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After playing hockey at UND, Ross Johnson was awarded a Silver Star for saving lives in Vietnam

Johnson will be recognized during this weekend's series in Ralph Engelstad Arena. He will be joined by a fellow soldier who credits Johnson for saving his life.

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Ross Johnson, who played hockey at UND from 1963-64, served in the Vietnam War.
Photo courtesy Ross Johnson.
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GRAND FORKS — Ross Johnson will never forget June 11, 1969.

Johnson estimates during a few hour span on that day in Vietnam, he could have been killed nine different times.

"God just decided it wasn't my time," Johnson said. "I had been praying that I would be able to go home and have a family and children. He listened to my prayers, I guess."

Johnson's unit was overrun by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the overnight hours.

His actions during the battle likely saved at least 12 American lives. He was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest decoration for valor in combat.

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Johnson, who played hockey as a freshman at UND in 1963-64, and graduated from the school in 1967, will be honored this weekend as part of Salute to Service in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Brad Gort, a fellow soldier who credits Johnson with saving his life on that June 1969 day, will join Johnson in The Ralph.

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Brad Gort, far left, will join former UND hockey player Ross Johnson, third from left, at Friday's UND-Denver hockey game in Ralph Engelstad Arena. They will be recognized for Salute to Service weekend.
Photo courtesy Ross Johnson

Johnson graduated high school in 1963 as UND won its second NCAA national hockey championship. He was recruited by coach Barry Thorndycraft on a partial scholarship and joined the team the following year.

Johnson's freshman class included Dennis Hextall, UND's first NHL player, and others like Dave Janaway, Bob Lillo, Bob Stoyko and Tom Iannone. Freshmen were not eligible to play varsity at that time, so he played a junior varsity schedule.

Johnson returned for his sophomore season, but after his grades suffered, he had to choose school or hockey. He chose school and graduated in 1967.

Knowing he was going to get drafted for the Vietnam War, Johnson enlisted in 1968 and was deployed in January 1969.

Fighting in Vietnam was fierce. Johnson recalls firing 1,365 rounds one March day.

On June 11, Johnson woke up to the sound of a satchel charge blowing up underneath the cot of fellow soldier James Strube, who was just a few feet away. After the explosion, Johnson heard voices of the NVA. He quickly escaped out of his sleeping quarters, which were attacked soon after.

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During the siege, Gort found Johnson and asked him where to go. Johnson told him to go over a hill where they had been filling sandbags.

"We heard these explosions," Johnson said. "Brad and two other guys were grenaded. I could hear them screaming and I said, 'You've got to shut up or they're going to know right where we're at.'"

Gort was wounded.

When Gort and Johnson finally met up in 2019 at a reunion — a connection made through Facebook — Johnson said he was a little worried about what Gort was going to say, because Johnson had told him to go over the hill.

"I had been worried Brad would blame me for getting wounded so bad," Johnson said. "We were having a beer and talking about the overrun, and I finally asked him, 'Brad, do you remember me telling you to go over the hill?' He said, 'I don't remember that.'

"He didn't remember. And it had bothered me for 51 years."

Johnson knew the NVA firing was coming from a bunker. He went along with a fellow soldier, Charlie Chapman, to take it back. Johnson tossed a couple of grenades into it before moving in.

"Just before I stepped in, I see the barrel of an AK-47 come out," Johnson said. "I grabbed it and whacked the guy. I looked down below and there were five NVA below me. Three had AK-47s, one had an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and one had a pistol."

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Johnson killed all of them.

"That was the end of that ordeal," he said. "Through the three-hour overrun battle, they had blown up Gun 4, blown up Gun 3, torched our Mess Hall. . . we had 35-40 guys and eight were killed in action. That's 25 percent. Everybody was wounded."

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Before-and-after pictures show the devastation after the North Vietnamese Army overran Ross Johnson's unit on June 11, 1969.
Photo courtesy Ross Johnson

Minutes after re-taking the bunker, a medevac helicopter landed nearby. The choppers were primary targets for the NVA.

"They couldn't have missed it with the RPG," Johnson said. "It would be like hunting a deer in your garage."

Had Johnson not taken out the NVA soldiers in the bunker, 12 Americans aboard the helicopter would have been killed along with others on the ground.

Johnson said in the first three years after the war, the events of that day played through his head "probably 25-30 times a day. How come that happened? What if I did this? What if I did that?"

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Ross Johnson is awarded the Silver Star in 1969 for his actions during a June 11, 1969 battle.
Photo courtesy Ross Johnson

Johnson left Vietnam in December 1969.

He became a successful businessman in Fargo, married his girlfriend, Kathy, and had four children — Matt, Anne, Keith and Adam.

Johnson's family will join him in Grand Forks for Salute to Service weekend.

"I can tell those who have never been in a war battle what happened to me, as I recall it almost minute-by-minute after 53 years," Johnson said. "What I can't make you feel is the intensity of battle. So I have come up with this. In hand-to-hand combat, the score is always the same. It is always 1-0. In overtime in hockey — which used to be called 'sudden death' — the score is always the same, 1-0. After a game of hockey with two overtimes, everyone is worn out mentally.

"The difference is that in an overtime hockey game, everybody goes home. In hand-to-hand combat, one goes home in a body bag and the other one lives to fight again."

Johnson said that's the harshness of war.

"War," he said, "is the worst thing man does to man."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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