By Kris Kitto - 10/07/09 11:26 PM EDT
On Saturday, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society is giving Johnson its highest civilian award, the National Patriots Award, bestowed upon people it calls “distinguished Americans who exemplify the ideals that make our country strong.”
Johnson said he’s “in awe” of being in the company of the Medal of Honor recipients.
“Those guys are the greatest patriots America could ever ask for,” he said. “I know how much they sacrificed to get the Medal of Honor, and I don’t take their recognition lightly.”
The CMHS cited Johnson’s 29 years in the Air Force, nearly seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and 18 years as a member of Congress as the impetus for the distinction.
Mike Thornton, a Medal of Honor recipient and former CMHS board member, submitted Johnson’s name for the society’s 2009 awards.
Johnson “never gave up,” Thornton said.
“Even after coming home and being crippled, Sam still served his country,” he said.
To this day, Johnson remains severely disabled as a result of the torture he endured while in captivity.
“I think you have to respect a man that believes in this country so much that after being a POW, he continued to serve in uniform as well as in Congress,” Thornton said.
Johnson spent almost seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after his plane was shot down in 1966. He spent three and a half of those years in solitary confinement, 72 days in leg stocks and two and a half years in leg irons. He lost 80 pounds, subsisting mostly on river weeds, pig fat, white rice and pumpkin soup. He used a special finger-tapping code to commit 374 of his fellow prisoners’ names to memory so that, if he escaped, he could tell officials and their loved ones that they were still alive.
Johnson was freed in 1973. He came to Congress in 1991 after retiring from the Air Force, starting a homebuilding business and serving in the Texas Legislature.
He said he has not tired of talking about his POW experience.
“I think people need to know what happened over there,” Johnson said. “It’s part of our history.”
Past recipients of the CMHS awards include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), two-time presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, former first lady Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Johnson is scheduled to receive the award Saturday at a gala in Dallas.