Heard on the Hill

John McCain’s Cellmate: No More ‘Hell on Earth’

Hanoi Hilton survivor taps out a tribute to his late colleague

Sen. John McCain greets fellow Vietnam veteran Rep. Sam Johnson in 2008. The Texas Republican honored his colleague Thursday. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Retiring Rep. Sam Johnson saluted his fellow former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain, on the House floor Thursday night.

“John was more than just a colleague in Congress. We were friends, and that friendship was forged in the infamous Hanoi Hilton,” Johnson said. The two shared a cell.

“I could testify to the fact that John did everything he could to defend our freedom … not just on that hell on earth,” he said. “John, we will remember your strength of spirit, your commitment to our service members and our democracy and your love of country.”

The Texas Republican tapped on the podium to re-enact the message that POWs would use to resist their captors and speak to one another. “God bless you partner, I salute you,” he said.

GOP Rep. French Hill of Arkansas arranged the special order in honor of McCain, which involved speeches from several lawmakers Thursday night.

“It may be unusual that a member from Arkansas would lead a tribute in honor of our distinguished former colleague,” Hill said. Hill worked on the personal staff and on the Senate Banking Committee for former Sen. John Tower of Texas. At that time, McCain was a military liaison to Congress.

“You couldn’t work for John Tower and not be a friend of John McCain,” he said.

Hill recalled that McCain worked to get Tower voted in as President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 1989.

“In the minutes before that failed vote in the senate, McCain turned to Tower and said, ‘God Bless you John Tower, you’re a damn fine sailor,’” Hill said.

Among the other members who participated by sharing their favorite stories about were Republicans Jeff Denham of California and David Schweikert of Arizona, along with Democrats Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Jim Costa of California.

McCain died in late August after a battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer, setting off a torrent of tributes from constituents, dignitaries and colleagues in Congress.

Watch: 38 Former Members Who Died This Past Year Honored at Capitol


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