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.
A guard ordered, "Sit on floor," and then he walked out, leaving me alone with no food or water.
At about dusk, an officer and two guards entered the room. The guards pulled me to my feet, and as soon as the officer had seated himself at the desk, they pushed me down onto a small, four-legged stool that wobbled under my weight. The officer opened the desk, pulled out a recent issue of Time magazine, and slapped it down in front of him. He stared at me for a moment, and then, drawing himself up as tall as he could, he began speaking in perfect English.
"We know all about your military organization," he said. "specifically the Air Force."
He raised his eyebrows and peered down at me, waiting, watching for some reaction. I stared back at him. He was small and wiry-looking, with a thin, whisker-like mustache. His pointy face had a sort of rodent look about it, and I sensed he had a similar nature, as well. I learned later that the POWs here had nicknamed this official military interrogator the Rat. The name fit him well.
"We are not here to make you tell us anything," he continued in a sinister-smooth voice. "We just want to know how you lived, and a few things about your life on the base."
I figured he had intended to gain credibility with me by displaying the Time magazine, as if I would respect his knowledge of the world and see that he was able to discuss large and important matters. He kept waiting for me to look impressed.
"We know everything about your airplane, you know," he said. And to emphasize his words, he pulled out an Air Force magazine and plopped it down on the desk.
I suddenly felt like laughing. He wanted me to believe that he was highly informed on American military data because he had read a commercial magazine to which all the world had access. I knew immediately, if that were his source, he had no specifics of weapons or anything else of vital military importance. It was a façade, a front to make me think he understood the intricate workings of our military; it was an attempt to draw me into a discussion that would reveal classified military information. To me it was laughable. And ineffective.
"I am going to ask you some questions now." Rat straightened his shoulders and again pulled himself up to his full height. "You will answer them."
"I need some food," I answered. It was a stall, but it was also true I hadn't eaten all day.
"No!" he replied.
"I need water."
Again he answered, "No!"
A change had taken place, and I could feel it as clearly as one can feel the change in temperature when the summer sun sinks behind a mountain. I sensed that it was now time to begin taking things very seriously.
All that I had endured during that long and painful journey since shootdown nearly twenty-one days earlier was nothing compared to what I was about to experience. If I had thought I was at war before, I was about to learn that, until now, I had fought only minor skirmishes. The real war was about to begin.
The blows from the guards' rifles, the staged demonstrations en route to Hanoi, the efforts to separate [Larry] Chesley and me, the poor care and lack of medical treatment—these had been only a sampling of what I would be treated to in Hỏa Lò Prison. I knew I was about to begin fighting as I had never fought before, but without the benefit of the conventional weapons of war. It was psychological warfare. The only offense I had was my stubborn will to resist; my only defense, my wits. Yet I believed I was better equipped to win than were my opponents.
"Where are the air bases?"
"How many airplanes?"
It was time for the story Chesley and I had cooked up between us. It didn't seem to satisfy him.
"You think about it," he said, and strode out of the room.
I lay down on the concrete floor, finally yielding to the exhaustion that had been threatening to overwhelm me. Immediately a guard stepped into the room and ordered, "Sit up!" For hours I sat there, unable to lie down or even lean back against a wall.
"I need a bathroom," I said. My body ached all over. I had sat still for so long that I knew I had to move or fall over.
The guard scowled fiercely, walked out, and returned in a moment with a paint can so rusted that it crumbled when my hand touched it. It was to be the only toilet facility I would have for the next five years. It would become a trusted aid in the constant effort to communicate with fellow prisoners. It would hide messages and be a reason for leaving the cell and walking to the place where we emptied our refuse, offering one more opportunity for some means of communication with another POW.
Midnight came. The interrogation room was dimly lit by one bald light bulb that dangled from the ceiling. It seemed such a small light in such darkness.
More questions. More commands to "Sit up!" I refused to answer. I wondered if they might leave me alone because I looked so beaten, so pitifully ill. I had no strength and felt at times as though I were only half-conscious. What could they expect to gain from me?
