MCKINNEY, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – A ceremony to present the portrait of decorated combat veteran, and former Prisoner of War — the late United States Congressman Samuel Robert Johnson — is scheduled for November 7, at 11:30 a.m. at the Russell A. Steindam Courts Building in McKinney.
The portrait by local artist and US Air Force veteran Colin Kimball, is the latest presentation by the North Texas Fallen Warrior Portrait Project. Johnson’s portrait will share a spot among the many young heroes enshrined in the “Hall of Honor” in the Collin County Courthouse who have died for America.
Born on October 11, 1930, in San Antonio, Johnson graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas. While attending Southern Methodist University (SMU), he married his high school sweetheart, Shirley Melton, who passed away in 2015.
After earning a degree in Business Administration from SMU in 1950, military leaders called his entire ROTC class up for service. Despite never stepping foot inside of an airplane, much less flying one, Johnson applied for flight school and was accepted. He quickly left for Korea where he would fly 62 combat missions in his F-86 Sabre christened “Shirley’s Texas Tornado”.
Johnson flew with the Air Force’s precision flying team, the Thunderbirds, in his F-100 Super Sabre all across North and South America. He flew the positions of Slot Man and Solo. Sam relished retelling stories about how his supersonic Thunderbirds flew before the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) so they could do all sorts of tricks now prohibited, like drop sonic booms, according to his obituary.
After enjoying success as a fighter pilot, military leaders appointed Johnson to run the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada (the U.S. Air Force’s version of Top Gun.) Always curious about ways to improve strategy in the cockpit and American air dominance, according to his obituary, Johnson invented three-dimensional flight with aviation legend John Boyd. The Air Force still teaches these fundamentals today.
Once America’s engagement in Vietnam began to escalate, Johnson volunteered to serve in the effort. At this time, the family relocated to Plano, to live near Shirley’s relatives.
On April 16, 1966, during his second tour of duty, Johnson flew his 25th and last mission in his F-4 Phantom. Shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for 2,500 days, Johnson spent nearly seven years as a Prisoner of War. Shirley did not know if he was dead or alive for two years, according to his obituary.
Johnson chronicled his POW experience of torture, broken back, dislocated shoulder and 3 1/2 years in solitary confinement in his autobiography, Captive Warriors. The book details his story as one of the eleven self-named “Alcatraz Gang.”
Johnson prayed nonstop and communicated with fellow POWs by tapping on the walls in a secret code. Together this so-called Band of Brothers vowed when, not if, they returned home, they would quit griping about the government and do something about it.
Eventually, Johnson returned home as part of the initial round of Operation Homecoming in February 1973.
Continuing in his Air Force career, Johnson earned his Master’s Degree in International Affairs from George Washington University, graduated from the National War College, served as Wing Commander of the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Homestead AFB, Florida flying F-4s, and finally served as Air Division Commander at Holloman AFB, New Mexico flying F-15s, where he retired a Colonel. During his 29-year Air Force career, for his service and bravery to this country, the military awarded Johnson 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.
Despite Johnson’s courage and impressive accolades, he did not like to be called a hero, according to his obituary. On the contrary, he often liked to “salute” people of all walks of life who inspired him. He would say “you are the hero.” After retiring from the Air Force, the Johnsons returned to Plano where they started a home building business.
Soon after, Sam won an election for the Texas State House and a seat on the vaunted Ways and Means Committee. In 1991, Sam won a special election to Congress.
An ardent conservative, Johnson helped create the Republican Study Committee, originally known as the Conservative Action Team (CATS). Johnson served as an Assistant Whip and then Deputy Whip to the Majority Whips to “grow-the-vote” for Republican initiatives in the House. During his congressional tenure, Johnson worked tirelessly for local veterans laboring behind the scenes to secure two veterans health clinics in Plano.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society bestowed Sam the National Patriot Award, their highest civilian accolade. Johnson also served as a Regent for the Smithsonian Institution.
The portrait plaque reads as follows:
SAMUEL ROBERT JOHNSON, 89, Plano; Colonel, United State Air Force, Texas State Representative and United States Congressman. Graduating from SMU in 1951, he entered the Air Force from the Reserve Officer Training Corps and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. As an F-86 fighter pilot in the Korean War, he was credited with shooting down one MIG 15, one probable, and damaging another. After the Korean War, Johnson Flew as a demonstration pilot for the US Air Force Thunderbirds and became an instructor at the Fighter Weapons School where he helped pioneer important fighter tactics.
On his second tour of duty in Vietnam, Johnson was shot down flying an F-4C over North Vietnam on 16 April 1966. He became a Prisoner of War (POW) and was placed in solitary confinement for 42 months, shackled nightly in leg irons in a windowless 3-by-9 foot cell with a single incandescent light that remained on 24 hours a day. Johnson was one of 11 POW’s known as the Alcatraz Gang for their fierce and stubborn resistance that were singled out and subjected to some of the harshest treatment by their captors. His faith in God allowed him to endure unimaginable inhumane treatment and he returned home with honor as one of the 591 POWs that were liberated in February 1973. Although his right hand was permanently crippled, he remained in the Air Force and regained flight status as a fighter pilot retiring in 1979.
Coming home to Plano, Texas, Johnson was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984 where he served seven years before being elected to the US House of Representatives for District 3 where he served for 26 years. He was the last Korean War veteran to serve in Congress.
Col Sam Johnson passed away on 27 May 2020 and is buried at Restland Memorial Park in Dallas.
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