Today residents of Plano paid their respects to local legend Sam Johnson with a public procession though downtown. He died in Plano on May 27 at age 89.
The funeral procession passed through the same area where he was honored 47 years ago for his heroic service in the Vietnam War. Former President George W. Bush remembered him as a man of humility and patriotism.
“Laura and I join our community in giving thanks for the life of Sam Johnson,” he said in a May 27 statement. “He served our country with dignity for nearly 30 years in the United States Congress.”
Before going into politics, Johnson spent 29 years in the Air Force. He flew combat missions in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In April 1966, during his 25th Vietnam mission, he was hit by enemy fire and forced to eject.
Johnson was captured by the North Vietnamese and held for seven years. During his fall he sustained a broken back, broken arm and a dislocated shoulder. His captors refused to treat his injuries, instead torturing him for years. He was held in solitary confinement for 42 months.
Throughout the ordeal his wife Shirley worked with other POW wives to pressure Congress and keep attention on their missing husbands. Friends said that Shirley would set an extra place at dinner each night in case he came home. When she died in December 2015 at age 85, Johnson said the two shared a “love story for the ages.”
“Farewell to our hero, Congressman Sam Johnson. You are now with your beloved wife, Shirley,” Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere Tweeted on the day Johnson died. “I know she has been waiting for you just like she waited for you before. I am not sad. I am happy you two are reunited.”
Johnson returned home in 1973 to a hero’s welcome in Plano. In a 2016 interview, he said the event ranked among his most treasured memories. Plano resident Anne Hussey said she was present both times Johnson was honored with a procession through downtown.
“I was here for the first parade in ’73, especially because of [his daughter] Beverly, my good friend from high school. I was so proud to have her father return home after all he went through serving our country.”
She wore Johnson’s silver POW bracelet to this morning’s service, which many Plano residents wore during the time Johnson was held captive. “Beverly sold these and we all were honored to buy them,” Anne remembered.
Johnson retired from the military in 1979 and focused on his home-building business. In 1984, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. He served three terms before running for Congress in 1991. He would go on to serve 13 more terms before announcing in 2017 he would not seek reelection the following year. At the time of his retirement he was the oldest sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a congressman, Johnson was an unabashed conservative. However, he was not afraid to take on fellow Republicans if they crossed certain lines. In 2015, he famously rebuked then presidential candidate Donald Trump for his mocking of former Vietnam POW John McCain. In response to Trump saying, “I like the people who weren’t captured,” Johnson penned an essay in which he wrote that the so-called Hanoi Hilton where he was tortured was no Trump Hotel. According to him, comments suggesting captured solders were somehow less brave were not only misguided but also ungrateful and naïve.
“I hold the deep conviction that our country should respect the service of all our faithful troops and veterans,” he 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.”
Johnson will be buried next to his wife, Shirley, at Restland Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas. He was also preceded in death by his son, James Robert “Bob” Johnson. He survived by his daughters, Beverly Briney and Gini Mulligan, as well as 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
What a special tribute for a special man. Well written, Josh. And the cover photo is a fitting reflection of Sam Johnson’s unquestioned patriotism. Plano Magazine readers are fortunate to have your perspective to give voice to the stories of our times.