This is the story of a fellow Detroiter, a tank driver in Vietnam, who took on a battalion of NVA troops after they ambushed his armor platoon and knocked out two of the four tanks. He survived the ferocious battle, was awarded the MOH and became a celebrity. Since then, he suffered severely from survivor’s guilt and was killed three years later during a robbery attempt. Here’s his story:
SUMMARY: On January 15, 1968, four M48 tanks from Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, were ambushed by a battalion of North Vietnamese Army troops near Dak To, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Rocket strikes disabled two of the tanks immediately and enemy ground troops began to pour out of the tree line to destroy the others. The driver of one of the disabled tanks, Specialist 5 Dwight H. Johnson, exited his own vehicle and through a hail of gunfire, engaged the enemy battalion alone. He later ran to a burning tank, threw open the hatch, and pulled one severely burned crewmember out just as the tank’s unfired shells exploded, killing everyone else inside. Johnson remounted his own disabled tank, assisted in firing the main gun, and then manned the top-mounted .50-caliber machine gun, where he fired furiously until the North Vietnamese withdrew. Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage that day, but his fight was far from finished.
FULL STORY: Dwight Hal Johnson was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1947. He grew up in public housing, where he was raised along with his brother by a single mother. As a child, he somehow got the nickname “Skip,” which stuck with him for the rest of his life. Growing up, everyone remembered Skip as a quiet, friendly kid who was always ready with a smile. In 1966, at the age of 19, Johnson was drafted into the U.S. Army. He trained to become a tank driver, and when he deployed to Vietnam in 1967, he was with one of the very few tank units in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. Army found few roles for tanks and other heavy armored vehicles in the Vietnam War. The terrain of Southeast Asia—marshy river deltas, rugged forested mountains, thick jungle landscapes, and few major roads—made them impractical in most combat situations. Additionally, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese strategy of avoiding pitched battles in favor of ambushes and quick strikes further limited tanks’ usefulness. Tanks could be especially vulnerable to shoulder-fired Chinese- and Soviet-made antitank rockets, which Communist troops preferred for ambushing American armor units. Johnson and the 1st Battalion of the 69th Armor learned this for themselves on January 15, 1968.
By early 1968, Johnson had grown quite close with his tank crew, which included his platoon sergeant. But when his platoon of four M48 tanks and several other armored vehicles left on patrol that day, Johnson was driving a different tank, replacing an absent driver for the day. As the crews tracked along their assigned route just outside Dak To in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border, several antitank rockets streaked out of a tree line on their flank, as a battalion-size force of North Vietnamese troops sprung an ambush. Two of the four tanks—the one Johnson usually drove and the one he was in that day— was disabled immediately. Johnson’s tank lost its track, so it could no longer maneuver, but its weaponry remained functional. The other tank which held Johnson’s friends—began to burn furiously.
Unable to drive his tank any longer, Johnson grabbed his .45-caliber pistol and exited the hatch into a cacophony of incoming mortars, rockets, and automatic weapons fire. He desperately wanted to get to the burning tank to help his crewmates, but the enemy fire remained too intense. After he expended all the bullets in his pistol, he re-entered his tank, grabbed a submachine gun, and again fired on the ambushing force until he was out of ammunition. The North Vietnamese were close-in by this point, and Johnson fought off one of them with just the butt of his now-emptied gun, before somehow making it to the burning tank in one piece. He climbed up, opened the hatch, and pulled out the first man he found. The crewman was severely burned and barely conscious. Johnson carried him to a nearby armored personnel carrier. As he turned to run back to the burning tank, the unfired artillery shells inside it exploded. Anyone still alive in the burning wreckage would have been killed instantly.
Johnson kept going. He re-mounted his own disabled tank and helped fire the main gun until it jammed. He then moved to the vehicle’s top-mounted .50-caliber machine gun, where he was fully exposed to enemy fire. He remained there, firing furiously until the North Vietnamese finally withdrew.
One soldier who witnessed what Johnson did that day was stunned. He later recalled in an interview, “No one who was there could ever forget the sight of this guy taking on a whole battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers.” Johnson had never been seriously wounded during the battle, despite being exposed to enemy fire for most of it. He was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
For the quiet, friendly man from Detroit, however, battles were far from an end. Johnson immediately struggled to return to duty, and he was hospitalized, first in Vietnam and then later when he was sent home to Michigan. After the White House ceremony presenting him with his Medal of Honor, Johnson’s mother found him in a corner with tears streaming down his face. “Honey, what are you crying about?” she asked, concerned. “You’ve made it back,” Johnson complained to his doctors of being unable to sleep due to constant nightmares. He also expressed tremendous survivor’s guilt. He not only believed he should have been with his friends in that burning tank, but he also felt guilty about receiving honors for living through the fight.
Johnson became a small celebrity virtually overnight, and the demands on his time from people who wanted him to make speeches or appearances, especially in and around Detroit, weighed him down. People frequently pressed him to tell of his combat experiences, wanting especially to hear his Medal of Honor story. He always obliged, even as doing so must have constantly dragged up hard memories. According to friends and family, Johnson felt ill-prepared for the spotlight in which he found himself. He fought a spiraling depression and began experiencing excruciating stomach pains. He was also diagnosed with what we now call post-traumatic stress. He had trouble keeping work. After Johnson sank into financial debt, he decided to reenlist in the Army as a recruiter. Then, in April 1971, Johnson walked into a convenience store less than a mile from his house and attempted to hold up the cashier with a pistol. He and the owner of the store exchanged gunfire, and Johnson was shot four times. He was pronounced dead at the hospital hours later. He was 23 years old.
In the years after his tragic death, Johnson was declared by the Veterans Administration incompetent at the time of the attempted robbery and thus his widow and children were entitled to death benefits. His life story and his mental and physical struggles have been the inspiration for everything from poetry and works of nonfiction to film and theater, including an award-winning play by Tom Cole, called “Medal of Honor Rag.” Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just a few dozen yards from President John F. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame, overlooking the Potomac River.
This article originally appeared on the Vietnam 50th Anniversary website. Here’s the direct link: https://www.vietnamwar50th.com/education/week_of_january_9_2022/
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