Dwight Johnson: Medal of Honor Recipient and Vietnam War Hero

Photo Credit: White House Photograph Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized)
Photo Credit: White House Photograph Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (Colorized)

On January 15, 1968, Dwight Johnson transformed into a one-man army after the tank he was driving became immobilized while under intense enemy fire. He expended the ammunition of several small arms weapons, killing a number of enemy troops and saving his fellow servicemen. For this, he was awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor.

Born on May 7, 1947, Johnson grew up in public housing in Detroit, Michigan. He and his younger brother were raised by their single mother, with Johnson never knowing his father. In the mid-to-late 1960s, he was drafted into the US Army and assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 4th Infantry Division and sent to Vietnam.

Dwight Johnson’s efforts to save a stranded platoon in Vietnam

Military portrait of Dwight Johnson
Dwight Johnson. (Photo Credit: United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In mid-January 1968, not long before the Tet Offensive began, the 69th Armor Regiment received information that a frontline infantry platoon had come under intense fire from a large force of North Vietnamese troops. By their frantic communications, it was clear they needed help –  and fast.

Dwight Johnson hopped into his M48A3 Patton and fired up its V12 engine. He tore through the jungle as fast as he could and reached the stranded platoon. However, the terrain in Vietnam was notoriously hostile to the movement of tanks and, upon his arrival, the Patton he was driving threw a track, becoming immobilized.

While his use as a driver was over, Johnson wasn’t going to let his fellow Americans die. He grabbed his .45-caliber sidearm, left the relative safety of his tank and charged into the enemy troops through a hail of rocket and machine gun fire. Despite the attack coming from well-trained and armed foes, Johnson killed several North Vietnamese soldiers before his Colt .45 ran out of ammunition.

He ran back to his tank and grabbed the submachine gun lying inside. As his citation reads, “Armed with this weapon, Specialist Johnson again braved deadly enemy fire to return to the center of the ambush site where he courageously eliminated more of the determined foe.”

Continuing to fight through a hail of bullets

Three M48A3 Patton tanks driving forward in a line
M48A3 Patton tank. (Photo Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts / Classicstock / Getty Images)

The fighting became more and more intense until it reached hand-to-hand combat. Dwight Johnson, having killed more North Vietnamese with his submachine gun, once again ran out of ammunition and killed another with the butt of his weapon. Without any ammunition, he ran through the enemy’s bullets to the platoon sergeant’s tank, pulled out an injured crew member and carried him to an armored personnel carrier.

Although these actions were more than could be expected of a single man, Johnson was nowhere near done. He made his way back to the platoon sergeant’s tank, climbed inside and manned the main gun. He shelled the close-quarters battleground and operated the weapon until it jammed, after which he climbed out of the tank and ran back into the fray.

“In a magnificent display of courage, Specialist Johnson exited the tank and again armed only with a .45 caliber pistol, he engaged several North Vietnamese troops in close proximity to the vehicle,” continues his citation.

After mowing down more enemies, Johnson returned to his tank and, like a true hero, started raining fire with its roof-mounted .50-caliber machine gun. He remained in position until the fighting subsided. When the smoke cleared, the battlefield was littered with dead Vietnamese, many of whom were dispatched by Johnson in his frenzy.

Following the battle, he fought through the Tet Offensive and eventually returned home. For his incredibly selfless, brave and downright heroic actions, Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dwight Johnson’s life ended in tragedy

Lyndon B. Johnson placing the Medal of Honor around Dwight Johnson's neck
US President Lyndon B. Johnson presenting Dwight Johnson with the Medal of Honor. (Photo Credit: White House Photograph Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Dwight Johnson’s life was filled with difficulties caused by his experiences in Vietnam. Given what troops witnessed, it’s unsurprising that most veterans had a hard time readjusting to civilian life. Johnson, himself, struggled with the shock of returning home, built up large debts and suffered from depression.

Things got a little better after he received the Medal of Honor. He worked for the Army as a recruiter and made appearances to improve public relations. However, mentally, Johnson was still fighting, and began missing meetings and appointments. He repeatedly reenacted the moment in Vietnam he wanted to forget the most, and the toll became too much. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Johnson’s life ended on the night of April 29, 1971, when he walked into a local convenience store and attempted to rob it. The store owner shot him dead. He was described as mentally unstable due to the Vietnam War and his actions were a bi-product of the conflict. As a result, his widow received the military benefits she was owed.

Following his death, Johnson’s mother said, “Sometimes I wonder if Skip was tired of this life and needed someone else to pull the trigger.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE