Former U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas congressman for more than 25 years and Vietnam War hero, died Wednesday in Plano, a family spokesperson said. He was 89.
First elected to Congress in 1991, Johnson gained a reputation as a strong conservative voice in the Texas delegation. In 2010, he was tied for the most conservative member of Congress, according to the National Journal’s rankings.
Johnson flew combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars as a fighter pilot. While flying over North Vietnam in 1966, his plane was struck down. He was held as a prisoner of war for nearly seven years, including a stint at the Hoa Lo Prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Born Oct. 11, 1930, in San Antonio, Johnson graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas. He then attended Southern Methodist University.
During his 29 years in the Air Force, Johnson flew 87 combat missions. He also had a stint as director of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, the institution known among pilots as “Top Gun.”
Although he shared a cell at the Hanoi Hilton with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the two had a rocky political relationship. In 2000, Johnson backed Bush over his former cellmate for president.
In a July 2015 Politico Magazine article, Johnson criticized Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, for comments disparaging McCain and other POWs for having been caught.
“I hold the deep conviction that our country should respect the service of all our faithful troops and veterans,” Johnson wrote. “Diminishing the courage and patriotism it takes to leave your family, face the enemy and even — God forbid — endure wartime torture has no place in a post-Vietnam America.”
He wrote more about his time as a POW in solitary confinement in his autobiography, "Captive Warriors."
Johnson is the recipient of two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, one Bronze Star with Valor, two Purple Hearts, four Air Medals and three Outstanding Unit Awards. Johnson accepted the Freedom of Flight award at the Living Legends of Aviation Awards, known colloquially as the Oscars of aviation, in 2011, according to his congressional biography.
After his service in Vietnam, Johnson returned to Texas, where he worked as a homebuilder. He served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1985 to 1991.
Johnson was first elected to Congress in 1991 during a special election in which he replaced Steve Bartlett, who resigned to become the mayor of Dallas. Although he placed second in the primary, he won in the runoff by emphasizing his wartime record in the deeply Republican district.
In the House, he was a founding member of the Conservative Action Team, now called the Republican Study Committee, a large GOP voting bloc. The group’s goals include passing a balanced budget amendment, defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, advancing socially conservative legislation and supporting the Second Amendment.
Johnson continued to focus on military issues while in Congress. He pushed to enact the Military Family Tax Relief Act of 2003, which both doubled the death benefit for active service members and reduced their federal income taxes.
He spoke passionately on the House floor in 2007 against setting arbitrary troop withdrawal deadlines in the Middle East.
“I know what it’s like to be far from home and hear that your country and your Congress don’t care about you,” he said in that speech.
Johnson defended the construction of the F-22 jet, which is produced in part at the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth near his district. His north-of-Dallas district has seen a recent population boom and is home to companies like Texas Instruments, J.C. Penney and Dr Pepper.
Johnson announced his retirement from Congress in January 2017. His seat is currently held by U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who was elected in November 2018.
“Sam Johnson was a legend – a real life legend,” Taylor said in a tweet Wednesday evening. “He spent nearly 7 years as a POW - but never broke and never wavered in his commitment to his country. He was the embodiment of an American hero and I'm blessed to have known Sam. Today, we mourn the passing of a true hero.”
In 2017, SMU announced that it planned to use a $100,000 donation from Johnson to create a scholarship in his name for military veterans starting in the 2018-2019 school year. In addition, Johnson donated his archive to the university.
“SMU helped shape me into the person I am today, and I can’t think of a better way to say thank you to my alma mater than with this scholarship and library gift,” Johnson said in an SMU statement. “I’m grateful to join SMU in making a commitment to the military and its families by helping these deserving individuals achieve their higher education.”
Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday asked all Texans to remember Johnson, who he called "a true Texas icon."
"Sam Johnson was a fearless patriot and an American hero, and we are incredibly proud and fortunate to have called him a fellow Texan," Abbott said in a statement. "Congressman Johnson dedicated his life to our nation and the state of Texas. He bravely served as a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and his profound sacrifice is something Texans will never forget. As a congressman, Sam Johnson served with integrity and was always guided by his principles and the needs of the Texans he served. Today, we mourn the loss of a great Texan, but we also remember his tremendous life and the legacy he leaves behind."
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