By Barney Blakeney
It’s rare since the Charleston Naval Shipyard closed in 1996 that a navy battle ship pulls into Charleston’s port. On March 19, the USS Ralph H. Johnson (DDG 114) cruised into the harbor and moored at the Columbus Street Terminal. The newly built Arliegh Burke-class destroyer officially will be commissioned March 24. While newsfeeds may be abuzz about its commissioning and those associated with military affairs are aware of the event, for many the significance of the Ralph Johnson’s naming and commissioning in Charleston is somewhat elusive. It is the first U.S. warship named for an African American native to Charleston.
Despite the prevalent retired and active military presence in Charleston, most are unaware the local Veterans Administration Hospital here is named in Johnson’s honor. So it’s not surprising Johnson’s name and story have not protruded from among the familiar annals of Blacks in the city. However, as with Black families throughout the community, his family ties, friendships and social relations touch a lot of us.
Johnson is a Vietnam War hero who in 1968 while in a foxhole jumped on a grenade to save his fellow marines. Local Marine Corps veterans from the Vietnam era know of Johnson’s heroism, but his is not a widely known story. One of 14 kids whose family’s roots are West Ashley on S.C. Highway 61 near Savage Road, Johnson came to the peninsula to live with his mother while in elementary school. He attended Courtenay Elementary and Simonton Junior High schools. Eventually he dropped out of school and went into the 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.
Johnson’s sister Helen Richards describes her brother as a quiet person, always willing to help others. She says Johnson was a fun-loving, but deliberate young man capable of making split-decisions and immediately acting on them. He was a selfless person who knew where he wanted to go and took the steps to get there. He saw the Marine Corps as a step into the future he wanted for himself and his family. While in the Job Corps Johnson eventually landed in Oakland, CA, where in 1967 he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves. A year later he joined the regular Marine Corps. He was 18.
Johnson returned to Charleston before he deployed to Vietnam. The night before he left for Vietnam, he and Richards stayed up all night talking and sharing. They overslept the next morning, but Johnson was determined to catch his flight. He left without brushing his teeth, Richards recalls. It was January, just days before his 19th birthday which he celebrated in Vietnam. That was the last time Richards saw her brother.
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. 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.
Johnson posthumously received the Purple Heart and the highest U.S. military award, the Medal of Honor. 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 H. Johnson (DDG 114). The destroyer is one of the most technologically advanced in the Navy’s fleet.
Arliegh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers are multi-mission surface combatants capable of conducting anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-surface warfare. As multi-mission platforms, they are capable of sustained combat operations supporting forward presence, maritime security, sea control and deterrence. The ship is 509 feet in length, has a beam of 66 feet, and a navigational draft of 31 feet. The ship is powered by four GE LM 2500 gas turbine engines driving twin controllable propellers to speeds up to 30 knots. A Navy official described it as, “One bad ass!”
Helen Richards said her family is honored that her brother is being recognized for his ultimate sacrifice. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg has proclaimed March 24 Ralph H. Johnson Day in the city as well. And though many Black folks in Charleston mostly will remain oblivious to what Ralph Johnson represents, the ship homeported at Naval Station Everett, Washington and its compliment of 330 crewmen will continue Johnson’s legacy bringing distinction to Black folks in Charleston.