On the Loose

Bestler: New destroyer to be named for SC Vietnam War hero

July 6, 2012 

One of the next three destroyers to be commissioned by the U.S. Navy will be named after a South Carolinian most people have probably never heard of.

He wasn’t a governor, a congressman, a senator. He wasn’t a founding father nor a great general.

He was a 19-year-old African-American, a native of Charleston and a true American hero. His name was Ralph Johnson and on March 5, 1968, he was a United States Marine Corps private serving in Vietnam.

On that night, in a ferocious firefight with North Vietnamese forces in Quan Duc Valley, Johnson made a desperate belly dive onto a hand grenade, sacrificing his life to save those of two other Marines.

His heroism was rewarded with the Congressional Medal of Honor, given posthumuously to his mother in 1970 by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

And in 2017, almost 50 years later, Ralph Johnson will receive another great tribute from a thankful nation.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced earlier this year that one of the three destroyers now under construction will be named the Ralph Johnson.

Clebe McClary, who now lives in Pawleys Island, was Johnson’s commanding lieutenant at the time. He was wounded in the March 5 fight and lost his left eye and left arm.

He recently told The Post and Courier of Charleston that he was just 10 feet from Johnson and he owed his life to him.

McClary agreed that naming a destroyer after Johnson was a fitting tribute, but said it wasn’t his first choice.

“I would have liked to see that Ravenel Bridge named after him,” he told The Post and Courier.

Actually, this isn’t the first recognition this young hero has received. Grand Strand veterans may recognize his name on the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston.

I would guess that naming an Arleigh Burke class destroyer after a Marine Corps private, an African-American private at that, is unique.

But heroism knows no age, no race, and Ralph Johnson was, indeed, one of the most heroic sons of South Carolina. Kudos to our military leaders for recognizing as much.

Contact BOB BESTLER at bestler6@tds.net.

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