Personal link between the city and the Navy’s newest destroyer

Tour of the USS Ralph Johnson sparked bond between city and crew
By Dan Aznoff | Jul 03, 2019
Photo by: Dan Aznoff Ensign Casey Rezac (right) listens as her crewmate Diana Martin explains the scope of their duties aboard the USS Ralph Johnson while it was in port at the Navel Station in Everett last week. Both sailors expressed the calm they enjoy when they come home to their respective apartments in Mill Creek when their ship is in port. They were both thrilled to be part of the city’s Memorial Day Parade last month.

Both of the Mill Creek councilmembers who accepted an invitation to visit the newest ship in the Navy homeport in Everett came away from their tour with a pledge to reach out to the young sailors assigned to the USS Ralph Johnson.

But for one of them, the promise was personal.

Councilmembers John Steckler and Mark Bond toured the guided-missile destroyer in April, shortly after the Navy’s newest ship arrived in Everett from its temporary assignment in San Diego. The councilmembers were joined on the tour by Mill Creek Police Chief Greg Elwin.

Steckler made the recommendation for the city to adopt the ship and its crew as a way to build community and give back to the sailors for their service.

Bond was more introspective.

The veteran member of the City Council could not help think about his own son, Jordan, as he walked through the maze of corridors and watertight doors below deck. The younger Bond had recently been assigned to the Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

“These were not a bunch of old men sailors aboard the Ralph Johnson,” Bond said in a quiet voice. “These were young men and young ladies. Many of them who were far away from home for the first time in their lives.”

The proud father said his son recently left his assignment aboard the Roosevelt to accept an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Elwin and Steckler returned to Everett on Tuesday, July 2, for a family-and-friends cruise aboard the Ralph Johnson that took them as far as the Seattle waterfront.

“The ship is filled with an amazing array of technology that is the best in the world. But it was the crew that really impressed me,” said Elwin. “Here are young men and women who confidently go about their business of defending the freedoms that this country was founded on.

“It is truly humbling.”

Steckler said he could not imagine being the parent of a sailor who can be away from home for more than a year at a time. Steckler was especially moved by the man known as Ralph Johnson, one of the few enlisted personnel to have a ship named in their honor.

“Mark and I agreed,” said Steckler. “We should give back to these young people. That’s what I would want for my sons if they were in the same situation.”

The relationship between the crew and the city began in May, when three-dozen sailors from the Ralph Johnson marched in the city’s Memorial Day Parade along Main Street. The sailors filed behind their ship’s captain, Cmdr. Casey Mahon.

The ship’s contingent was in formation immediately behind the honor guard and behind the grand marshal, Fire Controlman Ross W. Woody, the sailor of the year on the Ralph Johnson.

When crewmembers reached the end of the parade route at City Hall, Mahon was invited to view the balance of the parade from the VIP stand with his family and the captain of the USS Sampson, Cmdr. Jerry Jackson.

Steckler hopes the connection between the city and the crew of the destroyer continues to evolve. He has already issued open invitations for the sailors to join the Party in the Park celebrations scheduled over the summer.

“As the year goes on, I’d like to see sailors invited homes in Mill Creek for dinners on Thanksgiving or at Christmas,” said Steckler. “The sailor would love spending the evening with a family as the center of attention for the night.”

When the Ralph Johnson is not on a training cruise off the Washington coast, several of members of the crew make their homes in Mill Creek.

“We enjoy coming home to Mill Creek,” said Diana Martin from Bradenton, Florida. “Being from the East Coast, I had no idea what to expect coming all the way across the country to Washington state. The people here have been so warm and welcoming.”

Martin laughed when she remembered her first meeting with a neighbor in the parking lot of her apartment building, who recognized her duty uniform from his own days in the Navy.

She said she suddenly felt an honored guest in her own apartment complex.

Ensign Casey Rezac from Gaithersburg, Maryland, agreed. Rezac spends much of her duty time on the bridge in preparation to take the wheel of the Ralph Johnson this summer.

“This is life in the Navy,” she said with a smile. “You train and train until your actions become second nature. Then, if you qualify, you’re given an opportunity to put you training into action.”

She said returning to her home in Mill Creek each evening allows her to escape the weapons of war that surround her every day.

Both sailors said they grew up around the water. Enlisting with the Navy was a natural extension of their interests and their passion to serve.

That was not the case for their captain. Mahon grew up in an Army family in Syracuse, New York, miles from any Navy base or the ocean. The future Navy commander was actually part of the Army ROTC when he went to college at Norwich University in Vermont.

“This is not where I envisioned myself while I was growing up in a landlocked suburb,” he said. “But this is obviously where I belong.”

The Ralph Johnson is the second command for Mahon. Navy regulations limit officers to command only three ships during their career. He believes it is part of his duty to share elements of Ralph Johnson’s short life as an inspiration for his crew of 330 sailors under his command.

@Ralph Johnson@

United States Marine PFC Ralph Johnson was killed in 1968 while he was on patrol as part a 15-man reconnaissance squad at an observation post deep behind enemy lines overlooking the Quan Duc Duc Valley during the Tet Offensive.

The teenager saved the lives of two fellow Marines and helped warn the rest of platoon of an enemy attack by throwing himself on a live hand grenade. The blast killed him instantly.

His prompt and heroic act not only saved the lives of the other Marines in the observation point, but prevented the enemy from penetrating his sector of the perimeter and killing the remaining members of his patrol.

Johnson received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroic and selfless actions.

“There were probably numerous soldiers and Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice during that war,” Mahon said in the mess hall of the Ralph Johnson where the smiling face of the Marine dominates an entire wall.

“There was apparently something very special about PFC Johnson as a person. The (federal) government has not only named this destroyer to honor his memory. There is also an entire medical center in Virginia that bears his name.”

The decision to honor the memory of the brave Marine was made by the Secretary of the Navy Rear Adm. Shoshana S. Chatfield in February 2012. The ship was christened in April 2016 as the 64th Arleigh Burke destroyer in the U.S. fleet. More than 7,000 people in Johnson’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, attended the ceremonies.

The ship is equipped with many of the Navy’s newest weapon systems, including a Sea Wiz, a close-in defensive weapon system capable of detecting and destroying short-range incoming missiles and enemy aircraft that have penetrate outer defenses.

According to one Navy veteran, the projectiles from the Sea Wiz can be fired at the waterline of an approaching enemy ship, causing it to sink within minutes.

With a smile, Mahon said he has given the Sea Wiz the nickname “Lorelai” after the character from the television show “Gilmore Girls.” It’s no coincidence that the commander’s youngest child is a girl with the same name.

“There are so many complex computer systems on this ship that are all tied together so they work in unison,” Mahon explained. “The Sea Wiz is a totally separate system so that it can work independently.

“Like the television character and like my daughter, the Sea Wiz has a mind of its own.”

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