Remembering Pfc. Ralph H. Johnson - Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
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Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center

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Remembering Pfc. Ralph H. Johnson

Helen Richards gazes at the portrait of her brother, Ralph H. Johnson.

Helen Richards gazes at a portrait of her brother, Ralph H. Johnson, displayed in the lobby of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

By Lanelle Strawder, Public Affairs Specialist
Monday, January 11, 2016

This January 11, we celebrate what would have been the 67th birthday of Ralph Henry Johnson, our medical center's namesake. On his birthday, we remember not only the heroic sacrifice of Pfc. Johnson, but also the principled character that defines his life and legacy. 

Those who knew him describe Pfc. Johnson as honest, pious and always willing to put others first. Never were these virtues so evident than on a spring day in 1967 on a hill overlooking the Quan Duc Valley when Johnson valiantly gave his life to save the lives of his comrades. 

We will always honor Johnson for the heroic act that cost him his life, and remember his sacrifice as we serve each Veterans that walks through the doors of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. And we appreciate those who knew him well and keep Johnson's legacy alive by sharing memories of the time they spent with their brother and friend.

The early years

Helen Richards of Summerville, South Carolina, remembers a happy childhood with her brother. Johnson was always "the good one" she remembers. While her other brothers were rough and mischievous, she says Ralph was quiet and reserved, always careful to follow the rules and do as he was told.

Richards fondly remembers the summer when Johnson was 7-years-old and the children were staying with their grandparents. While at their grandparents' home, each child was expected to recite the Lord's Prayer aloud before bed; but for some reason, Johnson was having a hard time remembering it. After a few nights of stumbling through the prayer, Johnsons' grandfather warned him that he'd better know it by the following evening.

"'Boy, you're going to get it,'" Richards remembers one of the brothers teasing Johnson.

The following day, the Johnson kids headed to a nearby field they'd cleared for a day of baseball. Johnson played pitcher, and that day his siblings were looking forward to trying to hit one of his elusive curve balls.

Yet when they reached the field, instead of putting on his glove, Ralph parked himself beneath a tree and buried his face in a Bible. He sat under that tree with the Bible in hand for the rest of the day.

That evening Johnson was eager to say his prayers first. Richards beamed with pride as she recalled how her brother had flawlessly recited each line.

Prayer and faith would become a staple throughout Johnson's life.

His service

Despite a number of his family members having previously joined the Army, growing up, Johnson always held a deep admiration for Marines.

"We used to go to the Lincoln Theatre near Spring Street," Richards remembers. "Ralph would see the guys in their Marine Corps uniforms and he would say, 'You know what? One day I'm going to wear that uniform.'"

Johnson realized his dream in March 1967 when he enlisted into the Marine Corps Reserve in Oakland, California, and then a few months later into the regular U.S. Marine Corps. He was soon promoted to Private First Class.

In January 1968, Johnson arrived in the Republic of Vietnam. He was assigned to Company A, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division (Rein), Fleet Marine Force. As someone whose inclination had always been to lookout for others, Johnson's assignment was a natural fit.

Ralph Johnson pictured with Alex Colvin.

Ralph Johnson pictured in Vietnam with fellow Marine, Alex Colvin, in 1968.

Alex Colvin, a young Marine from Washington, D.C., arrived in Vietnam just two weeks after Johnson. With Colvin having trained in Parris Island, South Carolina, the two became fast friends. As part of the reconnaissance team, they'd often be on the same patrols, canvassing areas in advance of their platoon.

But when they weren't working, Colvin can recall how much fun the guys would have--especially when Ralph's favorite song came on the radio. 

"Man, Ralph loved Smokey Robinson's 'I Second That in Motion,'" Colvin laughed. "Whenever Ralph heard that song, he'd get up and sing and dance, and just have the best time," says Colvin. "To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my friend Ralph."

Colvin can vividly recall the details of Johnson's last patrol mission. Early on, he says Johnson discovered two mines hidden in an area where their helicopters would have landed to pick up the reconnaissance team. Colvin says without Johnson's discovery, the entire team could have been lost.

In the early morning hours of March 5, 1968, a hand grenade landed in the three-man hole that Johnson and two fellow Marines were occupying. Seeing the grenade, Johnson shouted a warning to his comrades and threw himself onto the explosive device, using his own body to absorb the impact of the blast. The 19-year-old Marine died immediately, but his actions helped to save the lives of the men around him.

His legacy

Since his death, Pfc. Johnson has been posthumously awarded with the nation's highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor. He has received several other honors, including the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars. In 1991, the Charleston VA Medical Center was renamed the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in his honor. Johnson is buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Pfc. Johnson's remarkable legacy lives on each day at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, where we work daily to provide the highest quality health care to more than 67,000 men and women who have served this country along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. We are dedicated to Ralph's mission of putting others first as we "care for him who shall have borne the battle."

Richards says she always knew her brother would be someone special. He lived a life of humility and conviction, and left a mark on the lives of those he met.

Even now, Richards admits that January is often a hard month for her. Johnson's birthday and the upcoming anniversary of his death are difficult because they bring back so many memories. However, she makes the choice to remember all the good times she got to spend with him. She believes her brother's life, and even his death, can be summed up in one simple message.

"Be more considerate of the next person. Ralph wasn't selfish. His life speaks to that."

Happy birthday, Pfc. Johnson.


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