The Unbroken Congressman – Sam Johnson

The Unbroken Congressman

Sam Johnson after downing a North Korean MiG and before joining the Air Force Thunderbirds as a solo pilot.
Sam Johnson after downing a North Korean MiG and before joining the Air Force Thunderbirds as a solo pilot.

By Alvin Townley

Throughout American military history, few prisoners of war have proven worse than Sam Johnson.

His shootdown over North Vietnam and subsequent capture began a seven-year run of behavior so cantankerous, uncooperative, and subversive that his North Vietnamese captors actually evicted him from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Still, Sam continued making trouble for his adversaries until the POWs finally returned home in 1973.

And where would such a trouble-maker ultimately find his niche? The United States Congress.

As former lead solo pilot for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Sam could argue his place among the world’s finest pilots; he’d downed two MiGs in Korea to prove it. While a teenager, he’d worked long summer days stringing telephone wire across blistering plains; he’d shot out streetlights with a gang in Dallas. He would need that attitude and mettle to survive his seven-year sentence in Vietnam.

In 1966, Sam ejected from his stricken F-4 Phantom and parachuted in a North Vietnamese field with his shoulders broken and arms useless; they would never fully heal. He received virtually no care and certainly no mercy after he arrived in Hanoi and began a regimen of brutal physical and emotional torture that would not relent for more than four years – four years during which Sam knew his family remained unaware of his survival.

His sturdy six-foot frame withered to a shadow on his paltry diet of soup. His once-proud gait became a painful shuffle – especially after he endured seventy-five straight days immobilized in leg stocks. A draconian interrogator called Pigeye would twist Sam’s body with ropes, straps, and bars, forcing him to sign false confessions. Yet he never surrendered anything without a fight; he always faced Pigeye with defiance. He was determined to return home with honor.

More than 400 other Americans would eventually join him North Vietnam’s prisons and a group of eleven die-hards emerged to lead the American resistance; Sam was among them. They would lead their fellow POWs through eight long years of torture and uncertainty, of determination and faith. In writing Defiant, I would spend three years coming to know these eleven men; never has America had such a band of brothers. Never have such heroes gone so unrecognized.

After more than two years inside the Hanoi Hilton, these troublemakers – Vietnam’s own Dirty Dozen – had proven so subversive that the their jailers exiled them to a miserable dungeon called Alcatraz. There, they would spend two years (nearly 24 hours per day) in solitary 4’ x 9’ concrete tombs, locked in irons, being tortured with ropes, incessant propaganda, and sleep deprivation. They were known as the Alcatraz 11. Among them were future U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and Medal of Honor recipient Jim Stockdale. Yet it was Sam who proved so inflammatory that he became the last POW released from solitary confinement, perhaps the cruelest torture of all.

Finally, in 1973, Sam Johnson came home to his family in Texas, his head held high. He had faced the worst and returned just as he’d aspired: with honor.

Years later, he found another way to serve his country and has represented the Third Congressional District of Texas for the past fourteen years.

So as Americans fill theaters to watch World War II POW Louie Zamperii’s powerful story unfold in Unbroken, let us also remember the unbroken POWs from that less-celebrated war in Vietnam. Let all Americans, and both sides of the aisle, rightly honor Sam Johnson and his fellow captives who endured the longest and harshest deployment in U.S. military history.

Congressman, your service and example are not forgotten.

Alvin Townley is author of DEFIANT (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) about the leading 11 American POWs in Vietnam and their wives at home, who founded the POW-MIA movement.

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