Congressman Sam Johnson (R-Texas) is an American hero. He served in the U.S. Air Force for twenty-nine years and was a highly-decorated fighter pilot. It was during his 25th combat mission on April 16, 1966, over North Vietnam that his F-4 Phantom Air Force jet was shot down.
When he ejected from the aircraft, his right arm was broken in two places, his left shoulder dislocated, and his back broken. He couldn’t use either arm. (Note: Johnson used to be right-handed but is left-handed now, because his right arm never totally healed -- his captors kept breaking it.)
Shortly after he was captured, he was placed before a firing squad. As he faced them, Sam said. “Jesus, I love you.”… Then he heard a “click, click, click …” as one after another the guns aimed at him didn’t fire. You may think that this was a miracle, but as Paul Harvey used to say, “And now, the rest of the story!”
The North Vietnamese borrowed from the North Koreans the technique of mental torture designed to soften up POWs before interrogation. One of the methods they used was a mock firing squad like the one set to fire at Sam. He spent the next seven years in captivity, forty-two months of that time in solitary confinement. They treated him like any other prisoner—terribly.
In his book Captive Warriors-- A Vietnam POW’s Story Sam relates how God sustained him through the long captivity of torture and pain, and the emaciation he endured. He subsisted on a diet of small portions of the rice and pumpkin soup they fed him. He was isolated from other prisoners in a three foot by nine foot cement cell along with dirt, grime and filth. Sam was completely alone. There were just bugs, spiders, flies, mosquitoes, an occasional rat and Sam.
Sam experienced great loneliness and could have given up in despair. Instead, he gave his all to the Lord—he put all his fears, anxieties and feelings of isolation into the Lord’s hands. When he thought he could stand the isolation no longer, he felt the Lord’s presence surround him. This gave Sam renewed strength and courage to go on. He became more and more resolved to resist the enemy and not give up.
As he became closer to God and focused on Him, Sam was surprised all that he could remember and recall, from Bible verses and stories learned as a child to hymns sung many years before. Even when the guards increased their patrols and vigilance and he was stopped from any communication with other POWs, Sam could still talk freely with God.
He knew God was with him every moment he spent alone in the constraint of the dark and filthy cell. He was certain God heard his prayers and provided the recall of those Bible stories and verses, as he needed them to sustain and strengthen his trust in the Lord. He would need that trust in the long days and nights that he still had to experience.
During those seven years Sam was placed for lengths of time in wooden leg stocks followed by time in leg irons. He noticed that the swelling of his ankles would lessen after being in the leg stocks, so when the irons were put back on, they would be looser. He said prayers of thanks to God for that relief.
Because the prisoners could not see one another, they devised a way to communicate with each other by tapping a code on the wall. One time Sam tapped a message asking who could name all sixty-six books of the Bible. To his surprise, he himself remembered all of them. He was even able to recall some of the book groupings, like the Pentateuch, major and minor prophets, etc.
The prison authority thought they could upset the prisoners’ communication system by moving prisoners around and mixing them up. Instead they actually improved it. Each one trained another prisoner to use the special tapping code they had devised. They never saw one another nor knew what other prisoners looked like except maybe through a crack in a door. In case he ever got out of prison and back home, Sam committed to memory several hundred names of other POWs. He did this just by tapping the code on the wall.
Sam relates that one day a typhoon storm raged. A nearby river overflowed its banks, and he watched the water pour into his cell. He was standing on the slab which was about two feet higher than the floor. He pleaded with God to save him and the others. Night fell and gradually the rain began to stop. The next morning Sam looked out his cell’s small, barred window and saw a marvelous sight—an absolutely perfect rainbow! He knew God had meant it for him. Sam said, “I see it Lord….Your promise.” (I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. Genesis 9:13)
Answers to his prayers surprised Sam in other ways, too. Unknown to the prisoners, negotiations for their release were taking place and they began to be treated more humanely. In addition to the improved treatment, the prisoners were fed better food, along with hot, fresh French bread. When Sam was captured, he weighed 190 lbs. His lowest weight in captivity was 120 lbs. As the time for his release drew nearer, the captors had fattened him up to about 150 lbs.
The POWs were also allowed to have worship on Easter, and then on other Sundays as well. Music and singing of Christmas carols and hymns followed. Sam relates, “I had seen the hand of God at work too often not to recognize His touch at this time. For me, all these things were more evidence of God’s great grace.”
Despite his hesitation to do so, Sam often led the singing. The men sang Silent Night, followed by the Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, etc.
It may not have been like the voices of a trained choir, but to the men it was beautiful and meaningful. Sam wrote in his book, “I felt a surge of victory inside. The American spirit had not been crushed. Years of captivity, torture, and starvation had not destroyed the souls of the nearly 350 American POWs in Camp Unity. Our bodies might be mangled and scarred, but our spirits remained intact.”
Sam says he felt like that without God by his side he never would have made it. He said he thought of his family all the time and hoped they were okay. His wife, Shirley, didn't know for two and a half years that he was anything but MIA -- Missing In Action. Finally she was told that Sam was a POW. He was released from captivity on February 12, 1973.
Sam retired after nearly thirty years of service in the Air Force. He earned two silver stars, a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts, four air medals and two Legions of Merit. Between the Korean and Viet Nam wars he was a “top gun” and flew with the Thunderbirds precision flying team in an F100C Sabre in both the solo and slot positions. When the six airplanes fly as a team the wing tips of the planes are as close as eighteen to thirty-six inches apart.
Sam relates in his book, “Years later I learned that Buzz (Aldrin--with whom Sam had shared a number of combat missions in North Korea), had thought of me during his flight into space to the moon. He had looked down on Southeast Asia from thousands of miles above the earth’s atmosphere and wondered if I was still alive….if I would ever make it home again. His first book, Return to Earth, dedicated to his wife, included a thought for me as well. My eyes blurred when I saw it for the first time and read the words: ‘for Sam….whose place I took, who took my place…’”
Surely God sustained Sam Johnson. He is currently serving as the United States Congressman from the 3rd District in Texas, a position he has held for thirteen terms (since 1991). In 2017 he announced his plans to retire, "After much prayer, I have decided I will not seek re-election to serve the Third District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. This will be my final term in the appropriately named 'People’s House.’” Sam’s wife, Shirley, “graduated” into heaven in 2015.
One of Sam’s favorite scripture verses is Isaiah 40:29-31: "He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”
The photo of Hoa Lo Prison is courtesy of TripAdvisor https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/93/ac/ae/solitary-confinement.jpg