For years, Centreville resident Kay Tracy wore the POW bracelet of American Air Force pilot Sam Johnson. When the Vietnam war ended, she removed the bracelet and didn't think about it again last summer.
But when she did, she learned that Johnson — imprisoned in Hanoi for seven years — was alive and well and had become a U.S. congressman from Texas. She also got the opportunity to meet him and give him the bracelet in person.
"We didn't talk about Vietnam — it was too emotional for both of us," said Tracy, 60, of Sully Station. "But he was touched that I wore his bracelet."
She and her husband George, a Navy veteran himself — including four tours in Vietnam — were stationed in San Diego in 1970 when Tracy bought the bracelet from someone selling them on the base. It cost $2.50 and was engraved with the words, "Lt. Col. Samuel Johnson, April 16, 1966" — the date he was shot down over North Vietnam.
Tracy always hoped she might someday meet the man whose bracelet she wore but, once her husband left the Navy in 1972, she didn't give it much thought.
"We got away from things military, so I put the bracelet away and out of my mind," she said. "And I felt really stressed by having it because my brother Lloyd, 25, died in Vietnam in 1967."
Tracy never made any effort to find out what happened to Johnson because she feared the worst. Still, she couldn't throw the bracelet away. "Every time I opened my jewelry box, I saw it," she said. "I was saddened and thought of Lt. Col. Johnson and said a little prayer."
Then last summer, while trying to get rid of things she, George and their three sons had accumulated over the years, she remembered the bracelet and decided to sell it and other things via the on-line auction service, e-Bay. "I thought someone would be happy to have it," said Tracy. "It's a part of history."
On the final day of the auction, George asked her if she knew what happened to Johnson. When she said no, he searched the Internet and discovered that — of the more than 2,500 POWs and 3,000-6,000 MIAs — just 591 returned. Johnson was one of them.
"I was so happy, I cried," said Tracy. She was also thrilled to learn he had a wife, three children and 10 grandchildren. Johnson had a Web site about his war experiences, so she sent his office a fax, inviting him to attend a speech she was giving about the bracelet.
A former professor of management and marketing at Gettysburg College, Tracy belongs to a woman's group called the Capital Speakers Club in Washington, D.C. "I gave this speech to them, Oct. 17," she said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house."
Johnson planned to attend and accept the bracelet then, but that was the day of the anthrax scare that evacuated Congress. So Tracy presented it to him instead at his office, Dec. 18. "He a very warm person and spent 45 minutes talking to [George and I]," she said. "He talked about his wife and family, and we talked about the war on terrorism because it was two months after Sept. 11."
Johnson and Sen. John McCain were prison roommates at one point, and someone returned McCain's bracelet, too. "I really think there's something to closure," said Tracy. "It felt good to put an end to it — and to have something to feel good about at a difficult time."
Johnson, now 71, served 29 years in the Air Force. He flew with the Thunderbirds precision-flying demonstration team and piloted F-86 aircraft in 62 combat missions during the Korean War. He flew F-4s during Vietnam but, while on his 25th combat mission there in 1966, he was shot down over North Vietnam. He spent the next seven years in prison — 42 months of that time in solitary.
When asked Tuesday if he ever gave up hope, he replied, "There were times when it was marginal but, for the most part, no. We knew there were other Americans there, and I prayed a lot. It brought you closer to the Lord."
He and the other prisoners developed a "tap code" on their cell walls so they could communicate with each other. Said Johnson: "A guy taught me French on the wall." That person now lives in the D.C. area, and Johnson still keeps in touch with him and with the other POWs.
Johnson was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star with Valor and two Purple Hearts. Representing parts of two Texas counties, Johnson (R-3rd), has been in the House of Representatives since 1991 and serves on the Joint Commission on POWs and MIAs.
Regarding Tracy wearing his bracelet, he's pleased that "someone would do that in an effort to get the POWs back home." Said Johnson: I appreciated her doing that; it means so much to me. And that's what America is all about — people support the military and the values this nation stands for."