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Sgt. Dwight H. Johnson

Dwight Hal Johnson was born on May 7, 1947, in Detroit, Michigan. Raised by his single mother in the Jeffries Projects, Johnson was described by friends and neighbors as a gentle soul, a good boy who hated to fight. Growing up, he served as an altar boy and was an Explorer Scout. Despite being nicknamed "Skip," his mother recalled her skinny son being chased home after school by bullies. One day, he asked her, 'Mama, what do I do if they catch me?' She advised him not to fight and not to let the bullies catch him. Nevertheless, Johnson grew up to be an easy-going, bright young man, with a great sense of humor and an infectious smile. Many remembered that he was not easily rattled and impossible to anger.

When Johnson was 19 years old in 1966, he was drafted into the United States Army. After basic training, he trained to be a tank driver and was deployed to Vietnam in 1967. Johnson's unit, Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor, 4th Infantry Division, was close-knit. On January 15, 1968, Johnson, at 21 years of age, was chosen to replace another driver in a different tank. As the group of tanks proceeded along their assigned route just outside Dak To in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border and Ho Chi Minh Trail, several antitank rockets were hurled toward them, followed by a battalion-size force of North Vietnamese troops. Two of the four tanks—the one Johnson usually drove and the one he was in that day—were disabled immediately. Johnson’s tank lost its track, rendering it unable to maneuver, but its weaponry remained functional. The other tank, which held Johnson’s friends, began to burn. According to his citation,

'Realizing that he could do no more as a driver, he climbed out of the vehicle, armed only with a .45 caliber pistol. Despite intense hostile fire, Specialist 5th Class Johnson killed several enemy soldiers before he had expended his ammunition. Returning to his tank through a heavy volume of antitank-rocket, small-arms, and automatic weapon fire, he obtained a submachine gun with which to continue his fight against the advancing enemy. Armed with this weapon, Specialist 5th Class Johnson again braved deadly enemy fire to return to the center of the ambush site, where he courageously eliminated more of the determined foe. Engaged in extremely close combat when the last of his ammunition was expended, he killed an enemy soldier with the stock end of his submachine gun. Now weaponless, Specialist 5th Class Johnson ignored the enemy fire around him, climbed into his platoon sergeant's tank, extricated a wounded crewmember, and carried him to an armored personnel carrier. He then returned to the same tank and assisted in firing the main gun until it jammed. In a magnificent display of courage, Specialist 5th Class Johnson exited the tank and again, armed only with a .45 caliber pistol, engaged several North Vietnamese troops in close proximity to the vehicle. Fighting his way through devastating fire and remounting his own immobilized tank, he remained fully exposed to the enemy as he bravely and skillfully engaged them with the tank's externally mounted .50 caliber machine gun, where he remained until the situation was brought under control. Specialist 5th Class Johnson's profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army.'

Despite being under heavy enemy fire, Johnson was not seriously wounded. One soldier, Stan Enders, recalled, 'No one who was there could ever forget the sight of this guy taking on a whole battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers.' When the 30-minute battle ended, Enders stated that it took three men and three shots of morphine to calm Johnson down. As he raved, he wanted to kill the prisoners that were rounded up, and eventually they took Johnson in a straitjacket to a hospital in Pleiku. The next day, he was released from the hospital and packed up his gear to go home.

When Johnson returned home, he had a hard time adjusting. Initially, he found it hard to find work, while at the same time, he battled mentally with undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Johnson was jumpy and nervous and tried to stay busy. At night, he was plagued with horrible nightmares, and when anyone would ask him about Vietnam, he would shake his head or laugh and say, 'Aw, man, nothing happened,' and quickly change the subject.

In October of 1968, his life changed again when two military officers came to his home and questioned him about what he had been doing since his discharge. Fifteen minutes after learning he had not been in trouble, a colonel from the Department of Defense in Washington D.C. called and told him he was being awarded the Medal of Honor. A week later, on November 19, 1968, Sgt. Johnson and his family (to include his future wife Katrina) were at the White House and witnessed President Lyndon Johnson present his medal. Sgt. Johnson became the 10th black man in history to receive the medal and the first from Michigan. He was the first Michigan soldier to receive it during the Vietnam war. In the receiving line, his mother noticed Sgt. Johnson was crying and whispered, 'Honey, what are you crying about? You made it back.'

