Sam Johnson

(AP) — Former Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a military pilot who spent years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam before serving more than two decades in Congress, died Wednesday at age 89.

The conservative Republican, who lived in the northern Dallas suburb of Plano, died at a Plano hospital of natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, said his former spokesman, Ray Sullivan.

Johnson flew nearly 100 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. He was flying a bombing mission in 1966 when he was shot down and wounded. He was imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for nearly seven years, mostly in solitary confinement. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1979, after a 29-year career.

The ardent conservative and anti-communist was elected to Congress in 1991 after six years in the Texas House of Representatives. He vowed to stay a maximum of 12 years, though he served more than double that.

Johnson announced in January 2017 that he would retire at the end of his term. When Johnson stepped down in 2019, at age 88, he was the oldest member of the U.S. House.

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 his hometown’s Southern Methodist University with a degree in business administration.

Johnson enlisted in the military at age 20 and served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was 35 on April 16, 1966, and flying a night mission carrying loads of napalm, when his aircraft came under heavy enemy fire over Vietnam.

The gun of Johnson’s F-4 Phantom II jammed and the plane was hit. Its right engine caught fire, forcing Johnson and co-pilot Larry Chesley to eject, and the future congressman broke his arm and back and dislocated his shoulder.

Johnson recalled trudging through the jungle before being surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers who took him to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)