Former Representative Sam Johnson, a military pilot who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before representing a Dallas-area district in Congress for more than two decades, died Wednesday. He was 89.
Mr. Johnson, a conservative Republican, died in Plano, Texas, of natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, said his former spokesman, Ray Sullivan.
Mr. Johnson flew nearly 100 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and was flying a bombing mission over Vietnam in 1966 when he was shot down and wounded. He was imprisoned in the infamous prisoner-of-war camp known as the Hanoi Hilton for nearly seven years, mostly in solitary confinement.
One of his fellow prisoners was John McCain, who later became a Republican senator from Arizona. The two men often clashed in Congress, but Mr. Johnson ardently defended Mr. McCain in 2015 when Donald J. Trump — before he was elected president — suggested that Mr. McCain was not a hero because he had been captured.
When Mr. Johnson was elected to Congress in 1991, he vowed to stay a maximum of 12 years, though he served more than double that. When he stepped down in 2019, at age 88, he was the oldest member of the House.
“Scripture tells us, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven,’” Mr. Johnson wrote in a January 2017 letter to constituents, telling them he would retire at the end of his term. “For me, the Lord has made clear that the season of my life in Congress is coming to an end.”
Samuel Robert Johnson was born on Oct. 11, 1930, in San Antonio. He grew up in Dallas, married Shirley Lee Melton in 1950 and graduated the following year from Southern Methodist University with a degree in business administration.
He enlisted in the military at age 20 and served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. In April 1966, his plane was hit and he was forced to eject during a mission in Vietnam.
Mr. Johnson recalled trudging through the jungle before being surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers who took him to Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton.
He recalled tapping code on the wall to communicate with other Americans, using a chipped green tin cup to help amplify the sounds.
“Our captors,” he said, “would blare nasty recordings over the loudspeaker of Americans protesting back home.”
He was released in February 1973, retired from the Air Force three years later and began a home-building business. He went to Congress after winning a special election in 1991.
In February 2018, the 45th anniversary of his release in Vietnam, Mr. Johnson donated the chipped tin cup to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
In his autobiography, “Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story,” Mr. Johnson said the cup “symbolized our war of resistance for seven long years.”
“It had been a means of communication and, as such, a means of survival,” he said.
Mr. Johnson’s wife died in 2015. He is survived by his daughters, Gini Johnson Mulligan and Beverly Johnson Briney, and 10 grandchildren. His son, James Robert Johnson, known as Bob, died in 2013 at age 61.
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.