Why we should remember PFC Ralph Johnson
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
— Albert Schweitzer
BY RON BRINSON
John Albano’s life was always on adventurous trails. He earned his GED at age 65, long after he built a successful cartage business in New York. His wife Mona had a master’s degree in finance and was an accomplished artist. Along the way, this happy couple earned a lot of money, and as John says, “we spent a lot of money.”
“We worked hard and we tried to enjoy life for what it is — a gift to be enjoyed,” he says.
There were trips all over the world, the residential yacht experience in south Florida and the process of settling into retirement. And in 2005, after trying life in Savannah for three years, John and Mona decided Greater Charleston was their place to be.
These days John, 74, offers refreshed vignettes about the bustling, hustling and very different business environment of New York City. There’s even that brush with the law and New York’s zero tolerance for gun possession. Life in the rearview is interesting for sure, but now John Albano has discovered the inspirations of Ralph Johnson, an African-American teen-ager from Charleston who died young and never got to life’s adventurous trails.
“America is America because of young men like Ralph Johnson,” John Albano declares. “It’s as simple as that.”
He’s written to Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, urging them to help organize ongoing programs to remind generations of Ralph Johnson’s legacy. He pushes this idea to anyone who will listen and he’ll politely challenge Charlestonians to declare if they even know the Ralph Johnson story.
“Let’s have a Ralph Johnson Day, every year,” he proposes.
We should listen up, folks. John, the nice Yankee, has a point.
Who is Ralph Johnson? Too few of us can answer that question spontaneously. Ralph Johnson’s name is on a local building, a very large building. But which one and why?
We Charlestonians embrace the remarkable history of Greater Charleston and the Lowcountry in broad strokes of wars, architectural treasures, and noble leaders. But we often overlook the fine points of inspiring leadership and heroic sacrifice. John Albano, the Yankee from “off,” seems determined that Ralph Johnson’s memory and legacy will not devolve to the mere fine print of Charleston’s history.
“This young man is a Charleston hero, and it just seems nobody knows him,” Albano said. “Sure his name is on the building, but we see names on lots of buildings and we never know the stories. We need to know this one.”
In early March 1968, the Vietnam War was peaking and Marine Private First Class Ralph Johnson was on reconnaissance patrol in enemy controlled territory. A grenade landed in his three-man fighting hole. Johnson yelled a warning and then threw himself on the grenade. In an instant, Ralph Johnson, who had celebrated his 19th birthday two months earlier, gave his life for his country — and saved two fellow Marines.
PFC Ralph Johnson was awarded the Congressional Medal Honor.
John Albano was a Marine, too, having served precisely between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Nine months ago, a “routine” procedure turned into emergency open heart surgery at the Ralph Johnson Veterans Administration hospital. “It was supposed to be a simple stent procedure, but I woke up with a zipper in my chest,” he said. “Those VA doctors saved my life. I knew how lucky I was to be in Charleston, and then I just wanted to know all about Ralph Johnson.”
Mona helped John through his initial recovery. But she had been sparring with the insidious assaults of breast cancer for nearly 30 years. Mona died last February, a few days after the Navy announced that a new guided missile destroyer now under construction in Mississippi, would be named the USS Ralph Johnson.
Talk to John Albano and you can hear and see a composite of grief, physical pain and a certain loneliness. He and Mona were married 40 years. They have no children. But this proud Yankee is pushing back.
He enjoys his Charleston Park Villas neighbors and his good friends — and he’s looking for more. He’s following doctors orders and feeling better every day. His sense of gratitude “for just being here” primes his polite and repetitive insistence that “we need to understand the value and meaning of Ralph Johnson’s life.”
And you’re right, John. Ralph Johnson’s heroism will forever define America’s strength and character. And you’re right, too, that this young native Charlestonian who heroically sacrificed his young life ought to be closer to the tips of our tongues when we talk about Charlestonians who have truly made us proud.
Thanks for reminding us.
Ron Brinson is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.