When Daniel Johnson, who is now 23, was transferring from Wake Forest University to the University of North Carolina, he went to Chapel Hill to find an apartment. When he called his parents in Hickory, N.C.--his father, Wallace, is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church; his mother, Sallie, teaches history at Hickory High School--they asked him if he had found one. He said yes, and oh, by the way, I've joined the Navy. From his hospital bed in Walter Reed Army Medical Center he says he has no regrets about that decision.
After graduation, the commitment he made when he joined the Navy ROTC at UNC took him to Newport, R.I., for six months at the surface warfare officers' school. On New Year's Eve, 1998, he reported to his ship, the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the admiral commanding the 7th Fleet.
It was a good assignment for a young man attracted to the Navy by a desire for travel: The 7th Fleet operates from the international dateline to the east coast of Africa.
In his eighth month on board, on Aug. 23, he was the safety observer at the aft mooring station as Korean tugs pulled the Blue Ridge into position to leave the harbor at Pusan. A tug was reeling in the messenger line, a rope about an inch and a half in diameter that is attached to the hawser, the big rope--about eight inches in diameter--that bears the weight in tugging and mooring. The tug was moving away and reeling unusually fast. Too fast.
What happened next happened very fast. The leg of Seaman Steven Wright, 21, from Pine Bluff, Ark., became tangled in a loop of the messenger line which, under extreme tension from the tug, dragged Wright across the deck and pulled his leg into a "chock," an oval opening about a foot long and eight inches wide through which ropes pass. The tremendous torque from the tug could have pulled Wright through the chock, ripping him apart.
"This part is a little bit fuzzy to me," says Johnson about what he did. "I tried to free him up." The official "summary of action" recommending the Navy and Marine Corps Medal says:
"Immediately, without hesitation, and in the face of known risk to his own life, Ensign Johnson ran to the assistance of the entrapped line handler who was in imminent peril of losing the lower part of his leg. . . . None of the other seven personnel on scene attempted any similar act or endangered themselves to such a degree to come to the entangled Sailor's aid."
Wright's life was saved because his leg was not. He was freed when the rope severed his leg (and four fingers above the knuckles). But before that happened, as Johnson struggled to help Wright, the violently jerking line entangled both of Johnson's legs, dragged him to the chock, and severed both limbs below the knee. He also lost a finger.
Why did he act as he did? He says, matter-of-factly, that officers are trained to be responsible for the well-being of their men, and besides, that's the way his parents--they are at his bedside this day, having made the seven-hour drive from Hickory for another stay with their son--raised him. He would rather talk about the prostheses that will soon be fitted to the stumps of his legs.
"They say that if I want to I can run a marathon. The only thing that will limit me is myself." He is thinking of going to medical school.
There is no recondite lesson to be learned from this episode. A good young man from a good family and a good community did something admirable. But in an age that thinks the phrase "good news" is an oxymoron, it is well to be reminded that the American population is leavened by a lot of people like the slender, unprepossessing young man propped up in bed on his elbows, unself-conscious about the neatly bandaged stumps of his legs.
And it is well to be reminded that in routine training and routine operations the men and women of the armed services are at risk, and they have chosen to be. And that the armed forces know a thing or two about teaching honor and responsibility.
Johnson thinks there is more of him leaving the Navy than entered it. "I developed a lot of self-confidence when I was doing my job. It's been a great experience. No regrets."