Ralph Johnson: No greater love than to lay down your life for a friend


The week leading up to the commissioning of the Naval destroyer named in honor of fallen Marine Ralph Johnson has been full of events to honor the Lowcountry hero and teach thousands about the ultimate sacrifice he made.

On Wednesday, the members of his reconnaissance team, and the very men he saved in Vietnam, reunited in Charleston ahead of the commissioning of the USS Ralph Johnson.

One of those men is Lieutenant Clebe McClary. The Pawleys Island native was Johnson's commanding officer during his short stint in Vietnam and became more of a father figure to him, according to McClary's wife Deanna.

"This is the hardest month for Cleve," said Deanna, who had only been married to Clebe for six months when he left for Vietnam. "His whole persona changes a bit in March. I used to wonder why what have I done. Then I realize war comes home, and you adapt to your new warrior.

It was 50 years ago this month that McClary's life changed.

"We were out there are all by ourselves with the enemy all around us," Clebe said.

On March 5, 1968, McClary lead a reconnaissance team during what was supposed to be the biggest mission in Vietnam at the time--Operation ROCK.

Because the team was only doing reconnaissance, he took his best off the mission.

Still, Ralph Johnson volunteered.

What McClary didn't know is that the mission would ultimately be canceled and the men were stranded, surrounded by the enemy with no way out.

That night, on Hill 146, Johnson threw himself on a grenade to save his Lieutenant and his fellow Marines.

"I hate to lose Ralph, but if he hadn't done it I wouldn't be here," McClary said. Did he want to do it, I don't know. He ended up on it, and I'm alive. I would have tried to get the hang out it. I'm not a hero. Ralph Johnson is a hero."

McClary said Johnson wasn't scared to death.

"If I had died, I would have split hell wide open," he said. "Someone not scared to death and ready to go, jumping on a grenade ain't no big thing. If you lost as a goose, it's a little different."

McClary took the chance to come and "get his heart right," and his wife believes faith and communication about the tragedies of war have helped him heal over the years.

Plus, the stories he carries with him of Ralph and the bond they forged over their Southern roots have helped.

"You oughta see the meals Johnson and I cooked together," he said with a chuckle. "You all the sea rats and think you gonna come out with Frogmore stew. It ain't gonna work."

McClary and his wife are most excited about getting the team, the Texas Pete Rangers, back together this week to celebrate Ralph.

"It's the first time that we've all been together, and it's the last time," he said. "We know that. How do you describe that? It will never happen again, and we know that."

Still, they are thankful for a week of healing, hope, and honor all in Ralph's name.

"Ralph would be embarrassed," Clebe said. "He would be shy. He would smile and be happy. I'm sure he would proud of his city."

McClary gave one of his eyes and arms in service that night in Vietnam.

His wife said it took spending more than two and half years with Cleve in a VA hospital as he recovered to understand how important it is not to take freedom for granted.

She hopes that message is conveyed to the thousands who attend the commissioning ceremony for the USS Ralph Johnson.

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