You don't really think of Vietnam as being a tank warfare kind of affair. Sure, there were plenty of intense, groin-crushing battles fought during the vicious multi-year slugfest through the jungles of Southeast Asia, but most of these showdowns were the ambush / search-and-destroy sort of events, with infantrymen slogging through armpit-deep mud, fighting off ambushes and human wave attacks in miserable driving rainstorms, and crawling through carefully-dug tunnels laden with booby traps. You don't exactly picture a Blitzkrieg of Panzers blasting through the hedgerows of Normandy or anything, mostly because trying to drive a tank through a jungle is a logistical undertaking that borders on being retarded.
Perhaps that's why Specialist Dwight Johnson of the 1st Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment holds the impressive distinction of being the only tank driver to receive the Medal of Honor for actions in combat during Vietnam. Although, as you might expect, the actions that led to Spc. Johnson receiving America's highest award for bravery in combat actually had very little to do with this ultra-over-the-top hardass actually sitting behind at the controls of his M48A3 battle tank, and a lot more with taking on an entire North Vietnamese Army offensive by himself armed with nothing more than a .45-caliber handgun and a complete lack of anything resembling fear or restraint.
In mid-January 1968, just a few days before the infamous Tet Offensive seriously knocked the American forces on their collective asses, the 1/69th Armor received a frantic call from a front-line Infantry platoon that had just come under attack by a hellacious battalion-sized force of battle-hardened North Vietnamese regulars. Eager to get into the action and save his buddies from what was quickly becoming a soul-sucking situation of intense crappiness, Dwight Johnson jumped behind the wheel (stick? Controls? I have no idea what the hell the driver's seat of a tank looks like) of his M48 and started barreling ass through the jungle towards the sounds of distant gunfire, busting through the jungle underbrush like Ripley plowing the APC to rescue the Colonial Marines in Aliens. I have no doubt that if Paul Reiser had been in the hull, Johnson would have told him to suck it.
Of course, as I indicated in my lead paragraph, the terrain in rural Vietnam isn't incredibly responsive when you go around trying to plow several thousand tons of metal through it – you'd have a better chance driving an APC through Candyland on a sunny summer afternoon. So, of course, as luck would have it, the second that Johnson's tank approached the firefight, one of the treads blew out, rendering the vehicle immobile. Thanks for stopping by, now please enjoy the show while you watch all your buddies get gunned down by a force that outnumbers them ten to one.
Fuck that noise. Dwight Johnson grew up on the mean streets of the Detroit housing projects, and he wasn't going to just sit around like a dumbass while American troops were out there getting shot in the head right in front of him. Johnson reached down into the cockpit of the tank (again, I have no goddamned idea if this is the correct terminology ornot), and grabbed the only weapon that had been issued to him by the United States Army: A Colt M1911A1 .45-caliber pistol.
I shit you not, this tank pilot hopped out the hatch of this heavily-armored bulletproof vehicle and charged into battle against camouflaged, experienced, AK-47-toting enemy soldiers armed with nothing more than a handgun, a really bad attitude, and an uncontrollable urge to kill everything in sight. He charged into the middle of the ambush, fighting alongside the men of the trapped platoon, capping dudes with his pistol with incredible proficiency. When Johnson burned through the last magazine of his weapon, he ran back to the tank, reached in, and found a submachine gun lying around in there for some reason, which he eagerly then took back into the middle of the ambush. With the Americans desperately trying to fight off an increasingly-more-deadly human wave attack, the battle soon moved into close-quarters, hand-to-hand beatdown-style combat. Johnson blasted a few guys with the SMG at extreme-close range, but eventually had to discard the weapon after he snapped the stock in half while smashing some dude's face in with it (seriously).
Now completely out of ammunition and/or anything he could use as a workable firearm, Johnson rushed back to the tanks. Seeing that his vehicle was still hopelessly immobile, he rushed over to his platoon Sergeant's tank, opened the hatch, and peeked in. The tank's gunner was badly wounded – slumped in his seat, but still breathing. Johnson heroically pulled the dude out the hatch while bullets whizzed by his head, hoisted the wounded soldier on his back, and carried the dude to a nearby APC so he could receive medical attention. Then, of course, Johnson sprinted back to the tank, hood-slid across the front of it like a 70s detective movie, jumped in, and started firing the fucking main cannon at the NVA soldiers who were by now rapidly closing in on the tanks' position. Within seconds he was spraying the battlefield with some large-caliber destruction, and holding the honor of being the guy in the battle who fired both the engagement's largest and smallest weaponry. I say "of course" he did this, because at this point in the story nothing should really surprise you about this guy – he didn't pull any punches, didn't stop fighting for any damn reason ever, and definitely wasn't going to let anything short of death stand in the way of his super-intense, Viking-quality blood rage.
Eventually the main gun on the M48 jammed, presumably as a result of Johnson firing so many goddamned tank rounds out of it so rapidly that it melted the barrel into a clumpy metallic sludge. Once again left without a viable means for killing people, Johnson quickly glanced around the interior of the tank, taking stock of what was available. What he found were more magazines for the 1911.
So, for the third time, Specialist Dwight H. Johnson rushed into the middle of a raging warzone firing his pistol at anything that moved. After killing a few more NVA (the Medal of Honor citation eventually gave up trying to tally this guy's kill totals), and burning through the rest of his ammunition, Johnson hopped up onto the roof of his tank, exposing himself in full view to the enemy soldiers, and started mowing people down with the .50-caliber machine gun on the cupola. By the time the smoke cleared, the American forces were standing alone on the battlefield. Spc. Johnson's insane, utterly-ridiculous kill-frenzy of destruction had helped not only fight off a massive battalion of NVA soldiers, but also rescued the stranded U.S. platoon from a situation in which they would have otherwise been completely humped. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions, battled with his regiment through the Tet Offensive, and survived the war.
Medal of Honor citation
Department of the Army. The Soldier's Guide. Skyhorse, 2007.
Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Williams, Albert E. Black Warriors. Buy Books, 2003.
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