With a tin cup and toothpaste, Congressman's POW history to be displayed at Smithsonian
By KATIE LESLIE | The Dallas Morning News | Published: February 14, 2018
WASHINGTON — It's a pale green, chipped tin cup. It's also a vessel that served as Congressman Sam Johnson's lifeline during years of solitary confinement in North Vietnam.
It was with this metal cup, issued by his captors more than four decades ago, that the former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot tapped on a wall to communicate with another prisoner of war, a Navy man, Rear Admiral Robert Shumaker.
"We would hold our cups against the wall and it served as an amplifier to hear the tap code," said Johnson, who spent nearly seven years as a POW and 42 months in solitary confinement after his plane was shot down in 1966. "This way, the North Vietnamese couldn't hear us tapping. It was how were able to communicate so well without them catching us."
On Tuesday, the 87-year-old Texas Republican and war hero donated the artifact to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, along with another relic he smuggled out during his 1973 release: toothpaste. "If you can call it that," Johnson quipped.
The event, attended by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who serves as chancellor of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents; members of Johnson's family; other dignitaries and POWs, came 45 years after Johnson landed in the Philippines en route to the United States. He was one of 591 prisoners of war who returned to the U.S. as part of Operation Homecoming.
Shumaker, who is credited with helping create the tap code and coining the term "Hanoi Hilton" to describe the POW prison, drove from Virginia for Johnson's ceremony. He and Johnson, with whom he shared a concrete wall for more than two years, were among 11 American POWs known as the Alcatraz Gang. The men were subjected to the harshest treatment and torture, including years in solitary confinement.
In windowless cells no larger than 4 feet by 9 feet, "we never got more than 10 feet apart, but I never saw him," Shumaker said of Johnson, describing Vietnamese propaganda that played through loudspeakers several hours a day.
Using the tin cup, "we communicated," he continued. "We bared our souls to each other. He helped me get by tough times, and I think I helped him."
Jennifer Jones, curator of the Armed Forces History Division, said the donations are a first from a living prisoner of war. Johnson is a member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, and his items will be on display in the museum's "Price of Freedom: Americans at War" exhibition.
"I call them touchstones to history, touchstones to people's memories," Jones said. "Every object tells its own story. The story that we can tell with these objects is [Johnson's] story, but also the story of America's POWs."
It's her hope that items as simple as a tin cup and toothpaste promote dialogue about treatment of prisoners of war. "It's important to understand why we have the laws that we have when it comes to how we treat POWs, how the United States treats its captives, and how we expect our prisoners of wars to be treated by other foreign nations," she said. "That's a dialogue that needs to continue."
After his release, Johnson remained in the Air Force and retired as as colonel in 1979. He began his congressional career with a special election in 1991. Last year, he became the first of several Texans to announce plans to retire after this term.
On Tuesday, the longtime congressman leaned on his cane as he walked to the podium, where he formally signed over the only items he has left from his time in captivity. He held back tears as he recalled a quote inscribed on a cell wall by a fellow POW.
"Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know," Johnson said, then looking up from his notes to face the crowd. "God bless you. God bless America. You guys keep working for our freedom. I salute you."
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