By George Will, 21 October 1999
WASHINGTON-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.
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
"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, unselfconscious
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 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."