By Barney Blakeney
A couple of months ago I got an email from USN Ret. Capt. Taylor Skardon asking if I could do some things to put out the word about the Navy League’s effort to educate more people in our local community about Vietnam War hero Ralph Henry Johnson. I agreed. I figured Johnson’s story is one I need to know more about myself.
I’ve always felt that we have a rich and valuable culture and history, but too often we don’t know it so we don’t realize it. In my lifetime I’ve come to understand there are larger than life heroes and sheroes among us – people you never see in the media, whose names you never hear, but who make real contributions to our lives beyond high profile rhetoric and platitudes. They don’t seek the recognition that comes with positions of authority. They just do what they do because it’s the right thing to do. Ralph Johnson was one of those people.
Johnson, born in 1949, was a kid from peninsula Charleston’s west side who grew up at a time when opportunities for a young Black boy with no money or prominent family name had only a few options. He was the fourth of 14 kids born into the Johnson brood. His older siblings lived with their maternal grandparents in a community along rural Highway 61 near Savage Road in West Ashley. Ralph and his younger siblings lived downtown with his mother on Coming Street.
Johnson attended Courtenay Elementary and Simonton Junior High schools. Eventually he quit public school and went into Job Corps, a federal program with a mission of helping young people ages 16 through 24 improve the quality of their lives through vocational and academic training. Eventually Johnson landed in Oakland, CA, where in 1967 he enlisted in the Marine Corp Reserves. A year later, Johnson joined the regular Marine Corps. He was 18.
Skardon related a story told to him by Johnson’s sister, Helen Richards. One day as Johnson and his sister walked past the old ‘federal building’ at Meeting and Henrietta streets near Calhoun Street which recently has been transformed into a new hotel, Johnson saw a poster of a Marine in uniform (military recruiters’ offices were located in the building back then). Fascinated by the poster, Johnson vowed to one day wear the same uniform. After getting out of the Job Corps, he did just that.
Johnson’s sister describes him as a quiet fella, always willing to help others. She says Johnson was a fun-loving, but deliberate guy capable of making a decision and immediately acting on it. Johnson was a selfless person who knew where he wanted to go and took the steps to get there. He saw the Marines as a step into the future he wanted for himself and his family.
The night before he left for Vietnam, the two stayed up all night talking and sharing. They overslept the next morning. But Johnson was so determined, in his rush to catch the flight he left without brushing his teeth, Richards remembers. That would be the last time she would see her brother. It was January, just days before Johnson’s 19th birthday which he celebrated in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Johnson served as a reconnaissance scout. March 5 he went out as part of a 15-man reconnaissance patrol that came under attack. A grenade landed in the foxhole he shared with two other Marines. Johnson warned the others and jumped on the grenade, saving the lives of his fellow Marines.
Skardon explained that Johnson’s selfless act not only saved the Marines in the foxhole, but also the lives of the others on the patrol. As a forward machine gun position, the Marines who survived the grenade blast were able to hold the position and prevented the enemy from breaking through their line of defense.
For most outside the military Johnson’s story is not well unknown. He posthumously received the highest U.S. military award, the Medal of Honor, and the Purple Heart. In 1991 the Charleston VA Medical Center was renamed the Ralph Henry Johnson VA Medical Center in his honor. In 2012 the Secretary of the Navy recognized Johnson’s sacrifice and designated a new destroyer as the USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114). The destroyer, one of the most technologically advanced in the Navy’s fleet, is being built in Pascagoula, MS and in March will be commissioned in Charleston.
Last week Skardon, several of the ship’ crew including its commander and city officials announced that during a media event at The Citadel. With Skardon’s leadership the Navy League-Charleston has put together a committee to tell Johnson’s story and his role as another of the unsung heroes who have graced our lives and all but anonymously endowed us a legacy of freedom and prosperity.
It’s a story we all should know.