups against the walls. A fellow American pilot was beaten for shouting the code key to the Air Force major, fresh from being shot down on his 25th mission. Over the next six years, 10 months and 19 days, there was plenty of time to ponder the handling of the war, to complain that the politicians had let them down. Mr. Johnson was released 30 years ago next Wednesday. His body is a testament to cruelty and sacrifice. His back cracked and his arm was broken in two places when he went down. Torture and malnutrition left him stoop-shouldered. His right hand is still mangled. The memories are fresh for Mr. Johnson: memories of beatings and rats; of 42 months in a dark, solitary cell for resisting North Vietnamese attempts to force information or propaganda out of him; of the hero's welcome at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls; and the sweet embrace of his wife, Shirley, and their three kids. Back home in Plano during his imprisonment, they prayed nearly as much as he did. The Air Force told Mrs. Johnson that her husband was missing and probably dead. She waited two years for word he was alive."When he makes up his mind he's going to do something, he doesn't make a big deal out of it. He just does it," Mrs. Johnson, holding the hand of the man she married 52 years ago, said in his Capitol Hill office. A reminder of sacrifice There was a time when Mr. Johnson, 72, didn't care much for talking about that dark period. Lately, he's been on a quest to remind people about the high price sometimes paid for freedom. The number of combat veterans in Congress has dwindled - to a dozen, from 17 at the 25th anniversary of his release from the infamous Hoa Lo prison. Soon, he frets, there won't be anyone in Congress with the moral authority and perspective needed on military issues, and children will know nothing of that era. "The schools don't teach history anymore," he said. "I think it's important." Rather than test his faith, he said, the torture and imprisonment renewed it. He recounted the day his captors pulled him from his cell and told him he was to be executed. They lined him up against a wall. When the order to fire was given, "they all went click-click-click-click-click. I praised the Lord and started laughing at them," he said. "I was probably not a very good Christian when I got shot down. ... We did a lot of praying." Mr. Johnson had other bits of luck. After flying 62 combat missions in the Korean War, he had run the Air Force's "Top Gun" fighter training school. So by the time he got to Vietnam, he'd flown every combat plane there was. He was a trove of useful intelligence, though his jailers never found that out. He gave the Air Force almost seven more years after his release, retiring as a colonel in 1979 after 29 years. He went into the homebuilding business and, prodded by friends, ran for the Legislature in 1984. He moved to Congress in 1991 when Steve Bartlett resigned to become Dallas mayor. He has never been shy about his political views. When Bill Clinton ran for president, Mr. Johnson was one of three Republican veterans who alleged that the KGB had lured the Democratic nominee to Moscow during the war - when "I was sitting in a POW camp in Vietnam eating fish eyes and pig fat," he said at the time. The episode illustrated some of Mr. Johnson's most enduring qualities: distrust of Democrats, hatred of communists and steadfast conservatism. (This month, for the third year in a row, National Journal ranked him 100 percent conservative based on key economic, social and foreign policy votes.) A number of his fellow POWs went into public service. Jeremiah Denton served Alabama as a senator. James Stockdale ran for vice president with Ross Perot. John McCain is a senator from Arizona. Mr. McCain and Mr. Johnson spent 18 months in a tiny cell together, though Mr. Johnson backed fellow Texan George W. Bush instead of Mr. McCain for president in 2000. Mr. McCain at first demurred when asked about his old cellmate. He doesn't care much for talking about the old days. "I think so little about it," he said. "It's a little boring. I've sort of put it behind me. ... Of course, I wasn't really as courageous as Sam Johnson. I mean that. He suffered a lot more than I did."  Continue reading...

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