By Herb Rosenbleeth
National Executive Director
One of my all-time heroes, Rep. Sam Johnson, passed away a few months ago (not related to the COVID-19 pandemic). I will always remember Colonel Johnson as a heroic Air Force pilot during Korea, a courageous prisoner of war during Vietnam, and for his statement, “I proudly stand with Israel.” For sure, one of my heroes!
Johnson served 14 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1991-2019. When he retired last year, Rep. Johnson was the oldest member of Congress and had served nearly 28 years. As a member of Congress, Johnson always showed strong support for the military.
Johnson was born in San Antonio, a proud Texan from the beginning. He graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he had joined in the Air Force ROTC. After graduating in 1951, he soon became involved in the fighting in Korea. During the Korean War, Johnson was a superb fighter pilot who flew 62 combat missions. Later, he joined the elite Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team. Only the very best pilots become one of the Thunderbirds.
In Vietnam, on April 16, 1966, Johnson was on his 25th mission over North Vietnam when his F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber was shot down. Badly injured, he was taken to the Hanoi Hoa Lo, called the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. prisoners. For more than seven years, he remained in prison under sub-human conditions, including 42 months in solitary confinement. It took two years before his wife and family found out he was still alive. During that time and to this day, I participate in events and activities of the National League of Families on behalf of JWV. When participating, I often think of PNC Mike Berman, who is JWV’s representative at the Vietnam Wall and one of our strongest advocates for the prisoners and the missing.
I first learned of Johnson and Navy pilots Everett Alvarez, George Day, Jeremiah Denton, and others through my involvement for JWV with the National League of Families and its phenomenal Executive Director Ann Mills Griffiths. Those men were all heroes before, during, and after their captivity.
During the last 18 months of his captivity, Johnson shared a cell with John McCain, a Navy pilot shot down in 1967. When Johnson and the other POWs were released on February 12, 1973, he weighed only 120 pounds. His right hand was permanently disabled, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. During his outstanding military career, Colonel Johnson’s military decorations included two Silver Stars, two awards of the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, and two Purple Hearts.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1979, Johnson settled in Plano, Texas, where he was elected to the state legislature in 1984. In 1991, he won his seat in the U.S. Congress. He served as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He helped pass the Military Tax Relief Act of 2003, which reduced taxes and increased death benefits for the families of our military personnel. He gained political and moral authority from his experiences as a combat veteran of two wars and as a long-time prisoner subjected to extremely brutal treatment.
I dedicate this column to Congressman, Colonel Sam Johnson, USAF(Ret).
Volume 74. Number 4. 2020