A True Hero’s Homecoming: Retired USAF Colonel, Congressman Sam Johnson


The news media condemns itself, as does our political class, once more, with their relative silence. A true American hero, whose virtue was proved in the skies of two wars, the hell on earth of the worst part of the Communist Vietnamese torture chambers, and in the halls of Congress that so often corrupt, has been called home. Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, retired Congressman Sam Johnson went home on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at the age of 89. There is a famous photograph of Colonel Johnson reunified with his wife, Shirley, after seven years of captivity. At the end of May 2020, I believe they were reunified a second time. We do not know what Heaven is actually like, but we may well imagine these two people embracing again in bodies not ravaged by this fallen world.

Sam married his high school sweetheart, Shirley in 1950, shortly before graduating from Southern Methodist University. They remained faithfully married for 65 years until Shirley was called home before Sam. Shirley Johnson’s obituary confessed their faith:

During Sam’s captivity, Shirley’s faith in the almighty God became more real. Prior to the POW years, she and her husband had faithfully attended church. In the blink of an eye, God was comforting her, and her faith blossomed so that she was reliant on God for the answers to her life’s tribulations. This undying faith stayed with her the remainder of her life and became a hallmark of her quiet strength, gracious manner and gentle personality. [. . .] Sam and Shirley remained inseparable, enjoying seeing new places and learning about new cultures. They found the greatest joy however, spending time with family and giving praise and thanksgiving to their Lord and Savior.

Sam Johnson was a leader all his life. Consider his effects on the Air Force over a 29-year career. He not only served with distinction in two shooting wars but also helped shape the success of the youngest branch of our armed forces. The SuperSabre Society summarizes Sam Johnson‘s contribution to the Air Force:

During his 29-year career in the U.S. Air Force, Representative Johnson served as the director of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School (“Top Gun”) and was one of two authors of the air tactics manual revolutionizing military air dominance by incorporating three-dimensional flight – a manual that is still used today.

Sam flew combat missions in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During the Korean War, Sam flew 62 combat missions in his F-86, stationed just 25 miles from the front lines. In his plane – Shirley’s Texas Tornado named after his wife – he scored one MiG fighter kill, one probable, and one damaged.

Back at Nellis Air Force Base, Sam flew the solo and slot positions for the world-renowned Air Force Thunderbirds precision flying demonstration team in the F-100 Super Sabre.

In the Vietnam War during his first tour of duty, Sam worked at the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam headquarters in Saigon where he helped coordinate the first B-52 strikes under General Westmoreland. During his second tour, he flew F-4 Phantom II combat missions with the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand. It was during his 25th combat mission of his second tour in 1966 that Sam was shot down.

Humanities Texas offers excerpts from Congressman Johnson’s first-hand account of Hỏa Lò, the “Hanoi Hilton” and the even worse “Alcatraz.”

If hell is here on earth, it is located on an oddly shaped city block in downtown Hanoi, North Vietnam, and goes by the name of Hỏa Lò. It is the North’s main penitentiary system, and its name means “hellhole.” To the American military men who waited out the interminable years of the Vietnam War within that dingy fortress, it is aptly named. But some POWs, holding tightly to their humor and a sense of the ironic, renamed it “the Hanoi Hilton.”

[. . .]

Commander Jeremiah Denton, U.S. Navy, was my first next door neighbor in Heartbreak Hotel. He had been shot down ten months earlier while flying a mission from the carrier Independence. Down the hall, in the first cell next to the cellblock entrance, was Jim Stockdale, commander of Carrier Air Group 16, from the carrier Oriskany; he had been a prisoner since September, 1965. I was in good company.

The communists were determined to gain propaganda victories, part of winning the war, by causing POWs to turn against each other and their country. As part of their scheme, which failed, they further isolated a small group of men who the North Vietnamese recognized were leaders among the POWs. These 11 men were the “Alcatraz Gang.”

Johnson, Denton and Stockdale were among 11 American military POWs at the Hoa Lo Prison that were identified as “diehards,” thought to be a threat to prison authorities due to their organized resistance. In October 1967, those 11 — eight Navy officers and three Air Force officers — were moved a mile away, to a secret facility that they dubbed “Alcatraz,” dug out of a central courtyard at the North Vietnamese Ministry of Defense. They became known as “The Alcatraz Gang,” and were subjected to extreme conditions and maltreatment.

For more than two years, the Alcatraz Gang were held in solitary confinement, shackled nightly in leg irons that permanently wrecked their limbs, and subjected to special torture sessions. After the cruel years at Alcatraz, Johnson was transferred back to the Hanoi Hilton, but never stopped resisting. He spent 42 months in solitary confinement, more than half of his seven years as a POW.

