By Lathan Watts, Director of Public Affairs
“James, earn this…earn it.” The final words spoken by Captain John Miller, portrayed by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan, are an exhortation to the film’s eponymous character to live a life worthy of the sacrifice made to save it. The film’s iconic opening scenes vividly depict the brutality of the D-Day invasion. Though the story is fictional this masterpiece of filmmaking, as great art always does, points us to the remarkable beauty and tragedy of real life.
The film reminds us there are heroes among us; not mythological demi-gods but real men, flawed mortals whose lives and deeds speak to those of us who live in the freedom they secured and demand that we “earn it.”
Two such men passed away recently and the greatest honor we can pay them is to help our nation live up to the promise those men gave so much to defend.
Herman “Herk” Streitburger and U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson were born 12 years apart in very different parts of the country. They fought in different wars, led very different lives afterward, and to my knowledge never met. Yet what they had in common represents the best of what America has to offer the world.
Herk served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a radio operator and gunner on a B24 Liberator Bomber. He was shot down on his 50th and final mission in Europe and spent a year in a German prison camp. He survived a daring escape and returned to Allied forces. Many years later, approaching his 100th birthday, he was still willing to fight for what he believed in.
Herk credited prayer and faith for his endurance as a POW and donated a family Bible to be included in a POW/MIA Remembrance Table at his local VA hospital in New Hampshire. When a group of anti-religious zealots filed a lawsuit to remove the Bible, First Liberty Institute intervened on behalf of the Northeast POW/MIA Network, the group that donated the table and of which Herk was a member. Thanks to his fighting spirit Herk’s family Bible remains on the table and the U.S. Veterans Administration has new guidance for all VA facilities protecting memorial displays that include symbols of faith.
Congressman Sam Johnson represented the Third Congressional District of Texas for 30 years, retiring in 2019 as the oldest member of the U.S. House of Representatives. First Liberty Institute is located in the Third District, so Congressman Johnson was “our Congressman.” Prior to his political service he was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, where he eventually flew the solo position in the world renowned Air Force Thunderbirds. He flew many successful combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. However, shot down over North Vietnam, he spent seven years in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. Enduring unspeakable acts of physical and mental torture, Johnson refused to be broken by his captors or participate in any propaganda. His captors labeled him one of the “die-hards” and thus he spent three and a half years in solitary confinement.
Despite all he suffered, Congressman Johnson held no bitterness from the experience. No one would have begrudged him a desire to live out his days quietly in privacy and peace. Yet he chose public service and dedicated the rest of his life to improving the lives of others through public policy.
Why subject oneself to the rhetorical slings and arrows of politics? The answer is found in a phrase he used often, one that was scraped into the wall of a prison cell half a world away and inscribed deep in his heart. “Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.”
America, for all her faults, is still the land of the free. The nation still stands as a beacon of what is possible. Those of us who have lived our lives in a land of possibility must never forget the promise of our country was secured by the blood, grit, and determination of men like Herk Streitburger and Sam Johnson. May they rest in peace; they earned it.