Navy commissions new destroyer named for Charleston native

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller stands next to Helen Richards, the sister of Ralph Johnson. (Source: US Navy)
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller stands next to Helen Richards, the sister of Ralph Johnson. (Source: US Navy)
Marine Pfc. Ralph Johnson died heroically in Vietnam in 1968. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
Marine Pfc. Ralph Johnson died heroically in Vietnam in 1968. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
Cmdr. Jason Patterson, the commanding officer of the ship, speaks at the commissioning ceremony. (Source: Live 5)
Cmdr. Jason Patterson, the commanding officer of the ship, speaks at the commissioning ceremony. (Source: Live 5)

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Navy commissioned its newest destroyer, the USS Ralph Johnson, Saturday morning in Charleston.

The ship was commissioned as the Navy's 64th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at the Columbus Street Terminal in Charleston.

The commissioning comes 50 years after its namesake's death. It was named for Marine Pfc. Ralph Henry Johnson, a Charleston native who received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism during the Vietnam War.

Members of Johnson's family, including his sister, Helen Richards, attended the ceremony.

VIDEO: Scroll down for full video of the ceremony. 

Richards recognized the individual members of Johnson's family who attended the ceremony, some of whom are themselves active or retired military members.

"Ralph's ultimate dream was to wear the uniform of the United States Marine Corps," she said. "Ralph was only 18 when he joined and went to Vietnam. Even though I strongly objected because he already had an older sibling in the country, I knew he had to fulfill his dream, follow his heart's desire. Now I can't tell what was going through Ralph's mind when he decided to lunge his body upon the grenade. But I would like to think that he thought of his fellow Marines, their wives and their children they would leave behind."

"Ralph was my younger brother," she said. "He was both giving and a generous person, which he demonstrated daily with the life that he lived. I can remember Ralph in the neighborhood carrying [groceries for the] elderly, asking them if they needed help with anything around their home. He would give the shirt off his back if anyone needed it."

She called Cmdr. Jason Patterson, the commanding officer of the ship, one of the greatest commanders and said he and his crew will be blessed because the ship will be blessed.

"The USS Ralph Johnson will be blessed because the Johnson family is a praying family," she said.

Patterson said he immediately began reading about the man for whom the vessel was named when he received his assignment.

"I was immediately struck by the sense of honor and duty that Ralph had at such a young age," Patterson said. "Much has been said today about the heroism Ralph demonstrated on top of Hill 146, but for me personally, bringing this ship to life has given me the immeasurable privilege of getting to know about the type of man he was by meeting his family."

"He was a man of faith that always put others in front of himself. He did this as a child with his brothers and sisters and he did it in the early morning hours of March 5, 1968, for his teammates on Hill 146. Just as Ralph did for those around him, this crew takes care of each other and this ship takes care of us. That is the story I will carry with me for the rest of my life," Patterson said.

Johnson was killed instantly on March 5, 1968, when he used his body to shield two fellow Marines from a grenade when they came under attack on Hill 146 in enemy-controlled territory.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller delivered the commissioning ceremony's principal address.

"Fifty years and 19 days ago, a young black man from this city lost his life in a place halfway around the world as a US Marine," Neller said, paying tribute to Johnson's sacrifice.

Neller said he has never been in a foreign country in which someone, when asked where they wanted to live, didn't answer the United States."

"And as long as we have citizens like Ralph Johnson, who are willing to stand up, take an oath to wear the cloth of the nation to defend it, and, if required, if required, to make the ultimate sacrifice, we're going to be just fine."

Congressman Mark Sanford, Sen. Tim Scott and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg were among the guests.

Georgeann McRaven, wife of retired Adm. William McRaven, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command serves as sponsor of the ship. McRaven was set to follow a Navy tradition, giving the first order to "man our ship and bring her to life!"

Patterson, a native of Chicago, leads the leads the core crew of 330 officers and enlisted personnel. The 9,300-ton Ralph Johnson was built by Huntington Ingalls Industries in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The ship was launched on Dec. 12, 2015, and christened on April 2, 2016, during ceremonies at the Huntington Ingalls Industries shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. It completed its builder's trials on July 20.

It arrived in Charleston Monday ahead of the ceremony.

The ship is 509 feet in length, has a beam of 66 feet, and a navigational draft of 31 feet.  The ship is powered by four GE LM 2500 gas turbine engines driving twin controllable propellers to speeds up to 30 knots.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are multi-mission ships that conduct a variety of operations, from peacetime presence to national security.  The vessel's capabilities include providing improved detection and reaction against modern air warfare threats and ballistic missile defense. The ship's Aegis Combat System will allow it to link radars with other ships and aircraft to provide a composite picture of the battlespace.

New ships in this class are equipped with anti-ballistic missile capabilities as well.

After commissioning in Charleston, she will make her way to her homeport in Everett, Washington.

The Charleston VA Medical Center was also named for Johnson in 1991.

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