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Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center

 

Birthday wishes for Charleston’s native son

Photo of Ralph H. Johnson in uniform.

Today the Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center celebrates what would have been the 68th birthday of the medical center's namesake.

By Lanelle W. Strawder, MA, Public Affairs Specialist
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Each January, the medical center makes it a point to take time to honor the memory of one of our greatest local heroes—Pfc. Ralph H. Johnson—the namesake of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. We celebrate what would have been Johnson’s 68th birthday.

The day is made all the more special with today's announcement from the United States Navy League that the USS Ralph Johnson, an Arleigh Burke class U.S. Navy destroyer named in Johnson's honor, will be commissioned in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

Born in Charleston on January 11, 1949, Johnson grew up in a large family-the fourth of 11 children. Johnson’s sister, Helen Richards, of Summerville, remembers her brother as a quiet, thoughtful child whose genteel manner stayed with him as he grew into a young man. Richards says her brother was the model of faith and dignity among the Johnson children--always helping others, offering a kind word, and making sure everyone around him was okay.

Johnson’s will to serve others continued when in 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was deployed to Vietnam in January 1968 following his training and a short assignment to Camp Pendleton.

“There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about Ralph.” Lt. Clebe McClary, USMC, Ret.

On March 8, 1968, Johnson was part of a 15-man reconnaissance mission called Operation ROCK. The team was patrolling Hill 146 in the Quan Duc Valley, an area southwest of An Hoa, when they came under heavy artillery fire by Vietnamese soldiers. During the ambush, a grenade was launched into Johnson’s two-man fighting hole.

The selfless character of the young Marine was illustrated in his final moments. Johnson shouted a warning to his fellow Marines and then hurled his body atop the grenade to shield the others from the blast. Johnson was immediately killed by the heroic act.

Lt. Clebe McClary, the officer who was leading Team Texas Pete on that fateful day says of Johnson: “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Ralph,” McClary said. “Life’s brief anyway—sort of like a vapor, but eternity is forever. And I think [Ralph] was ready for eternity. I think that’s the reason he was the brave Marine that he was.”

Today Johnson’s body rests at the Beaufort National Cemetery, just an hour and a half drive from his birthplace and the medical center that today bears his name.

Johnson’s life and final act embodied the values of sacrifice and service. In March 1968, President Richard Nixon posthumously awarded Johnson with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Johnson has also received the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, the Vietnam Military Merit Medal, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with palm, and the Vietnam Campaign medal.

On September 5, 1991, the Charleston VA Medical Center was formally renamed the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in honor of one of the city’s most benevolent heroes. Today Johnson's Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor citation and portrait are framed and on public display in the front lobby of the medical center.

Helen Richards and Scott Isaacks post in front of the USS Ralph Johnson.

Helen Richards, sister of Pfc. Johnson, and Scott Isaacks, Charleston VAMC Director, at the christening of the USS Ralph Johnson.

Johnson’s sacrifice continues to inspire today. On February 15, 2012, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the nation’s 64th Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer ship would be named the USS Ralph Johnson in honor of Johnson. The ship will be homeported at Naval Station Everett in Washington state.

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center will hold a cake-cutting at 1 p.m. in the front lobby to celebrate our fallen hero’s birthday.

Read a detailed account of Pfc. Johnson as remembered by his sister Helen Richards here.

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