Firsthand Account of Congressman Sam Johnson, Vietnam War POW

Congressman Sam Johnson, first elected in 1991 to represent the Plano area, spent twenty-nine years in the United States Air Force, where he distinguished himself piloting missions in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring in 1979 as a colonel. His F-4 Phantom was shot down in 1966 while flying his twenty-fifth combat mission over North Vietnam, where he was subsequently captured. Johnson spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Hỏa Lò Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” during which he was subjected to repeated torture and forty-two months of solitary confinement. Congressman Johnson described his ordeal in detail in his memoir Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story (Texas A&M University Press, 1992). The following excerpts from Captive Warriors detail his arrival and first hours at the prison.

All night and half of the next day we traveled toward Hanoi at a furious speed. As we neared the city, I could see railroads and stockpiles of rail supplies ready in case of bombings. Workmen were busy repairing bomb damage even as we drove by. Camouflage nets lay everywhere—over railroad cars and engines, over bridges and supplies. Some bridges were half-buried in debris and netting to make them appear as though they had already been a bomber’s target.

Hanoi bustled like every other oriental city I’d seen. A passenger train sped past, streetcars ran, bicycles rolled by, and crowds moved in every direction past shopkeepers and shouting street vendors, as if oblivious to the fact that a war was in progress.

Our arrival at Hanoi’s Hỏa Lò Prison was an event I will never forget. Adept as I was at peering under the blindfold, not a detail of North Vietnam’s penitentiary escaped me. We turned down Hỏa Lò Street and approached a tall, grimy, yellowish wall of concrete. Crossing a wide cobblestoned alley that encircled the prison like a moat, we entered through a gate and a tunnel-like pass cut in the wall.

I shuddered as a set of iron gates clanked shut behind me. The truck drove forward, taking us into the middle of a large courtyard flanked by dirty, once-white buildings. Another gate slammed shut behind me, closing the door on all hope of freedom. A sense of finality fell on me, as though dirt were being sprinkled on my coffin.

Rough hands pulled me from the truck and prodded me toward a building and into a room that held a single desk.

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