- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

After 33 years, Rep. Sam Johnson decided it was time to go back. Last month, with his wife, Shirley, at his side, the Texas Republican returned to the infamous Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, where he was held for nearly sevenyears during the Vietnam War.

Sitting in his Capitol Hill office, surrounded by books, Texas memorabilia and photos of family and political leaders, Mr. Johnson, 75, quietly recounted what it was like to revisit the land where he flew numerous combat missions as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.

Those missions ended at dusk on April 16, 1966, when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam and he was taken prisoner. For the next several years, he was subject to beatings, torture, starvation and solitary confinement.

“That’s why it looks like this,” he said, motioning toward his right arm dangling limp at his side. He broke the arm when his plane went down, but his captors broke it twice more.

Sunday will mark 33 years since his release. For most of those years, he said, “I just didn’t think I wanted to go back.”

But when he was invited to join other members of Congress for an official trip to Vietnam and other Asian countries last month, he signed up.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity for Shirley to see for herself what it was like,” he said. And it would be “a-once-in-a-lifetime” chance to press Vietnamese officials on the whereabouts of 1,800 still-missing U.S. troops. “For my friends who didn’t make it home, Shirley and I knew we had to go,” the congressman wrote in his monthly column issued this week.

The prison was known as the “Hanoi Hilton” to its captives, who also included John McCain, now a Republican senator from Arizona, and Navy Vice Adm. James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot’s running mate in his 1992 bid for president.

It wasn’t on the delegation’s official itinerary last month, but the Johnsons made a special request to visit the site. Most of the original prison has been torn down. What remains has been turned into a museum detailing French mistreatment of the Vietnamese.

The congressional group followed a young Vietnamese tour guide through concrete hallways and rooms, but Mr. Johnson wrote that he “passed as if in a dream” through “what used to be my own hell on earth.”

Still, he wanted to relay his story to his fellow tourists. When they came to a room with a model of the original prison, Mr. Johnson pointed out the rooms where he had been held.

The young Vietnamese woman described the humane treatment of U.S. captives, and Mr. Johnson quietly corrected. “I’d let her finish, and then I’d tell the guys what the real story was,” he said.

Mr. Johnson spent 3½ years in solitary confinement, 2½ years in leg irons and 72 days in leg stocks.

Mrs. Johnson, who raised three children not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead for the first two years of his captivity, was overwhelmed by the sight of the small dank rooms, concrete beds and leg stocks.

“Even being as close to him as we have been all these years,” the petite, white-haired Mrs. Johnson said, her voice trailing off. “I know how strong he is, but it was more than I anticipated.”

The Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives and a member of the delegation, said that witnessing the Johnsons’ emotional journey through the prison was “the most memorable moment” of the 10-day trip.

He said the climax came when the group posed for a picture in front of “the flier’s cell” and Mrs. Johnson stepped closer to her husband to support him in what she knew was a particularly tough moment. “If you were near enough to them, you could see Sam lean against her and hear him whisper, ‘Thank you dear,’ ” Father Coughlin recalls.

Mr. Johnson broke down as his wife of 55 years became increasingly upset. “There might have been a few tears,” he said. “But the reason was because Shirley was weepy; she didn’t realize it was as bad as it was.”

The Johnsons normally do not express their faith outwardly, but Mr. Johnson wrote in his column: “Only God could get me through seven years in Vietnam. Only God could get me through this visit back.”

“We know [God] is in control,” said Mrs. Johnson, 75, who prayed for her husband every night for seven years while he was imprisoned, and helped start the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

Through the tough recollection about his past, Mr. Johnson managed to maintain a sense of humor, joking that he was glad he didn’t encounter any of his former captors during the trip, because “I think I may have punched them in the nose.”

Mr. Johnson spent 29 years in the Air Force as a fighter pilot, flying 62 combat missions during the Korean War in his F-86 — Shirley’s Texas Tornado — and 25 F-4 Phantom combat missions during the Vietnam War.

Joining him and his wife on the trip to India, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Hawaii were Reps. Jerry F. Costello, Illinois Democrat; Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat; Bobby Jindal, Louisiana Republican; Greg Walden, Oregon Republican; Paul E. Gilmor, Ohio Republican; and Kay Granger, Texas Republican.

Mrs. Granger said the journey was emotional for all, but the delegation was thankful that the Johnsons shared their “incredibly personal” visit to the prison.

“Everybody on the visit could hardly look at him because we were so moved,” Mrs. Granger said.

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