By W.F. ‘Bill’ Davis
Myrtle Beach, SC, USA
W.F. 'Bill' Davis
The following account has been exhaustively researched by David “Doc” Snider, Historian for the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and a 1st Reconnaissance Bn. Corpsman in Vietnam (1969) and by W.F. 'Bill' Davis, USMC (1970 - 1977). The names and events are real.
The American Forces in Vietnam faced the combined forces of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), a formal and well-equipped army, and the Viet Cong, sympathizers who lived by the Ho Chi Minh philosophy of farmers and villagers by day - soldiers by night. To the Marines in Vietnam, they were collectively known as “Charlie.”
Saturday morning, March 2, 1968
The fifteen-member team named Texas Pete sat on their packs beside the helicopter Landing Zone at Camp Reasoner. They were in "hurry up and wait" mode, second in line for insertion into the bush. The sun had begun to climb in the sky and warmed the back of their necks. In the distance, the clear sound of returning CH-46 transport helicopters could be heard. Lt. Clebe McClary turned and shouted "the birds are inbound, saddle up!" The CH-46 hovered down to the LZ in a big cloud of red dust and quickly team Texas Pete lumbered on board as other teams with other destinations began to assemble at the LZ. McClary ordered the team to "lock and load."
Reconners Loading onto CH-46
(credit: Larry Whitford)
The trip on the big CH-46 helicopter took forty-seven minutes. At the drop zone, the helicopter began taking on rifle fire, but to no effect. The team was scared that Charlie was waiting to greet them, but the 46 settled down onto Hill 146 with no trouble. On top the hill was a huge crater, formed by a heavy bomb dropped by a B-52, and it created a natural defensive position for the team.
Lt. McClary had the team break into groups of three's along the edge of the crater. He positioned the M-60 Machine Gun toward the most obvious route up the hill and the two M-79 Grenade Launchers at opposite sides of the crater. He kept his Navy Corpsman, Doc Green, and his radioman with him. After setting up the defensive positions, McClary and other team members began to “glass” the valley below with binoculars and a sighting scope. As the morning progressed into the afternoon, they glassed the trails in the valley while the sun beat down on their backs, but they observed no activity. The crater was unshaded and muddy at the bottom and the hot sun created a sauna-like effect, making it a muddy, miserable place to hunker down.
In the late afternoon, the team began to pick up Viet Cong activity nearby. On two separate occasions, one in mid-afternoon and another close to dark, McClary called in artillery fire. They stayed alert all night, only catnapping from time to time, but the night passed without incident.
Their second morning on the hill promised to be another day in the oven, but that concern quickly passed. The initial crack of a sniper's rifle was soon followed by more sniper fire. The sniper rounds began to “zing” over their heads and kick up mud when they impacted. Nonetheless, the team kept watch on the valley trails. Lt. McClary called in seven more artillery fire missions, as opportunities presented themselves throughout the day and into the late afternoon. Even though the artillery devastated Charlie's positions, the valley began to swarm with the enemy. They knew exactly where team Texas Pete was located.
As the sun set, McClary told the team they had to stay on 100% alert throughout the night; he knew Charlie would be coming. The team members didn't like this news at all. It was out of the ordinary to remain in a spot after being detected. Team members whispered nervously back and forth during the night and froze at every noise. But, once again, the night passed without a major incident.
Reconners - Camp Reasoner
(credit: Larry Whitford)
Throughout the next day, there were infrequent sightings of Viet Cong and each time a fire mission was called in. As evening approached the mood began to lighten. The men knew they would be extracted the next day. They joked and heated up their C-Rations for the evening meal.
But just as the light faded, Lt. McClary observed two large groups of uniformed troops, NVA, pouring into the area. This was disturbing. As the news spread, the mood of members of Texas Pete changed to foreboding.
There was no moon that night. It was still and the humidity hung in the air, dampening the skin; in the dank, muddy pit, the team kept watch on their assigned sectors. Nerves were stretched in anxious anticipation.
Just after midnight, several “whoomps” - the sound of mortars being fired - were quickly followed by bright, shattering explosions around the hilltop. Then the fiery trails of rocket-propelled grenades began to stream up from the valley below. Out of the darkness came a chorus of fanatical screams. The muzzle-flashes of AK-47 assault rifles briefly lit up the silhouettes of the charging NVA. All hell broke loose.
McClary got on the radio and called for a “Spooky” strike from an Air Force gunship equipped with a rapid-fire Gatling gun capable of putting thousands of rounds a minute onto enemy troops. The team popped flares that lit up the night and began to mow down the charging NVA. Strobe lights - bright lights that shined straight up so that Spooky could distinguish where the team was from the charging NVA - were hastily clicked on and stuck into the mud. Others frantically cranked the handpieces that detonate the Claymore mines that exploded outward like a big shotgun blast. One NVA soldier came screaming up to the lip of the crater and jammed an NVA flagpole into the mud before he was cut down. A grenade was lobbed into the hole where PFC Ralph Johnson and two other Marines were blasting away, their M-16's barrels glowing hot. Johnson screamed a warning, and instead of jumping away from the deadly grenade, he leaped on top of it and smothered it with his body. He was killed instantly.
PFC Ralph Henry Johnson
As the nightmare attack continued through the night, team Texas Pete held off the NVA charge with help from the “Spooky” gunships. Lt. McClary called for an emergency extraction when the fighting was over.
The CH-46 helicopter appeared like a delivering angel. The team survived, but took casualties, including the deaths of PFC Johnson and PFC Jennings. Lt. McClary survived even though he lost his left arm and right eye.
But without question, a pivotal act that helped save the team from being massacred was the action of PFC Johnson. If he had not sacrificed his life for his brother Marines, the perimeter would have been left open and the NVA would have penetrated the team's position and most likely killed them all.
PFC Ralph Henry Johnson was the only Black Marine of the Recon team Texas Pete. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina on January 1st 1949, one of nine children. He grew up in an old and poor section of Charleston during the height of the Civil Rights movement. He was a friendly, outgoing young man, loved by friends and family alike. His family regularly attended church services and he held his religious beliefs close to his heart. With few good career options, he made the decision to join the Marine Corps in 1967. When he arrived in Vietnam and was attached to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion at Camp Reasoner, he quickly made friends with the other team members, and although he didn't smoke, drink or use strong language, he socialized with the other members of the team. He earned their respect on his first patrol when unusual circumstances put him, a rookie, in the rear where normally an experienced Recon team member would have been positioned. After the team was ambushed from the front, PFC Johnson was required to lead the team away from the attack, and he did so with such aggressive, smart and evasive maneuvers that he was highly praised by his team leader. He was considered a natural Reconner and a valued asset to his team. Hill 146 was his fourth and last mission. He had only been in Vietnam for two months and a few days when he was killed, at the age of twenty.
PFC Ralph Johnson’s remains were returned home to Charleston on March 17, 1968. He was buried after a brief ceremony in the cemetery behind St. Phillips AME Church, off Highway 61 in rural Charleston.
On April 20, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon presented to the family of PFC Ralph Henry Johnson the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest recognition and honor a member of the United States Military can receive.
On September 5, 1991, twenty-three years after his heroic act, the Veterans Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina was renamed the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Hospital.
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PFC Ralph H. Johnson