Aided by a U.S. Army officer, Maj. James Smock, John set up the explosives. He had to expose himself to enemy fire while swinging hand over hand along the bridge’s girder, with heavy loads of explosives slung over his shoulders. The odds against success seemed insurmountable.
As John observed later, “the idea that I would be able to even finish the job before the enemy got me was ludicrous.” However, “when you know you’re not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you’re going to save your butt.” But John never lost his sense of humor. In his report, he observed:
[The enemy,] rather than concentrating their fire on me — and I certainly couldn’t have made it through had they done so — they seemed to be watching incredulously as my body would appear, then disappear, hanging above the river. The enemy watched with a mixture of what seemed to be humor and amazement. In my judgment, they knew their massive assault would be successful and whatever I happened to be doing was relatively inconsequential; besides, I was providing them amusement.
According to John Miller, the author of The Bridge at Dong Ha, which details the battle and John’s actions, “a lot of people think South Vietnam would have gone under in ‘72 had he not stopped them” by destroying the bridge.
No one has described John’s actions better than my friend, Gerry Turley, the senior Marine adviser during the Easter Offensive in his book of the same name. John’s actions constituted “an epic example of fortitude, extraordinary bravery and personal resolve to defeat the enemy by fulfilling the last order, even if it means losing [one’s own life].” For his actions at the Dong Ha Bridge, John was awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor.
On Saturday, November 8, I will join Marines throughout the globe to celebrate the 233rd birthday of the Corps. It has become a tradition to set a table with an empty chair to honor those Marines who are absent. I and many others will be thinking of John Ripley on this occasion. Semper Fidelis, my friend.
– Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He served 30 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve, including service in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander in 1968-69. He is the editor of Orbis.