by John Cornyn on October 1, 2018 at 2:30 PM
Twenty-nine years in the U.S. Air Force. Eighty-seven combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Six years, ten months, and 19 days held as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton – and three and a half of those years in solitary confinement.
Those numbers read like the resume of a true hero. But the man to whom they belong won’t claim that title.
“I do not feel like a hero, and I do not call myself one—I reserve that title for my fellow veterans who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. I reserve that title for my wife, Shirley, who held our family together while I was rotting in a cell in the Hanoi Hilton for nearly seven years during the Vietnam War. They are heroes. They served our country faithfully and with all their heart. I am grateful for them.”
Sam Johnson may not call himself an American hero, but I will.
I have the honor of calling Congressman Sam Johnson a colleague and a friend. We’ve both been sent to Washington, D.C. by Texans to represent them in Congress, but Sam’s record of service to his country runs much deeper than that.
Sam joined the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot when he was just 20 years old. He flew 62 combat missions during the Korean War, and 25 in Vietnam. It was his 25th mission that turned out to be the most life-altering. During that flight, the weapon systems on his F-4 Phantom II failed, and he was shot down over North Vietnam. He broke an arm and his back on the way down, and from there, it only got worse. He was promptly found by Vietcong soldiers and escorted to the Hỏa Lò Prison, better known today as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
For nearly seven years, Sam had almost no communication with the outside world, including his wife and three young children back in Texas. He endured psychological and physical torture. During this time, he leaned on his deep faith, which strengthened through his tough circumstances. His only physical reprieve came in an unlikely form: a rusty tin can. This can, now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is how Sam communicated with fellow prisoners – by holding it up to his cell wall and using a spoon to tap an intricate code they developed in captivity based on an alphabetical grid.
On February 17, 1973, Sam Johnson was finally reunited with his wife and three children on the tarmac at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. He continued serving his country in the Air Force for another six years.
It is the service and sacrifice of men and women like Sam Johnson and their loved ones that we honor each September on National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Another man I honor this time each year is my father, who served as a bomber pilot in World War II and spent time in a Nazi POW camp before General Patton’s troops freed him and his fellow prisoners of war.
Despite what he will tell you, Sam Johnson is a hero as is my father and every other man and woman of their caliber who has continued to serve this country selflessly after being captured as a prisoner of war.
September 21st was National POW/MIA Recognition Day, and as we recognize prisoners of war and those who have gone missing in action, please join me in expressing gratitude and respect for our country’s heroes.