When he returned home and everyone learned he was a hero, the only living Medal of Honor winner in Michigan, everyone wanted a piece of him. Companies that would not give him the time of day rushed to hire him. The Army wanted him in Detroit recruiting because as a black man he could attract other blacks for the military. What Sgt. Johnson wanted for a while, he received. His stepfather, Brenton Alves, had been exiled from the United States for 12 years. The government claimed that Alves, a Jamaican, had entered the United States under an assumed name. Johnson's mother had been pregnant at the time with Johnson's brother, and Alves had never met his son. One month after Sgt. Johnson made a request for his stepfather to be allowed back in the United States, Alves was allowed back in and granted permanent resident status.

In January of 1969, he married Katrina and for their honeymoon, they returned to Washington D.C. as guests for President Nixon's inaugural. He began making countless personal appearances across Michigan for the Army. In February of 1969, 1,500 people paid $10 a plate to attend a testimonial dinner in his honor at Cobo Hall that was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company and the Chamber of Commerce. On February 14, 1969, the city renamed Washington Boulevard to the 'Sgt. Dwight H. Johnson Blvd' for the month of February.

Johnson and his wife Katrina struggled to cope with the pressures of newfound attention. He felt inadequate and exploited, particularly during a high school recruitment event where black students referred to him as an "electronic nigger" - likening him to a recruiting tool used by the Army. As bills piled up, Johnson developed painful bleeding ulcers. He began missing appointments and eventually went AWOL. Sent to an Army hospital in Pennsylvania for severe stomach pains, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with 'depression caused by post-Vietnam adjustment problems.' Johnson revealed to the psychiatrist that he continued to have nightmares which he did not share with his wife or mother. He questioned why he had been ordered to switch tanks the night before, why he was spared while others perished. He battled survivor guilt and questioned his own sanity, feeling sad and depressed most of the time. Even during his hospital treatment, the Army compelled him to attend events where he was expected to shake hands with VIPs.

Despite welcoming a son into the world, Sgt. Johnson's life spiraled out of control. He struggled to avoid the Army and faced overwhelming financial burdens. By April of 1971, his home was in foreclosure, and Katrina had to undergo surgery to remove an infected cyst. On April 21, 1971, with no money, Johnson, feeling depressed and alone, called a friend and expressed his despair. He later visited his wife at the hospital but still hadn't paid the required deposit. Later that evening, he sought a ride to collect money owed to him, offering to pay for the ride. After consuming alcohol at a lounge, he attempted a robbery at a convenience store, resulting in a fatal altercation with the store owner.

Johnson's tragic death sparked speculation about his state of mind during the robbery, though an autopsy revealed no evidence of drug use. Following his funeral, the Veterans Administration deemed Johnson incompetent at the time of the attempted robbery, entitling his widow and child to death benefits. His life story and struggles have inspired various forms of artistic expression, including poetry, nonfiction works, and an award-winning play by Tom Cole titled 'Medal of Honor Rag.'


Sgt Johnson and metal of honors.tif

Sgt. Dwight Johnson with his brother, David and mother, Joyce Alves in November 1968.

December 23, 1968 - Sgt. Johnson, with his brother David and mother Joyce, welcoming home his stepfather Brenton Alves.

February 15, 1969 - As a tribute to Detroit's Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Washington Blvd became Dwight H. Johnson Blvd.

May 5, 1971 - Funeral for Sgt. Dwight Johnson


Detroit Free Press - How a Quiet Man Went from Hero to Final Disgrace. June 1, 1971 - page 6B & 7B.

Detroit Free Press - Hero's Present to Mom: Dad Home for Holidays. December 24, 1968 - page 5A.

Detroit Free Press - It's Johnson Blvd. Now.  February 14, 1969 - page 3A.

Detroit Free Press  - Medal of Honor Winner Dies in Holdup Attempt. May 1, 1971 - page 1A & 2A.

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