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Home Politics Sam Johnson, Congressman and Former P.O.W., Is Dead at 89

Sam Johnson, Congressman and Former P.O.W., Is Dead at 89

Sam Johnson, a former military pilot who suffered torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for nearly seven years, part of that time alongside John McCain, then came home to Texas to serve for 28 years in Congress, died on Wednesday in Plano, Texas. He was 89.

A family representative, Ray Sullivan, confirmed the death, at a hospital.

As a member of Congress representing a conservative suburban district north of Dallas, Mr. Johnson, a 29-year veteran of the Air Force, was an ardent champion of American troops and veterans and sought to bring financial stability to the Social Security program.

Though reliably conservative, he was willing to work across the aisle to pass legislation. Representative Lloyd Doggett, a liberal fellow Texan who represents Austin, recalled in an interview that in 2015 he and Mr. Johnson joined forces on a privacy measure that altered Medicare cards so that they no longer displayed Social Security numbers.

“We seldom agreed on anything” in politics, Mr. Doggett said, but “I had immense respect for him.”

“You could see from looking at him,” he added, “looking at his hand, that he went through such brutality in Vietnam — and really was a true American hero.”

In the 2000 presidential primaries, despite having shared a cell with Mr. McCain in the quarters that its prisoners called the “Hanoi Hilton,” Mr. Johnson endorsed George W. Bush for the Republican nomination over Mr. McCain, who by then was a United States senator from Arizona.

In 2004, Mr. Johnson disparaged another Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, who as a young decorated Vietnam veteran had taken a public stance against the war. Mr. Johnson called him “Hanoi John.”

And in 2015, in an essay in Politico, he criticized Donald J. Trump, then a Republican candidate for president, for his comments belittling Senator Mr. McCain for having been captured in North Vietnam.

Comments “suggesting that veterans like Senator John McCain or any other of America’s honorable P.O.W.s are less brave for having been captured,” Mr. Johnson wrote, “are not only misguided — they are ungrateful and naïve.”

Samuel Robert Johnson Jr. was born Oct. 11, 1930, in San Antonio to Samuel and Mima (Nabors) Johnson. His father was in the insurance business, and his mother worked for Western Union.

He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas and attended Southern Methodist University there, from which he graduated in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, focusing on insurance and real estate.

After joining the Air Force, he flew 62 combat missions in the Korean War and 25 in the Vietnam War. He was shot down on that 25th mission, after the famously balky guns of his F-4 Phantom II jammed.

Parachuting out of the jet, which was on fire, he broke his back and his right arm and severely injured his left arm on striking the ground in North Vietnamese territory, where he was captured — a sequence of events that paralleled what happened to Mr. McCain.

At the Hanoi Hilton, the torture was unending. When not being interrogated or beaten in the rat-infested prison, Mr. Johnson was often immobilized in leg stocks, he recalled in “Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story” (1992, with Jan Winebrenner).

Of Mr. Johnson’s nearly seven years in captivity, 42 months were in solitary confinement — the punishment for “hard-core resisters,” as he put it. These included Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., a Navy commander who, like Mr. McCain, would serve in the United States Senate, and James B. Stockdale, a decorated Navy pilot who would become Ross Perot’s running mate in his 1992 run for the presidency.

Mr. Denton, who famously blinked the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code during a North Vietnamese propaganda broadcast, taught Mr. Johnson a “tap code” so that they could communicate through the walls of their cells. Mr. Denton later led a camp hunger strike that got Mr. Johnson released from solitary confinement after three and a half years.

He was released from the prison altogether in 1973. After returning from Vietnam, he attended the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, receiving a master’s degree in 1976.

He retired from the military in 1979 as a colonel, having earned two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star with valor. He was selected to fly with the Thunderbirds, the precision Air Force flying team.

While a student at S.M.U., Mr. Johnson had met Shirley Melton, and they married in 1950. In Korea, he named his F-86 Shirley’s Texas Tornado. She died in 2015. Their son, James, died in 2013.

His survivors include his daughters, Beverly Briney and Gini Mulligan; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Johnson won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1984 and served there until 1991, when he successfully ran for Congress in a special election. He announced his retirement from the House of Representatives in 2017, saying he would not seek re-election in 2018.

Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and secretary of energy, began his own state legislative career the same year Mr. Johnson did, 1985. A former Air Force pilot himself, Mr. Perry acknowledged in a phone interview that he had been awed by Mr. Johnson, whose reputation as a famous flier and war hero preceded him.

“If I am having a bad day and feeling sorry for myself, very often my good angel reminds me of people like Sam Johnson, what they went through,” Mr. Perry said.

He recalled that in 1990, Mr. Johnson was flying his six-seater Piper PA-32 airplane near Dallas when it developed mechanical problems and crash-landed. Mr. Johnson suffered burns over 16 percent of his body. (His co-pilot and one of his two passengers were also hospitalized.)

When Mr. Perry saw Mr. Johnson again after the accident, he recalled, he joked, “Man, you can’t keep those airplanes in the sky!”

Mr. Johnson responded, “At least I didn’t get shot down this time.”

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