50 Years Later, We Must Not Let Vietnam Repeat Itself
April 16, 1966. It was on this day 50 years ago, during my second tour in North Vietnam, that I took off on my 25th mission with the United States Air Force. And it was on this fateful mission that my co-pilot, Chesley, and I were shot down over enemy territory, captured, and imprisoned as POWs in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Nearly seven years of my life were ripped from me – time away from my wife Shirley, our three children, and the country I love. Perhaps, had circumstances been different that day, Chesley and I would have safely returned the next morning. I’ll never know. But I do know this: faulty equipment and a lack of cohesive military strategy from our Commander-in-Chief certainly didn’t help us in the air that night.
I remember the mission vividly: neutralize an enemy anti-aircraft gun and then eliminate a truck park they used for supply delivery with two loads of napalm. It was a simple mission, especially considering the fact that I had recently left the Air Force’s precision demonstration flying team, the Thunderbirds. Chesley and I were flying low over the trees – about 50 feet above ground – doing 700 knots on the deck. When the enemy began firing at us from the ground, I switched to guns and squeezed the trigger, but the gun jammed.
Unfortunately, that was not out of the ordinary. The planes we were flying, F-4 Phantom IIs, were really Navy aircraft designed for fleet defense. Due to consolidation at the Defense Department, the Air Force had been ordered to use them, too. Never mind that the planes had no bombing system for air-to-ground combat, which the Air Force needed for ground support, no gun, and no sight system for bomb targeting and dogfighting. The planes the Pentagon fixed for us did have guns fitted to them, but the gun’s success rate was about 50 percent.
That meant our plane was defenseless. Enemy shots caught our right engine on fire, and as the plane was going down, we ejected just before the aircraft crashed. I broke my right arm and back during the ejection, and my left arm was severely injured, all which would not be properly treated until my return home nearly seven years later.
After landing in a rice paddy, I struggled to get to higher terrain while trudging through the jungle. However, the North Vietnamese spotted where my plane went down, quickly found me, and eventually brought me to the “Hanoi Hilton.”
As a POW, I developed quite the reputation for being a “diehard resistor.” For my refusal to give in to torture and denounce my country, my captors moved me out of the main prison and into “Alcatraz” along with 10 other “diehard resistor” POWs. But even in those direst of circumstances, my attitude toward rescue or escape remained notoriously positive. I say this because a positive attitude is vital. So too is a mighty will. That is why I am determined to see that we don’t allow history to repeat itself. My experience 50 years ago should be a learning experience for our Commander-in-Chief: both our current President and our future ones.
As I mentioned, two factors that contributed to my shoot down on my second tour and 25th mission in Vietnam were faulty equipment and lack of clear military strategy. It is vitally important that America provides all the resources our military needs so they can do their jobs safely and effectively.
When it comes to force modernization, history has shown that the investments we make in our military today directly impact our ability to defend the United States tomorrow. During a speech last year, my colleague from Texas who serves as the House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Mac Thornberry, discussed the situation former Chairman Carl Vinson faced here in the House back in the 1930s. Despite facing a constrained budget during the Great Depression, Chairman Vinson advocated for force modernization because he understood the threats America faced around the world at that time.
It was under Chairman Vinson’s leadership that the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown were built. A decade later, it was these three carriers that won the Battle of Midway in 1942 and turned the tide of the war in the Pacific – just six months after Pearl Harbor.
Make no mistake, the force-planning decisions we make in Congress today will directly affect our ability to provide for the common defense in the coming decades. No one knows when the next threat will strike, but it’s a fact that you go to war with the equipment you have. Proactive planning saves lives. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to modernize the force to face the uncertain but dangerous threats of tomorrow.
Likewise, a clear military strategy is crucial. And sadly, to this day our current Commander-in- Chief still has no comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS. Now, in response to a Congressional mandate, President Obama did release a “plan” for dealing with ISIS last month, but this short seven-page document lacks serious detail and was delivered to Congress over a month late.
In light of the recent wave of terrorist attacks, America should be intensifying the fight against ISIS. Instead, President Obama has imposed an overly restrictive set of rules of engagement on our warfighters that have limited our ability to go after these terrorists. America’s Armed Forces deserve our full and unwavering support, and that includes providing them with a real strategy for success.
While my time in that Prisoner of War camp strengthened my faith and patriotism more than any other event in my life, it is an experience I would never want another United States soldier or their family to endure. Let us uphold our most sacred duty. Let us properly provide for the common defense. As America faces an array of national security challenges around the world, this discussion is important now more than ever.
Sam Johnson represents Texas’ 3rd Congressional District. He is a 29-year Air Force veteran and was one of 11 men in the Hanoi Hilton’s self-named “Alcatraz Gang,” along with other American patriots like Jeremiah Denton and Jim Stockdale. As a Prisoner of War (POW), Sam spent 42 months in solitary, 72 days in leg stocks, and 2 ½ years in leg irons. He chronicles his POW experience in Captive Warriors.