Two guards studied me. "We will talk about it," they said and walked outside. Before I could even begin to hope for rest, another guard entered the room and pulled me to my feet. I was heavy for him, but he shoved me against the wall and pelted me with his fists. He landed his punches against my injured shoulder and arm with the precision of a gunner sighting in on a target. Though he wasn't a big man, he threw all his weight into each blow, and I was powerless to protect myself. I had never felt such pain. I slumped to the floor and lay there while he leaned over me and continued to pound on me until I was delirious. It suddenly didn't really matter any more what they did to me. I was beyond caring.
The two guards returned to the room. The "enforcer" yanked me into a sitting position on the floor, stepped back, and the questioning resumed.
"Tell us about your plane."
I was too groggy with pain to answer.
"What was your mission?"
Could they really expect me to be able to speak? I struggled to find the story I had prepared for them. It was somewhere in my brain. I found pieces of it floating in my delirium, but when I tried to tell it, it sounded unintelligible.
The interrogator nodded to the brute standing by, and he stepped back into action. Taking hold of my broken arm, he pulled it behind my back, straining it as far as it would go, and then he twisted it until the pain robbed me of consciousness. I don't know how long I was out, but when I came to, the room was empty, and I was lying on the floor.
The next day I waited, often in a stupor, for something to happen, but for hours I sat alone in that room. At the sound of every footstep and every voice I wondered what would happen to me next. I still hadn't eaten, and the mixture of pain and hunger produced an awful nausea. I was thirsty, tired, and in severe pain, but no one entered that room all day.
When the oppressing darkness of night settled in around me, the three men returned. Again, the two asked questions, and again I answered with the same answers. Again, the third guard, on command, grabbed my broken arm housed in its cracked cast, twisted it, and pulled it behind my back. When he was sure he had squeezed every ounce of pain out of that endeavor, he yanked my left arm behind my back, wrenching the dislocated shoulder. I could not believe a body could endure such excruciating pain and remain conscious. While I was gasping for breath and praying for oblivion, he reached for the right arm again and pulled both arms together behind my back, stretching them beyond the normal limits of their injured sockets. Nothing in my life had ever produced such pain.
Mercifully, blackness came over me, and the pain retreated to a distant place I wouldn't find again until consciousness returned sometime later that night.
If hell is here on earth, it is located on an oddly shaped city block in downtown Hanoi, North Vietnam, and goes by the name of Hỏa Lò. It is the North's main penitentiary system, and its name means "hellhole." To the American military men who waited out the interminable years of the Vietnam War within that dingy fortress, it is aptly named. But some POWs, holding tightly to their humor and a sense of the ironic, renamed it "the Hanoi Hilton."
A concrete wall, just under twenty feet high and about two feet wide, surrounds the prison grounds. In a layer of concrete at the top of the wall, large, sharp splinters of glass are embedded. It is a burial ground for fragments of fancy French champagne bottles, smashed and discarded like the haughty French colonialists who once reigned there.
Hỏa Lò Prison is said to be inescapable. Armed guards stand in each of the four corner guard towers, keeping careful watch on the prison grounds. More armed guards pace the courtyards, alert to every movement, every sound of the prisoners. Of course, only after he has escaped the stocks or leg irons must a prisoner worry about detection by one of the prison's sentries.
The noises of the city travel over the wall—the shrill voices of shopkeepers, the ringing bells of the trolleys, the wheezing of an occasional motor engine—to tease prisoners with the sounds of freedom. But on the other side of the wall, with its electrified strands of wire, lie narrow streets that wind through the city like a confusing maze. The city is a teeming mass of tiny Vietnamese people among whom American soldiers would stand out like Gulliver in Lilliput. We quickly understood that an escape over Hỏa Lò's prison wall was not an escape into immediate safety. A journey to freedom would be a long and dangerous one.
. . .
The tiny feeling of triumph I had felt upon leaving the torture room was gone. I felt suddenly like a weary traveler who, after reaching an almost impossible plateau, discovers that the destination is still unimaginably far away, obscured by endless miles of rugged mountain range no one has ever been able to climb.
