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Sgt. Dwight H. Johnson

Dwight Hal Johnson was born on May 7, 1947 in Detroit, Michigan.  He was 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 was an altar boy and Explorer Scout.  His nickname was "Skip," and his mother remembered her skinny son being chased home after school by bullies.  He asked her one day, "Mama, what do I do if they catch me?"  His mother advised him not to fight and not to let the bullies catch him.  Despite this, Johnson grew up to be an easy-going, bright young man, with a great sense of humor and infectious smile.  Many remembered 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, were close.  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 went along their assigned route just outside Dak To in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border and Ho Chi Minh Trail, several antitank rockets 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, so it could no longer 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, Sp5c. 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, Sp5c. 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, Sp5c. 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, Sp5c. 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. Sp5c. 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 (physically) wounded.  One solider, 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 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 was battling 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 Katina did not know how to handle all of the pressures coming from the newfound attention.  He felt inadequate and exploited.  At one high school recruitment event, the black high school students called him an "electronic nigger" - a robot the Army used to recruit blacks for the war.  Bills started piling up, and he developed painful bleeding ulcers.  Johnson began missing appointments and went AWOL.  He was sent to an Army hospital in Pennsylvania for his severe stomach pains and a psychiatrist diagnosed him as having "depression caused by post Vietnam adjustment problem."  Johnson told the psychiatrist, he continued to have nightmares that he did not share with his wife or mother.  He questioned why he had been ordered to switch tanks the night before?  He wanted to know why he was spared and not the others.  He had survivor guilt and questioned his own sanity.  He felt sad and depressed most of the time.  Even while he was being treated at the hospital, the Army forced him to attend events where he was expected to shake hands with VIPs.  

He and his wife welcomed a son into the world, but things kept spiraling out of control for Sgt. Johnson.  He tried to avoid the Army and continued to be overwhelmed financially.  By April of 1971, his home was in foreclosure, and Katrina had to enter the hospital to have an infected cyst removed.  With no money on April 21, 1971, he was told he needed to pay a $25 deposit for Katrina's hospital stay.  That night, Johnson feeling depressed and alone called a friend and told him, "I have a story I'm writing and I want you to peddle it for me.  It starts out like this: Sgt. Dwight Johnson is dead and his home has been wiped out." 

On April 29, 1971, Johnson visited his wife at the hospital.  He still had not paid the $25 deposit and the hospital was asking for it.  After he left the hospital, at about 9:00 pm, he called a friend and asked for a ride to pick up some money that someone owed him.  He offered to pay him $15 for the ride.  His friend and his friend's parents, picked Johnson up and drove him to where they thought his friend lived.  As they waited, Johnson first walked to the Sip 'N Chat Lounge where he consumed a shot of Johnny Walker and a Pabst beer.   

Once he finished his drinks, just after 11:30 p.m., Johnson was entered a convenience store called the Open Pantry and asked for a pack of cigarettes.  After the owner of the store opened the cash register, Johnson pulled a .22 caliber revolver and told the owner to step aside as he reached for the money in the drawer. The store owner reached for Johnson's gun and was shot twice - one bullet grazed him and the other struck him in the left arm.  The owner then grabbed for his own weapon that he had stored under the counter and returned fire with a .38 Special revolver. Seven shots were fired. Johnson sustained four bullet wounds, three to the chest and one to the face, and died on the operating table at 4:00 a.m. on April 30th.  He was just 23 years old.  Johnson was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on May 6, 1971.

People wondered if Johnson was on drugs at the time of the robbery.  The autopsy revealed he was not. 


Some time after the funeral, his mother Joyce said, "Sometimes I wonder if Skip tired of this life and needed someone else to pull the trigger."

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 child 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.”





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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