Valor Friday

| March 25, 2022

Dwight H Johnson

This week’s article subject comes by way of a request from Ex-PH2. He’s a man worth remembering, that’s for sure.

Dwight Johnson was born in Detroit in 1947. He never knew his father. His mother raised him and his younger brother in a housing project in the Motor City. Along the way he got the nickname “Skip” and was later remembered as a quiet, friendly kid with an easy smile.

Army doctors would later note that Johnson was bright (IQ of 120). As a child he described himself as a “good boy.” In fact, the only time he remembered having lost his temper was when several boys were picking on his younger brother. In a chilling vision of the fighting warrior within Skip, grownups had to pull him off the bullies.

In 1966, after graduating high school and at just 19 years old, Johnson was drafted into the Army as American involvement in Vietnam was greatly intensifying. He received training as a tanker and was assigned to drive the M48 Patton main battle tank.

The M48 became famous as the tank that saw the widest service during the Vietnam War, but the conflict largely didn’t lend itself to large armored engagements. The jungles, swamps, and rice paddies of Vietnam weren’t kind to the 50 tons of American steel. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces also preferred to engage in ambushes over pitched battles. Shoulder-fired anti-tank missile systems the communists received from their friends in Russia and China would easily tear through the lumbering behemoths.

Johnson’s comrades remember him as easy going, impossible to anger (even when the jokes turned racial), and with a steely resolve. He had a great sense of humor, an easy smile, and quickly became “one of the guys” in his unit.

Only known color photo of Dwight Johnson, on right (photo courtesy of John R Perry)

Johnson deployed to Vietnam in 1967 and was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. The 69th Armor had been in Vietnam since January 1966. They saw combat soon after, setting the stage for how American armor would be employed during the war. The 1st Platoon of Company B had already earned a Presidential Unit Citation for aiding South Korean troops engaged with the enemy in the Ia Drang valley (where months earlier the famous “We Were Soldiers” Battle of Ia Drang had ended with an American retreat).

By January 1968, now-Specialist Five Johnson had settled into a routine. He’d become close, as men do in-theater, with his four-man tank crew. He was nearing the end of their year in-country. He’d spent more than 11 months with these men, and they had yet to see combat, which was fine with Skip. He had two weeks left and already had orders in hand to return home.

As they set out on the 15th of January in a column of four tanks, Johnson was not assigned to his regular tank. He replaced an absent driver, but his usual crew and their tank were also in the column. This was just more than two weeks before the famous Tet Offensive would put the Americans collectively on their back feet.

The tankers were enroute to aid another element of their platoon that had come under attack by a North Vietnamese Army force outside Dak To near the Cambodian border. North Vietnamese (NVA) troops were estimated to be battalion-sized in number.

As Johnson’s column approached the battle, anti-tank missiles shot out of the trees. Two of the four tanks were disabled. Johnson’s normal tank, ahead of him in the column, burst into flames with his friends still inside. The tank Johnson was driving was the other one hit. His tank had lost a track, rendering it immobile, but its weapons were still up.

Dozens of NVA troops poured out of the jungle to attack the two working tanks. With his tank unable to be driven, Johnson exited the armored vehicle, armed only with his .45 sidearm.

The determined enemy targeted the tanks with small arms and automatic weapons fire as they readied more anti-tank rockets. With only his pistol, Specialist Johnson leapt off the tank and engaged the enemy single-handedly, killing several.

Exhausting his sidearm, Johnson re-mounted his tank, having to move through the open and the withering fire once again to do so. Jumping back in the tank, he retrieved a submachine gun, and again left what safety his armor provided, against the pleas of his fellow crewmates.

Once again rearmed, Johnson ran back through the open, and to the middle of the American line of battle, which was rapidly shrinking under the withering fire as waves of enemy troops poured into them.

Johnson fired his second weapon with deadly accuracy, dispatching still more of the NVA’s ambushers before once more running out of ammunition. By this time, the enemy had overwhelmed the GIs and the fighting had devolved into a hand-to-hand melee.

With only an empty rifle, Johnson still fought on. At about this point in the fighting he came face to face with a communist soldier who pointed his weapon at Johnson’s head. When the enemy soldier pulled the trigger, his weapon only clicked, and Johnson killed his would-be killer. Without any ammunition, he literally beat the enemy soldier to death with the stock of his gun.

Weaponless, Johnson now directed his attention to the wounded. He mounted his platoon sergeant’s tank (his normal tank) and carried one injured crew member out of the hulk. Dragging that man to the safety of an armored personnel carrier, he then returned to the tank. Climbing inside, Johnson helped to load and fire the M48’s main gun until the weapon jammed.

While in this tank he either found another .45 or some more ammunition (or both), because he got out of this second tank armed with a sidearm. Once more into the breach, Johnson launched a one-man pistol attack at the enemy.

When that second pistol ran dry, and he was again left without a way to kill people, he fought his way back to his original tank and mounted it. This time he took the .50-caliber machine gunner’s position. This would be his fifth and final weapon of the battle. He remained behind the .50-cal until the enemy was finally repulsed. The battle had lasted only 30 minutes. He’d killed somewhere between five and 20 enemy troops.

