Navy Ship's Name Honors Medal of Honor Recipient, Marine By Dan Aznoff
The image of Private First Class Ralph Johnson in fatigues looms over the mess hall below deck on the technical masterpiece of modern warfare that bears his name. Johnson is remembered with more than just the photo that covers an entire wall. The black-and-white image captures the young Marine in a light-hearted moment during his deployment in the jungles of Vietnam.
“His spirit and his strength are something the men and women on this ship reflect on each and every day,” explained Commander Casey Mahon, captain of the USS Ralph Johnson. “Everybody on this ship knows the story of Ralph Johnson. We all do our best to live up to that high standard.”
Johnson was killed in 1968 while on patrol as part of a 15-man reconnaissance squad at an observation post deep behind enemy lines in the Quan Duc Valley during the Tet Offensive. The teenager saved the lives of two fellow Marines and helped warn the rest of his platoon of an enemy attack by throwing himself on a live hand grenade. The blast killed him instantly. Johnson received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic and selfless actions. His commendation detailed how his prompt and heroic act not only saved the lives of the other Marines in the observation point but prevented the enemy from penetrating his sector of the perimeter and killing the remaining members of his patrol.
Johnson was killed less than two months after he arrived for his deployment in Vietnam. He had been assigned to serve as a reconnaissance scout with Company A, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
Notes of the skirmish on Hill 146 overlooking the Quan Duc Valley detailed how the American platoon was attacked deep in enemy-controlled territory by hostile forces employing automatic weapons, satchel charges and hand grenades.
The decision to honor the memory of the brave Marine was made in February of 2012 by the Secretary of the Navy Rear Admiral Shoshana S. Chatfield. The citation cited his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a reconnaissance scout with Company A, in action against the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces.” “Suddenly, a hand grenade landed in the three-man fighting hole occupied by PFC Johnson and two fellow Marines. Realizing the inherent danger to his two comrades, he shouted a warning and unhesitatingly hurled himself upon the explosive device. When the grenade exploded, PFC Johnson absorbed the tremendous impact of the blast and was killed instantly.
“His prompt and heroic act saved the life of one Marine at the cost of his (own) life and undoubtedly prevented the enemy from penetrating his sector of the patrol's perimeter,” according to the report on file with the Defense Department in Washington, D.C. “PFC Johnson's courage, the inspiring valor and selfless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
The newly commissioned Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson (DDG 114) arrived at its homeport of Naval Station Everett on April 27 of this year, a month after it was commissioned during special ceremonies attended by more than 7,000 people in Johnson’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.
The ship has been classified as a "restart" ship by officials with the Navy. It features upgraded electronics and weapons systems controlled by highly trained sailors enhanced with advanced technology. The USS Ralph Johnson was originally scheduled to be delivered in August 2016, but construction delays pushed the actual delivery date to late in 2017 after completion of her mandatory sea trials.
The warship arrived at the Port of Charleston's Columbus Street Terminal on March 19 and commissioned on March 24.
The USS Ralph Johnson is the 64th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in the U.S. fleet. The contract to build her was awarded on September 26, 2011, to Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi. The $697.6 million contract was the 30th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer contract issued to Ingalls Shipbuilding.
The first ship built to the current design was the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), commissioned in July 1991.
The USS Ralph Johnson is capable of anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, as well as strike operations, according to an overview issued by the Navy. The destroyer features several improvements in terms of ballistic missile defense, an embarked air wing and the inclusion of mine-detecting ability compared to earlier versions of the vessel, according to NavyTechnology.com.
In an effort to build a relationship with the civilian population, Mahon said the crew of ships assigned to Homeport Everett have been “adopted” by local cities. The Ralph Johnson was adopted by the city of Mill Creek in Snohomish County, while her sister ship, the USS Sampson, has been embraced by the neighboring city of Lynnwood.
The adoption offers benefits to the crew of the ship as well as to the city, according to Councilmember John Steckler of Mill Creek. Sailors from the Ralph Johnson were invited to take part in a series of community activities over the summer in Mill Creek, which included officers and crew members marching down Main Street in the city’s annual parade on the Fourth of July.
Fire Controlman Ross W. Woody served as grand marshal of the parade as part of the honor for being named Sailor of the Year on the guided missile destroyer.
Steckler explained that he hopes residents of his city will extend invitations to sailors to join families for the upcoming holiday season. The councilmember plans to have one or more members of the crew join his family for Thanksgiving.
