Exclusive tour of future USS Ralph Johnson ahead of commissioning ceremony

USS Ralph Johnson 2 (WCIV).JPG

A new naval destroyer will sit just off the Charleston coast over the weekend. Its namesake honors a fallen Lowcountry Marine.

“It was very impactful,” recalled Chief Kenneth Slaten of the time he first heard the story of Ralph Johnson. “A Vietnam vet who gave his life for his country.”

It’s not just the war hero’s legacy that lives on in the name of the ship. His spirit lives on in the crew.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, Johnson, a Charleston native, threw himself on a grenade during a mission in Vietnam to save his fellow Marines. He died instantly.

On April 20, 1970, President Richard Nixon presented the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor, to the Johnson family.

The VA hospital in Charleston has also been named after him—the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

Many sailors had never heard the story of bravery before stepping foot aboard the future USS Ralph Johnson, but it hit home for Slaten. “My dad was a Vietnam vet infantry in the Army,” Slaten said. “A very similar background. It seemed like it was a perfect ship for me to go to and an opportunity for me to serve my country like he did. A smaller version of what he did.”

So, it’s Slaten’s honor to ensure his crew puts the final touches on the Navy’s latest destroyer.

“We are very proud of the work we've put into it,” he said. “Now we want to take it forward and show it to the people of Charleston, what we're bringing to life for the Navy.”

It is no small feat to bring this boat “to life.” It took years to build, piece by piece in a Naval shipyard in Mississippi. “It was almost like a bunch of kids playing with Legos,” Slaten explained. “They would build a part in one section then a part in a different section. Then, they would put it all together to make a complete project. It was remarkable.”

Construction was only the first hurdle, according to Commander Jason Patterson. “It’s hard work to build a crew,” he said. “There's a substantial amount of training that goes into getting the crew ready for that initial taking of custody and that sailing away when we're operating the ship at sea by ourselves.”

It is pride and respect in oneself and the namesake.

“The key to a successful ship and crew is taking ownership right from the start,” Patterson said.

So the work never stops, all in the name of Ralph Johnson.

Much of the crew has been with the ship for about two years and took formal custody of the Arleigh Burke destroyer in December. It is a special type of ship that supports a broad range of naval needs. “We provide things as far as ballistic missile defense.” Slaten added. “We also provide anti-piracy, anti-sub warfare, anti-surface warfare.”

The warship is equipped with new technology and a new weapons system—a combination of guns that shoot together for small boat attacks. “This is one of the first ships with this,” said Slaten.

The destroyer’s crew is small, too, which allows for a hands-on experience from the very beginning.

“It’s very fast-paced and a lot of work, but you can get involved. “It's a smaller crew than a lot of ships, but it requires everyone to get involved to successfully complete a mission,” Slaten explained.

Now, that mission is Charleston, and at the end of a hard day’s work, the crew relaxes in the mess decks with Johnson watching over.

The crew erected a mural in honor of Johnson along a far wall—one of the only pictures taken of Johnson while in Vietnam.

“This is where the crew eats, where they take time off, relax, watch movies, where they take moments at the end of the work days,” said Commander Master Chief Steven Quick. “We thought that it would be appropriate here with them laughing and enjoying themselves and capturing the moment and what the mess decks truly represent for our sailors.”

It's where new sailors come to learn about the hero and the ship that bears his name.

“For me personally it's a privilege to be able to teach them the sacrifice that a young human being willingly gave his life for his fellow Marines,” said Quick. “To be able to explain to them that our foundation is all the same of taking care of each other no matter where we're from.”

The tributes don’t stop there, though.

The ship’s crest was designed by the crew. The light blue represents the Medal of Honor Johnson received. The Southern Cross comes from Johnson’s Marine Corps. Battalion crest. The dragons are a symbol of Vietnamese folklore, and the star above them represents the life Johnson saved in Vietnam.

Additionally, the ship’s call sign is “point man”, the name of the most trusted position in Johnson’s reconnaissance battalion—a position Patterson said Johnson wanted and volunteered for numerous times, including the day he was killed.

“This is the highlight of my career, and the rest of the crew, is to be able to take this ship to sea in the name of Ralph Johnson, who is obviously a Charleston hero and now a Navy Marine Corps hero,” said Commander Patterson.

The ship will be homeported in Everett, Washington, but the first stop is Charleston, to welcome the warship into service.

“Just over 18 years ago I left South Carolina to join the Navy, and I didn’t know where it would take me,” said Slaten. “Now I’m closing in on the end of my career. I’m pulling in to my home state, and I have a lot of my family members coming to see the commissioning so it's a very proud moment for me.”

The ship will dock in Charleston at the Columbus Street Terminal on Monday where it will remain until the commissioning ceremony on Saturday, March 24.

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