One of the men that bore witness to Johnson’s bravery said, “No one who was there could ever forget the sight of this guy taking on a whole battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers.” Somehow he left the battle without serious injury, despite being under heavy fire constantly.

The battle, though, had driven Skip Johnson into a full berserker rage at the NVA enemy who had ambushed him and his friends, killing and wounding so many. At the end of the battle, he turned on the prisoners and tried to kill them. It took three men and three shots of morphine to hold the Detroiter E-5 down. He had to be tied into a straight jacket and was sent to hospital in Pleiku.

For his actions that January day Johnson would be awarded the Medal of Honor. In Johnson’s award citation, it described his actions that day as “a magnificent display of courage” and that he showed “profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” No truer words could be spoken.

The indomitable heroics of the tank driver (one of only a handful or Armor Branch Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War) left him with understandable psychological trauma. He was released from the hospital only the next day after the fight, whereupon he returned to his unit. Only there long enough to collect his belongings, he was leaving Vietnam. Probably not the way he wanted to or was expecting.

As a draftee, his two years of service came to an end soon after. He returned to Detroit, but I think a large part of him never left Vietnam. Discharged with $600 in his pocket, he showed no outward signs that his last two years had caused any changes. Inside though, he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. His family would only later learn, far too late from Army psychiatrists, of the demons that came out in his nightmares.

If anyone back home in Detroit asked about Vietnam he would laugh and say “Aw, man, nothing happened.” He’d then changed the subject quickly to the ladies of Kuala Lumpur (an R&R location) or the three-day pass he got to Kentucky where he drank the state’s trademark whiskey to excess for the first time and wound up in jail. His easy going nature and sense of humor helped mask his problems.

Leaving Vietnam days before the Tet Offensive started, his friends and relations back home talked about how lucky he was to have left the country before things got so hot. They teased him about a lackluster military career.

Unable to find work, Johnson built up a good deal of debt. In November 1968, several months after his discharge, two Army military policemen came to his house one day. His mother saw the uniforms before they knocked and asked her son what he’d done. “I didn’t do nothing, honest, Ma,” he told her.

The MPs asked questions of Skip. Had he been arrested since leaving the service? Where was he working? They left without much explanation. Minutes after the men left, the phone rang. It was a colonel from the Pentagon congratulating Johnson on being awarded the Medal of Honor. They were asked if they could be in Washington, D.C. the following week so the president could personally drape the blue silk ribbon of the medal around one of the nation’s bravest heroes.

Johnson received the medal from President Johnson (no relation) on 19 November 1968 in a ceremony at the White House. Among the others receiving the Medal of Honor at this ceremony is one man we’ve talked about before, Captain (Chaplain) Charles Liteky.

After the awards ceremony, during the receiving line, his mother finally reached him. Johnson had tears running down his face. His mother whispered, “Honey, what are you crying about? You’ve made it back.” She didn’t realize that for some men it’s the making it back that’s the hard part. He was deep in survivor’s guilt, something many other valor award recipients struggle with.

After receiving the nation’s highest honor, Johnson was suddenly inundated with job offers. He was the only living Medal of Honor recipient in the state of Michigan. Among those who wanted to give him a job was the Army. He returned to the Army a month later, working as a recruiter and doing public relations appearances.

An Army employee who worked with Skip said, “The brass wanted him in the Detroit recruiting office because, let’s face it, here was a black Medal of Honor winner, and blacks are our biggest manpower pool in Detroit. Personally, I think a lot of promises were made to the guy that couldn’t be kept. You got to remember that getting this guy back into the Army was a feather in the cap of a lot of people.”

The start of 1969 became a bit of a fresh start for Johnson. He married Katrina and the newlyweds were invited to Nixon’s Inauguration. For several months after that, now-Sergeant Johnson was the hottest commodity for the Army in Michigan. He was speaking at events at every American Legion, VFW, Rotary, and Lions Club in the region.

One thing that came with the fame of being a bona fide war hero was financial credit. Everyone was willing to extend a line of credit to the valiant young man. The jeweler wouldn’t even consider a down payment on the ring Johnson bought for his engagement. Ford Motor Company even gave him a free lease on a Thunderbird.

Local Detroit pillars of the community wanted to steer the young man into a bright future. One lawyer tried to talk him into going to college. He told Johnson how the black community leaders in the city would pick up the tab, he wouldn’t have to pay anything. The world was laid out in front of him, but Johnson didn’t want it. He had come from humble beginnings in the projects and had now been thrust onto the world stage. He didn’t seem comfortable in the spotlight.

Soon the pressures mounted for Johnson. He began experiencing severe stomach pains and wouldn’t show up to work at the recruiting office. One of his co-workers said he would have to pick Johnson up and nearly handcuff himself to the sergeant to ensure he got to the events he was supposed to attend. The co-worker couldn’t understand it, but for those of us who’ve seen PTSD, we know both gastrointestinal issues and a sudden inability to keep one’s affairs in order are signs of a problem.

