Former Rep. Sam Johnson, a Vietnam POW, has died at 89

Texas Republican was a longtime member of the Ways and Means Committee

Former Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, died on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, died on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 27, 2020 at 9:57pm

Former Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican and decorated Air Force pilot who spent nearly seven years held captive at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, died Wednesday at the age of 89.

Johnson, a former chairman of the key House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, served nearly 28 years in the House and retired when his last term ended in January 2019.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1930, Johnson served in the Air Force during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

On a mission near North Vietnam, the plane he was piloting took fire and was hit. Johnson and his co-pilot bailed and were captured by the North Vietnamese. Johnson was a prisoner of war for seven years and for a time shared a cell in the Hoa Lo prison, dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, with Navy pilot John McCain. McCain would also later get elected to the House and then the Senate; the Arizona Republican died in August 2018.

Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican and the current ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee, reflected on Johnson’s life.

“From the skies over North Korea to the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ to the Halls of Congress, America has known few patriots as great as Sam Johnson. A lifelong Texan and a dear friend, Sam was a true American hero,” Brady said in a statement. “I was blessed to sit next to him for many years on the Ways and Means Committee and, as chairman, I successfully urged the House to name the Sam Johnson Room in the Rayburn House Office Building in his honor.”

After serving in the Air Force for 29 years, Johnson started a home construction business in Texas and later served in the state Legislature.

He was elected to Congress in 1991 in a special election to replace Republican Steve Bartlett, who resigned to run for mayor of Dallas. Johnson easily won reelection after that first race for the House.

A staunch conservative, Johnson was a founder of the Conservative Action Team, now known as the Republican Study Committee. He also served in the GOP leadership as a deputy whip. While Johnson was one of the most conservative lawmakers during his time in the House, he also was known for his bipartisan efforts.

Former Rep. Sam Johnson joined then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to pay respects to the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the Capitol Rotunda. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

He worked across the aisle to develop immigration legislation and also worked with Democrats on Social Security measures. Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said in a statement that he appreciated Johnson’s “fair and thoughtful leadership” of the Social Security Subcommittee.

“Members on both sides of the aisle valued his kindness and good humor and will surely miss him greatly,” Neal said.

Brady said Johnson’s “legislative achievements are nothing short of extraordinary. ... He helped strengthen Social Security, made health care work better for our nation’s veterans; he sought to improve our health care system at every turn, and he was part of a generational rewrite of our nation’s tax code.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.