Steckler was inspired to introduce the adoption after taking a tour of the ship shortly after it arrived in Everett.
“It is hard for me to imagine being a young person, serving our nation, who is thousands of miles away from friends and family during the holidays,” Steckler told Living Local. “It is literally the least we can do to thank these young men and women for their dedication and sacrifice.
“What sailor would not like being the center of attention for one night?”
Councilmember Mark Bond could not help thinking about his own son as he explored the command center that controls the weapons of war. His tour came less than a week after his own son Jordan had been accepted to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Steckler and Bond were joined by Mill Creek Police Chief Greg Elwin for the short trip to Seattle in July when the ship sailed south to take part in the annual SeaFair activities. Members of the crew have responded with smiles and tears with the connection to civilians in neighboring communities, according to their commanding officer.
“We really enjoy coming home to Mill Creek,” said Crewmember Diana Martin from Bradenton, Florida. “Being from the East Coast, I had no idea what to expect coming all the way across the country to Washington state. The people here have been so warm and welcoming.
Martin and several of her mates from the Ralph Johnson have rented apartments in Mill Creek to have “homes on dry land” when they are off duty. She laughed at the reaction of one neighbor last summer when she returned to her apartment dressed in her Navy fatigues. She said the neighbor greeted her with a huge smile and an anxious series of questions. “I felt like an honored guest in my own apartment complex.”
On the bridge
Ensign Casey Rezac from Gaithersberg, Maryland, spends much of her duty on the bridge of the Ralph Johnson to prepare for the day she hopes to take the wheel of the 513-foot vessel. “This is life in the Navy, “she said with a broad smile. “You train and train until your actions become second nature. Then, if you qualify, you’re given an opportunity to put all that training into action.”
Rezac hopes to add her experience on the bridge to enhance her application to the Naval Academy.
“Becoming an officer was not even on my radar when I enlisted. I was literally one of those people who joined the Navy to see the world,” she said. “But the more time I spend on the bridge helping to control this ship that defends the peace, the more I want to learn about command and all the responsibilities that go along with becoming an officer.”
Both sailors said they grew up around the water. Enlisting in the Navy was a natural extension of their interests and their passion to serve.
That was not the case for their captain. Mahon was raised in an Army family in Syracuse, New York, far from any Navy base or the ocean. In fact, the future commander was involved with the Army ROTC on campus when he went to college at Norwich University in Vermont. “This is not where I envisioned myself while I was growing up in a landlocked suburb,” said Commander Mahon. “But this is obviously where I belong.”
Navy regulations limit officers to three commands during their active service. The USS Ralph Johnson is his second opportunity to serve at the helm of a multimillion-dollar vessel. The ship, said Mahon, is filled with an array of technology that is the best in the world. He praised his young crew for the business-like approach they display defending the freedoms that this country was founded on.
Mahon said he has spent long hours in his quarters studying the namesake of the vessel under his command. Ralph Johnson, he said, was a hometown hero in his tight-knit community in Charleston, South Carolina, who was expected to do great things when he returned from Southeast Asia. “There were probably numerous soldiers and Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice while on patrol or in firefights with the enemy,” said Mahon. “But there was obviously something very special about this young Marine.”
The commander noted that in addition to the sleek new destroyer stationed in Everett, there is also an entire medical center in Virginia operated by the federal government named in memory of the brave Marine.
The ship is equipped with many of the Navy’s newest weapon systems, including a Sea Wiz, a close-in defensive weapon system capable of detecting and destroying short-range incoming missiles and enemy aircraft that have penetrated outer defenses.
According to one Navy veteran, the projectiles from the Sea Wiz can be fired at the waterline of an approaching enemy ship, causing it to sink within minutes.
With a smile, Mahon said he has given the Sea Wiz the nickname “Lorelai” after the character from the television show “Gilmore Girls.” It’s no coincidence that the commander’s youngest child is a girl with the same name.
“There are so many complex computer systems on this ship that are all tied together so they work in unison,” Mahon explained. “The Sea Wiz is a totally separate system so that it can work independently.
“Like the television character and like my daughter, the Sea Wiz has a mind of its own.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer who lives in Mukilteo, Washington, dedicated to preserving the stories of past generations. Aznoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his in-depth coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California. He can be contacted directly at email@example.com.