Rick Johnson, Vietnam

In 1966 I decided to drop out of college and join the Marine Corps so I could go to Vietnam. The Marines were looking for pilots and wanted me to go to flight school, but I was determined to be an infantry grunt. To this day, I don’t know why.

I completed my training and got orders to go to Vietnam just as I had requested. Just before leaving home, my fiancé’s mother, Erma Caroll, asked me to sit down so she could read something to me. She read Psalm 91 and told me how much it meant to her, and that the Lord had put it on her heart to read that Scripture to me before I left.

I was not familiar with it, but I remembered where it was and read it from time to time. I grew up in a Christian home but was not familiar with standing on the Word and declaring the Word. God´s faithfulness to watch over His Word and perform it (Jeremiah 1:12) even reaches beyond our ignorance and He did just that for me.

Several months later I was able to read the daily Bible reading selection on my birthday; it was Psalm 91! God is awesome. My future mother-in-law back home also saw that Psalm 91 was printed in the daily Bible reading, along with my birthday, and knew that it was just another sign that I was being protected.

I have lots of memories of Vietnam. I had a great time serving there and believed in what we were doing, trying to help people become free. There were many times when I was aware that the Lord was preserving my life. Once another soldier standing a foot away from me was shot by a sniper; once a mortar round landed a ten feet in front of me and didn’t detonate; once a grenade blew up less than ten feet from where I was standing, fully erect, and I was not hit.

However, I want to share with you a little more detail a particular experience that illustrates God´s protection over me. In the spring of 1967, the lonely combat base at Khe Sanh, just south of the DMZ, was like most other places in Vietnam – unknown to the world, although not for long. We landed at the airstrip and were immediately ordered to join a number of other Marine companies strung along the narrow footpaths. Our job was to search through the rugged mountainous terrain for the North Vietnamese Army units who had been assigned to wipe Khe Sanh off the map.

Our first day out we were approaching hill 861. I was stepping over the bloated body of a three-days-dead Marine, thinking something is very wrong. Marines never leave anyone behind. For this body to be lying exposed on a lonely, recently burned and blasted hill, was more than wrong. I had never seen this before. We all knew something was up and were “beyond” fully alert.

Just then, the NVA (North Vietnamese) opened fire on  us. I carried the PRC-25 radio for the Platoon leader, who was immediately in front of me. In the initial volley of fire, the Lance Corporal in front of the lieutenant was hit badly and the man behind me had his left arm shattered. The primary goal in the first shots of an ambush is to take out the radio man and the man next to him (communications and leadership). So there was no doubt in my mind about who had been in the gunner´s sights when he pulled the trigger.

I rolled left and the Lieutenant rolled right as we dove for cover that simply did not exist. We had just passed the crest of a hill that had been hit with napalm, leaving less than two inches of grassy stubble. We were exposed. We both scrambled back to allow the top of the small hill to provide a semblance of cover.

The company commander wanted a report, so I passed the handset to the Lieutenant. The lead elements of our platoon were cut off from us in a deep, steep ravine, dividing the hill where the enemy was concealed in bunkers from the hill we were on.  Our Staff-Sergeant, who was with the other group, organized an assault and had all the men pull the pins on their grenades, ready to storm the hill in front of us. Our rocket launcher team, headed up by a Christian, was beside the Lieutenant and me, fully exposed, firing on the enemy positions.

When he ran out of rocket ammunition, the team leader yelled to the wounded Lance Corporal in front of us, who still lay fully exposed to the enemy, “I am coming to get you!” With that, we all started firing ferociously with our rifles, to cover our buddies, and all three of our machine gunners appeared and stood fully erect, shoulder-to-shoulder, firing from the hip to cover this heroic rescue.

This is the most beautiful sight anyone could ever hope to have etched in his memory. I can still see the smoke, fire, and brass spewing from these guns as the wounded man was carried, arms and legs dangling, over the top of the hill to a waiting corpsman who would tend to his multiple wounds.

A little later, I found myself still pinned down, talking on the radio behind a log that was about eight inches in diameter. Another buddy piled in on top of me, wanting to get into one more good fight before he left for home. I described to him what he would see when he looked up and that the most accurate fire was from the bunker just to the right of the small, lone tree across from us. Not realizing that the gunner was still trying to take me out, since I had the radio, and that he was, at that moment, sighted in on my radio antenna that stuck up from my position, my friend raised his head to look. Three shots from the enemy´s automatic weapon hit him in the forehead about an inch below the rim of his helmet and he fell lifeless onto me. He saved my life with that move. He didn´t do it on purpose, but he saved my life. I was just through talking on the radio and was getting ready to do exactly what he had just done.

I looked for years on the Vietnam  Memorial Wall trying to find the name of the badly wounded Lance Corporal; it didn´t make any sense that he lived with wounds that severe. I couldn´t find it. The Corporal´s name is there – I wish it wasn´t. When I see his name or recite this story, it brings up powerful emotions in me even thirty-nine years later. I´m thankful that the Lord´s mercy endures forever, including today. Two years ago, I was looking at a military site and found that our wounded Lance Corporal had signed the guest book. I wrote to him; it turns out that he died twice on the operating table and lost a limb, but he is alive. Praise the Lord, he made it!

I´ve found fifty-four men I actually served with in Vietnam. We have organized our Battalion Landing Team and I have the privilege of serving as the chaplain. We´ve found over a thousand who served in our battalion, and we get together each year. Our purpose is to reach out to our brothers and rescue them. Many are still fighting the war today; and we have often been able to touch them and help.

Psalm 91 has grown more precious every year. My wife of thirty-eight years and I have grown to love the Lord Jesus in a dimension that we didn´t know existed. We have learned that the Word is a Person (Revelation 19:13, John 1:1-3), and we have fallen in love with Him more than we knew we could, and we´ve only just begun. I am convinced that God`s Covenant Psalm 91, spoken over me, and therefore watching over me, is the only reason I am alive today.

The Lord speaks to me with His tender voice, usually when I am quiet and not being interrupted. It´s not unusual for Him to give me reference from Psalm 91 and show me another time or another way in which He “saved and rescued me” when I was not even aware. It just makes me love Him more and be even more thankful.

I don´t believe my life has been spared any more than any other person. Even people who will never walk across a battlefield will have an enemy who is out to kill and destroy them. We all need to be rescued every day. Glory to God in the highest! Holy, holy, holy is His name!

Author´s note: Corporal Ira “Rick” Johnson saw two hundred combat days with 3rd battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, in the republic of Vietnam from August 1966 until September 1967. He has been awarded the Bronze Star with Combat V for valor, the Purple Heart for wounds received in action, and several other medals for combat service while serving in the marine Corps. He and his wife now live in Brandenton Florida where he serves as Property Operations manager at Bradenton Missionary Village.

Excerpt from the book “Psalm 91. God’s Shield of Protection. Military edition” by Peggy Joyce Ruth and Angelia Ruth Schum.


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