In 1970 he was sent to Selfridge Air Force Base to have the medical folks look at his stomach issues. They sent him to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania. He soon found his way into the hands of the shrinks there.

Among the findings of the medical folks, who noted Johnson had gone absent without leave for three months, was the diagnosis, “Depression caused by post Vietnam adjustment problem.” He remained at Valley Forge Hospital for quite a while undergoing treatment in the psych ward.

Johnson was disillusioned with the Army. He felt like they were using him as a prop. The men he’d meet at the public relations events would pump his hand and offer him a job if he ever decided to leave the Army. On more than one occasion he called them later and none of them remembered who he was.

While home on leave he drove his mother to a doctor’s appointment. A black off-duty Detroit Police officer recognized the city’s biggest hero and asked Skip about his experiences in Vietnam. So tired of such questions, he said “Don’t ask me anything about the medal. I don’t even know how I won it.”

Johnson increasingly felt like the Army was exploiting him for his race, making him out to be an inspiration to black kids. This was especially hurtful when some of his speeches at Detroit high schools were picketed by militants who called him “electronic ni–er”. That he was a robot being used by the Army to recruit blacks to fight in Asia.

By the beginning of 1971, with the country fixated on the trial and conviction of First Lieutenant William Calley for war crimes in Vietnam, Johnson left the Valley Forge Hospital and never came back. He was considered AWOL, but “How can you take punitive action against a Medal of Honor holder?” as one major at the hospital said.

Coming back to Detroit, the Army persuaded Ford to repossess the Thunderbird on the thought that without a car he’d return to the fold. Johnson didn’t. He cashed the back paycheck in his pocket and bought a beater. He changed his phone number to avoid calls from the Army and his creditors.

By April, Johnson’s mortgage hadn’t been paid in nine months and foreclosure proceedings had started. On 28 April the car broke down at the same time his wife went into the hospital to have an infected cyst removed. He had no money to pay for either.

On 30 April Skip visited his wife in the hospital. He gave no indication anything was unusual. After getting home he got a ride to a predominantly white neighborhood from a friend. He told them to drop him off and wait while he went around the corner and got money from somebody that owed him.

About 45 minutes later, as it was nearing midnight, two cops pulled up with guns drawn. “What are you doing here?” They demanded. Skip’s friends said they were waiting for someone. “Who?” Dwight Johnson, they told the police. “Dwight Johnson’s on the floor of a grocery store around the corner. He’s been shot.”

Skip had walked into the corner grocery store about 15 minutes prior. He drew a .22-caliber revolver out of his coat pocket and demanded money. The owner was getting money when Johnson is said to have shot at him (hitting the man’s bicep). The owner, now armed with his own revolver (a .38-special), shot back.

Johnson stood there, shot twice in the chest, gun still in hand and calmly told the man, “I’m going to kill you.” The shopkeep fired until his gun was empty. He struck Johnson once more in the chest and once in the head.

Johnson was rushed to the hospital but he died on the operating table about four hours later. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery a week later. His mother opined, “Sometimes I wonder if Skip tired of this life and needed someone else to pull the trigger.” I think she is unfortunately spot on in her assessment. Sergeant Dwight “Skip” Johnson was just 23 years old.

I think Johnson suffered from, in addition to PTSD and survivor’s guilt, the weight of the Medal of Honor. It’s been called “a lifelong burden” by some recipients. Johnson isn’t the first to collapse under such a weight, I previously talked about Major Charles Whittlesey of the famed “Lost Battalion” in World War I and his similarly tragic end.

In a rare show of compassion and common sense, the Veterans Affairs Administration declared Johnson incompetent at the time of his death, thus entitling his wife and young children suvivor’s benefits.

Special thanks to the site that pointed Ex-PH2 to this here, Cherries Writer.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Real Soldiers, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

2 minute video of President Lyndon Johnson awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Specialist 5, Dwight H. Johnson, 19 November 1968 at the White House.

Thank You, Mason, Ex-PH2 and Cherries Writer for sharing this story.

Rest In Peace, Soldier. Never Forget.


Sad story.
Rest in peace brother.

Green Thumb



DAAYUUM! The epitome of “…bring every weapon to bear!” Including, but not limited to, the main tank gun, Ma Deuce, and the stock of his rifle. Shades of the Alamo…or The Mule Shoe. Note that the FIRST (ht 2 Hack) weapon he went into battle with was his .45 sidearm. Reading the stories of these Warriors make the actions and lies of the POSers that much more despicable. May their “receiving line” consist of a gauntlet of Heroes beating them into submission before they are turned over to the Barbed Cock of Satan.

May you Rest Easy SP/SGT Johnson with your fellow Warriors of Fiddlers Green and Valhalla. A Battery Gun Salute in your Honor, Good Sir.

Thanks again, Mason.


Rest in peace, Skip.



Thank you for your service, brother. And rest in eternal peace.


It was a tragic ending for a wonderful man, Thank you Ex-PH2, and Mason for remembering him. Sergeant Dwight “Skip” Johnson, was and still is a hero in my book and always will be. You will never be forgotten Sir.


Perfect timing since today is National Medal of Honor Day:

Salute. Never Forget.