Charleston native to have Navy ship named after him, but Medal of Honor remains missing
This is the story of a thank-you from the Pentagon to a Charleston Marine awarded the Medal of Honor.
Class: Arleigh Burke
Builder: Huntington Ingalls Industries, Pascagoula, Miss.
Length: 509 feet
Speed: In excess of 30 knots
Contract: $697.6 million
Keel laying date: April 2014
Delivering date: Late fiscal 2017
Home port: Not yet designated
Where that medal is today remains a mystery.
Around Charleston, Ralph H. Johnson is a local hero, one of a handful of native-born South Carolinians to receive the nation's highest military decoration for bravery.
In March 1968, surrounded by North Vietnamese forces, Pfc. Johnson dived belly-first onto a hand grenade, sacrificing his life to save two other Marines.
The deed became so famous that this year, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced one of the Pentagon's next three Arleigh Burke class destroyers will be named the Ralph Johnson.
But a little-known mystery in Johnson's story is that the original medal has been missing for years.
Johnson's sister, Helen Richards, 69, of Summerville, said her mother died in 1991 and none of Johnson's siblings have said they found it when the discussion came up. He had 13 brothers and sisters.
What Richards does know is that their mother, Rebecca Johnson, died of a broken heart. That's what makes the naming of a Navy destroyer so special.
“I just dropped to my knees,” Richards recalled of the telephone call informing her of the Navy's plans. “You don't ever hear of a private having his name on a ship. It's usually generals and presidents.”
Johnson, who grew up on Coming Street in downtown Charleston, was barely 19 years old and just two months in Vietnam when he was killed. It was on the night of March 5, 1968. He was part of a reconnaissance team that was surrounded by the enemy in the Quan Duc Valley.
Johnson's commanding lieutenant, Clebe McClary, remembers that the final attack was a long time in coming.
“They beat sticks together and chanted for two nights,” he said. But “that third night was mighty quiet.”
Around midnight, the shooting started in a barrage of automatic weapons, satchel charges and grenades.
Those who could find cover scrambled for it. With the shooting getting worse, Johnson and two buddies were in a fighting hole about 10 feet away from McClary when the fatal grenade came in.
McClary was wounded seven times in the fight, losing his left eye and left arm. He repeatedly has said he owes his life to Johnson, saying he too could have died in the blast if not for Johnson's sacrifice.
McClary also remembers the close friendship they had.
“He was the only South Carolinian I had” in the unit, said McClary, who originally is from the Georgetown area and now lives on Pawleys Island.
During the down time, McClary said he often would sit with Johnson, reading to him from a book of ghost stories about South Carolina.
“I think it just reminded him of home,” he said.
McClary said the honor of naming a destroyer after a young African-American from downtown Charleston is a fitting tribute, but admits the recognition wasn't his first choice.
“I would have liked to see that (Arthur) Ravenel Bridge named after him, to tell the truth,” he said.
After Johnson was killed, McClary recalled that the higher-ups in the military kept asking the survivors of the fight if Johnson actually threw himself on the grenade. To that, McClary said: “When something like that happens, you have three choices: Fall on the grenade, throw it back or run. He chose to fall on it.”
Two years later, on April 20, 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew handed the posthumous award to Johnson's mother in a ceremony at the White House. The families of 12 other fallen Marines and two Navy corpsmen received their posthumous medals that day as well.
News accounts of the ceremony don't explain what kept President Richard Nixon from attending. But around that time, Nixon was announcing a pledge to withdraw 150,000 more U.S. troops from South Vietnam, while the My Lai massacre was fresh in the headlines and anti-war demonstrations were stewing in Washington.
Johnson, believed to be the first Charlestonian to receive the medal since World War II, was buried by his family in rural St. Phillips AME Church cemetery. That would begin one of several efforts aimed at getting Johnson the recognition many thought he was due.
Local leaders and World War II Medal of Honor recipient Francis Currey were instrumental in getting Johnson's remains transferred to the National Cemetery in Beaufort in 1990. A year later, the veterans hospital in Charleston was named for Johnson.
That effort was not easy either, Richards said, pointing to opposition in some circles to recognizing a black serviceman.
Today, a duplicate of the medal with Johnson's name on it hangs in the hospital lobby. The family never pursued a replacement, she said.
Richards said she still feels connected to her brother, who would have been 63 this year. She volunteers on Mondays at the VA, pushing a cart filled with coffee, bagels and treats for the veterans who come in.
And when it comes time for the ship to take to sea in 2017, she plans to be there, and she will follow its construction at the Huntington Ingalls yard in Pascagoula, Miss.
Even with the honor, she doubts that her brother would be overwhelmed by it all.
“He'd probably say, 'Don't make a fuss over me,'?” she said. “He was just that type of guy.”