At that moment, the sound of a voice traveled through the cement walls of the cell.
"Who's there?" someone asked in a whisper. "Come to the door."
I moved to the door and put my face up to the tiny, barred window. "I'm Sam Johnson, Air Force."
"Jerry Denton here."
He had waited until the cellblock was empty of guards before calling to me through the little window in his door.
Another voice traveled the length of the hall. "Jim Stockdale down here."
Commander Jeremiah Denton, U.S. Navy, was my first next door neighbor in Heartbreak Hotel. He had been shot down ten months earlier while flying a mission from the carrier Independence. Down the hall, in the first cell next to the cellblock entrance, was Jim Stockdale, commander of Carrier Air Group 16, from the carrier Oriskany; he had been a prisoner since September, 1965. I was in good company.
Jerry's voice was the closest, and I leaned hard against the door to hear his every word. His voice was soft but strong, a whisper that he hoped wouldn't be heard by a guard, but it transmitted confidence and assurance to me. He was accustomed to leading men. His voice gave me an immediate feeling of courage. Nothing in his tone suggested that he had just come off a torture session with the ropes and hook. Rabbit and the torture guard had sent him back to his cell with his arms purple and swollen and without feeling, but he made no reference to his own condition. He only asked how I was.
Stockdale's voice sent authority and strength down those dismal hallways. He was a born commander. I sensed his intelligence and leadership immediately, and a bond of trust and friendship was forged between us right away. He, too, had experienced severe torture because of his "bad attitude." His leg had been broken at the time of his shootdown, and inadequate medical care had left it deformed and stiff at the knee. He was in excruciating pain most of the time.
I sensed the courage and integrity of both Stockdale and Denton in the first moments of our meeting. A special kinship began to grow among us that first night.
"There's a code you need to learn," Denton told me as I pressed my face to the door. "I'll tell it to you, and then we'll lie down on our bunks and practice it."
Denton had only one concern at that time: to get me into the communication system as quickly as possible. He knew the desolation of Heartbreak Hotel would overwhelm me unless he could distract me with something constructive. And he proceeded to teach me the tap code.
The letters of the alphabet are placed in five rows of five letters each; eliminate the K, which is in on the third row, and use the C for a K. The first taps correspond to the placement of the letter in the horizontal row, then a pause; the second series of taps correspond to the position of the letter in the vertical row. Using the metal spoon, I scratched a grid into the concrete wall and put the letters in the proper spaces, not knowing the guards would punish me if they found it.
The code was simple in theory, but it would take practice to become adept at using it. Having to use my left hand made me feel like a kid in a remedial class, but I thought in time I would get the hang of it. Just then I heard a door slam and a voice command, "No talk!"
More banging noises I didn't recognize. Then the sound of heavy boots on the concrete floor, a door dragged shut again, and then silence. I strained to hear something that would let me know what was happening outside my cell. The sounds were too unfamiliar, and I felt ignorant and helpless. They were foreign feelings to me, and I hated them.
The silence continued. I sat down on one of the concrete bunks and tried to put up the mosquito net the guards had tossed in before locking me in the cell. Until now, my flesh had been fair game for the myriad of droning mosquitoes in North Vietnam. At first I had tried swatting at them with my left arm, but it was a painful and futile use of the little energy I had, and I soon gave up.
Assembling that net should have been a simple task. It needed to be secured at four corners of the bunk with four string ties. I fumbled with the ties, cursed my limp right hand, but finally affixed the net and lay down under it.
In the quietness, I heard soft, muffled tapping. I listened for a moment and tried to decipher the code. Jerry was telling me to move to the bunk closest to the wall that separated our cells. We could tap softly to one another and look as if we were sleeping if the guards checked on us. At night it was difficult for them to see us through the mosquito nets. Already Jerry was paying for having talked to me earlier. The noises I had heard were the sounds of the leg stocks and the steel bar being slammed and locked against his legs. He couldn't get to the window on the door to talk to me, but the punishment of the leg stocks didn't stop him from tapping. All night we "talked" on the wall.