09/23/07 — Seymour Johnson ceremony honors POWs and MIAs

View Archive

Seymour Johnson ceremony honors POWs and MIAs

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 23, 2007 2:07 AM

Sam Johnson can still smell the musty floors of a Vietnam prison cell he called home for nearly seven years.

He relives the torture -- the day an enemy soldier pulled his arm back until it snapped, the beatings and the almost-always empty stomach he could not fill with daily cups of light tea and boiled grass.

So when the 77-year-old addressed members of the 4th Fighter Wing and 916th Air Refueling Wing Friday on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the airmen on hand could see tears rolling off his checks every so often.

Hundreds gathered at Heritage Park for an annual ceremony, one meant to pay tribute to former and current POWs and MIAs.

Johnson, a former 4th Fighter Wing vice commander and current Texas congressman, was once one of them.

It was a routine night in Vietnam.

Johnson and his wingman were charged with a reconnaissance mission, one his commander hoped would end with an ammunition find along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

But there was something different about this F-4 flight.

"As we flew over, we could see them on the ground loading ammo into boats," Johnson said. "We didn't have the correct munitions, but we decided we would stop them anyway."

In fact, the aircraft was only equipped with a half-dozen cans of napalm and a gun mounted on its belly.

"I told my wingman, 'You go left and I'll go right. We'll split their fire,'" Johnson said. "Usually, when you're running in low on a napalm run, you're down between 30 and 50 feet. You would fire the gun to keep their heads down -- keeps them from firing back at you. But the gun wouldn't fire, and we took a hit."

The command pilot attempted to pull up, but it was too late.

"By the time I pulled it up, we got hit with bigger guns," Johnson said. "It was the only time I ever saw all the lights on the F-4 go on, including the 'Fire Warning.' I thought we would make the jungle, but we didn't."

As the plane crashed, two American airmen were on their way to the ground, too, via parachute -- having successfully ejected from the cockpit.

"We landed right in the middle of a whole division of North Vietnamese troops and that was that," Johnson said. "You know, they tell you, 'If you're running the plane at 1000 mph, they can't hit you.' That's bologna."

There was no room for fear.

Johnson was more focused, he said, on the pain associated with his mangled right arm -- a byproduct of a rough ejection.

The week that followed brought with it beatings and threats of death from enemy troops holding AK-47s.

But the airman will tell you the worst was yet to come.

The real hardship came only when the men were transported to Hanoi -- on foot.

"The roads were all torn up because we had bombed the heck out of them, so you moved real slowly," Johnson said. "They walked you through the streets and people threw rocks and beat on you."

But he would later find that a humiliating walk through enemy territory was "nothing" compared to the seven years he would spend as a captive.

"I think the worst part was the first few days," he said. "You were put in isolation and the enemy would come in and try to get military information from you. They had hooks on the ceiling to hang you from and everything.

"But I was hurting so much from getting out of that airplane that the torture didn't matter to me. I didn't tell them anything," he added."Not even when they took my arm back and brought it all around and pulled it until it broke. And they did that twice."

The torture and starvation tactics came and went for close to seven years.

Johnson said the only thing that kept him going was the thought of coming home one day -- and on-and-off communication with other captured Americans.

"The cell walls were made of brick, and they carried sound well. And they gave us these tin cups to drink out of," Johnson said. "So you could put the cup on the wall and amplify the sound to communicate back and forth. But if they caught you, they would put you in irons or tie your hands behind your back. The guys, they called me an opportunist because every time I talked, I had heard something that led me to believe the war was going to end. But it didn't."

Their release, he added, was not the result of an American victory but a "deal."

"We were elated," Johnson said. "They pushed up right until the end and told us we weren't going home, that America had turned her back on us. I knew she wouldn't."

Just then, rain began pounding harder at Seymour Johnson and the congressman cut his story short.

But before he did, Johnson saluted the audience one more time -- the airmen, distinguished guests, veterans and retirees -- with the arm twice-broken during his stay in Hanoi.

Many cried -- for those currently missing in countries across the globe, for members of Team Seymour currently at war and for Johnson, their fellow airman, who had endured so much to make it back home.

"You men and women are now the ones fighting for our freedom," Johnson said. "(In Hanoi), we use to sign off with something like this ... God bless you."