The Vietnam Tanker That Fought Off an Ambush with His Colt 45

 
 
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Dwight Johnson came from the housing projects in Detroit and became a recipient of  the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Even more noteworthy is that he did so by emerging from his tank to fight with a .45 caliber pistol.

Johnson’s action was not only an interesting story in its own right, a story of courage under fire, but also tells us a great deal about the difficulties of operating in Vietnam, the interplay between small arms fire and armored units, and the difference a single soldier can make.

On January 15, 1968, Specialist Fifth Class Johnson was a tank driver in a quick reaction force. He was moving to support the remainder of his platoon, who were engaging a battalion sized North Vietnamese force. The North Vietnamese quickly immobilized Johnson’s tank with a hit to the track.

U.S. Army Specialist Dwight H. Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in Vietnam
U.S. Army Specialist Dwight H. Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry in Vietnam

Knowing that he couldn’t drive the tank anymore, Johnson jumped out and engaged the enemy with a .45 caliber pistol. Facing intense hostile fire, he killed several enemy soldiers before he expended his ammunition.

Tank in position to provide static road security, Vietnam
Tank in position to provide static road security, Vietnam

Through a heavy volume of anti-tank rockets, small arms, and automatic weapons fire, Johnson returned to the tank, grabbed a sub machine gun, and continued to attack the advancing enemy.

He approached the center of the ambush site and continued to pour fire into the enemy. By the time he expended all of that ammunition, the enemy was upon him, and he killed an enemy soldier with the stock end of the machine gun.

Mahlon S Jenkins, A 1 503d – 173rd Airborne Brigade – photo taken during the battle of Dak To on Hill 882 (1967).
Mahlon S Jenkins, A 1 503d – 173rd Airborne Brigade – photo taken during the battle of Dak To on Hill 882 (1967).

Finding himself without a weapon, Johnson ignored the enemy fire around him and climbed into his platoon sergeant’s tank.

He evacuated a wounded crewmember, carrying him to an armored personnel carrier. He then returned to the same tank and assisted in loading, aiming, and firing the main gun until it jammed.

Men of Troop B, 1st Battalion, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and their M-48 Patton tank move through the jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, June 1969
Men of Troop B, 1st Battalion, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, and their M-48 Patton tank move through the jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, June 1969

At this point Johnson once again exited the tank with a .45 caliber pistol and engaged the North Vietnamese soldiers swarming the tank.

Then he remounted his own tank and skilfully engaged the enemy with the .50 caliber externally mounted machine gun until the situation was brought under control.

M1919 A6 (30 caliber medium machine gun) defensive position.
M1919 A6 (30 caliber medium machine gun) defensive position.

It sounds insane to exit a tank to use a pistol, but an immobilized tank in rough and mountainous jungle terrain is susceptible to infantry and small arms fire. This is a big reason why the tank had an externally mounted .50 caliber machine gun.

The human wave assaults of the North Vietnamese relied upon large numbers of lightly armed soldiers, which suited their relative lack of heavy equipment and large population.

Russian made PT76 Tank destroyed at Ben Het.
Russian made PT76 Tank destroyed at Ben Het.

Conversely, it also made aiming rather easy for the tank’s defenders, such as Johnson. Even a pistol could hit quite a few attacking soldiers who often had to get very close to be effective.

Dwight H. Johnson
Dwight H. Johnson

Read another story from us: Chaplain Gave All in Vietnam – Awarded the Medal of Honor

Infantry men are often trained to aim for the tracks of enemy tracks, as those are most vulnerable and can result in a mobility kill.

So it’s not surprising that happened relatively early in the battle, especially with such few roads and areas suitable to mobile warfare in Vietnam.

What the North Vietnamese didn’t count on afterward was the devastating determination of one tank driver with small arms fire.

 
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