Instead of bitterness, Colonel Johnson came through his second war and carried on thorough his long life with hope. Different men came out of the crucible of combat, and the long psychological warfare campaign in a communist prison camp, differently. The Dallas News, in remembering Sam Johnson, contrasts two men who shared a cell in hell for a short time:

By 2009, fellow congressmen had voted him the most admired member of the House in a National Journal poll. Colleagues cited his steadfast adherence to principle as the source of their admiration.

[. . .]

On issues such as immigration and taxes, Johnson upheld staunch Republican values. He was rated the most conservative House member in 2011 by the National Journal based on his voting record, and received near-perfect ratings from many conservative groups.

[. . .]

[Sam Johnson] unyielding conservatism sometimes caused friction with moderate Republicans — including his old cellmate, Sen. McCain.

Despite their shared ordeal, the two had a chilly relationship in later years.

“I wasn’t really as courageous as Sam Johnson,” McCain said in 2003, describing their time as POWs. “I mean that. He suffered a lot more than I did.”

When McCain ran for president in 2008, Johnson withheld an endorsement until the senator clinched the nomination.

When McCain sought to ban [what he and the Democrats labeled] torture [enhanced interrogation] by U.S. forces in 2005, Johnson opposed him — each invoking the moral authority of a former POW.

When McCain sought to normalize relations with the communist government in Vietnam, Johnson resisted.

[McCain went to Vietnam in 1986, while Johnson refused until he took his wife with him in 2006.]

“We talk, but we’re not that close,” Johnson said at the time. “He’s a senator and I’m a congressman, that’s part of the problem. And you know, we don’t always agree.”

Listen to this assessment of what might be in Iraq, and the comparison to Vietnam, in 2007:

Here is Congressman Johnson announcing his founding role in the “Tenth Amendment Caucus” in 2010:

Congressman Johnson’s farewell address was about his constituents and “this great nation:”

When John McCain was given a public, national memorial, Sam Johnson was there to say farewell. Nancy Pelosi, who had just recaptured the majority, helped retiring Congressman Johnson stand steady and place his torture-twisted hand on the flag-draped coffin. How our political class and media now do and do not respond to the passing of a faithful conservative House leader, a decorated veteran of two wars, a leader in the shaping of our Air Force, and one of the most distinguished POWs in our history, will be a measure of them.

Sam Johnson’s life spoke for itself. He has already met the one true Judge face-to-face, and heard the only judgment that matters in eternity. From his confessions of faith, we may have confidence that there has been a perfectly joyful reunion.

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There are 14 comments.

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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp

    Superb article. Thanks, Colonel.

    • #1
  2. RightAngles Member

     A great tribute.

    • #2
  3. EODmom Coolidge

    Thank you. You always write with love and high regard for the best of us. We are lucky to have such leaders – thank you for reminding me. 

    • #3
  4. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    EODmom (View Comment):

    Thank you. You always write with love and high regard for the best of us. We are lucky to have such leaders – thank you for reminding me.

    Hat tip to Mark Davis, Salem Radio host in the DFW area, for calling Congressman Johnson to my attention several years ago. Davis’s tribute to Johnson this morning was my alert to his passing.



    • #4
  5. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell

    Thank you, Colonel, for another heart-felt and informative post.

    It helps clear out some of the constant news about the Virus and Minneapolis.

    • #5
  6. Rodin Member

    Thank you, @cliffordbrown.


    • #6
  7. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander

    Strictly asking out of curiosity:  What was his relationship like with Col. John Boyd?

    • #7
  8. MiMac Thatcher

    Read Honor Bound by Stuart Rochester- it is a great account of the heroism of the POWs in the Vietnam War. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and should have won it. Many consider it the definitive account.

    • #8
  9. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers

    Thank you for a tribute to match a great man who is a standard I wish all our “servants” would aspire to 

    • #9
  10. Allan Rutter Member
    Allan Rutter

    Thanks for spreading the word about Congressman Johnson. One of the benefits to moving to North Central Texas in 2004 after a sojourn in the DC area was being able to call this great man my Congressman. I attended his church and was able to see him rise in November when we honored our veterans. 42 months of solitary and torture puts our last couple of months in perspective for this Texan. Thanks again for telling his story.

    • #10
  11. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl

    Thank you for this tribute. He was a seriously patriotic American.

    • #11
  12. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    Allan Rutter (View Comment):

    Thanks for spreading the word about Congressman Johnson. One of the benefits to moving to North Central Texas in 2004 after a sojourn in the DC area was being able to call this great man my Congressman. I attended his church and was able to see him rise in November when we honored our veterans. 42 months of solitary and torture puts our last couple of months in perspective for this Texan. Thanks again for telling his story.

    Thank you for this closer perspective.

    • #12
  13. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins


    • #13
  14. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins

    Some pictures from when John McCain was lying in repose, and Nancy Pelosi helped him approach the casket.  Also from when the Ways and Means Room was renamed for Sam Johnson.






    • #14
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