Daniel Henry Johnson ’98

Distinguished Young Alumni Award

Daniel Henry Johnson ’98

“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.”

Those are the words used to recommend Daniel Johnson for the U.S. Navy’s highest peacetime award, the Navy/Marine Corps Medal. That is the official account. Unofficially, Seaman Steven Wright was in imminent danger of losing his life.

Daniel’s story begins with his transfer to Carolina from Wake Forest after his sophomore year. He would major in history, but he set his course for the future soon after he arrived in Chapel Hill when he entered the Navy ROTC program. On the last day of his graduation year he reported to the command ship of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the USS Blue Ridge.

Eight months later, the ship was preparing to leave the port at Pusan, South Korea. Daniel was the deck officer in charge of the crew handling the lines to the tug. It became apparent to the crew that the tug was retrieving its lines too fast. Suddenly, Seaman Wright became entangled in one of the lines, and was being dragged toward an opening in the ship’s side which is much too small for him to pass through.

What happened next, Daniel says, is a bit of a blur to him now. But not to the other sailors who were there. Daniel went “immediately, without hesitation” to the aid of the man under his responsibility. When it was over, Seaman Wright was whole except for one foot and four fingers; Daniel had lost both his legs below the knees.

Daniel has, at times, left his family frustrated with his fierce independence. He told the hospital staff he was anxious to be, as he said, “back on my new feet,” and he pursued his recovery as if there was no time to spare. There wasn’t, really—he had to walk at his sister’s wedding barely two months after the accident, and he did. He had to be ready to pursue pre-medical courses back in Chapel Hill in the spring semester, and although he soon changed his mind about that regimen, he was there when classes started.

Other physical therapy patients who were having a harder time with their morale sometimes intentionally were scheduled to be in the room when Daniel was there. Today he works as an aide to Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who himself lost three limbs in Vietnam. In addition to handling liaison with constituents, one day each week he is the senator’s wheelchair pilot. He has made time in the past few months to play on the office softball team, and to go skiing. He is thinking about law school.

There are days, he says, when it’s still tough to get around. He thinks about how badly he wants to hike again. His days of beating his younger brother Will on the basketball court were over long before the accident—Will plays for the Tar Heels now. But Daniel has a goal to play his favorite sport again.

He keeps up with Steven Wright, who’s back home in Arkansas. He refers to Wright simply as “the other person involved in the accident.” That seems to be the way of heroes.

Daniel knows that a lot of people come out of college not sure in what direction they’re  going. He comes from a family of care givers, but he discovered for himself the meaning of responsibility. He says he is grateful the Navy taught him a lot of lessons in 18 months. We, in turn, can be grateful for his lesson to us—that nothing is beyond the reach of the determined.

By his own declaration, Daniel Johnson left the Navy much more complete than he entered it. He is the first recipient of this award to be recognized so soon after his graduation. Seldom in 207 years has anyone brought higher honor to this University.