America lost one of its truly great heroes over the weekend. Col. John Ripley, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), a veteran of the Vietnam War, died in Annapolis at age 69. Unfortunately, this hero’s name is far less well-known than that of William Calley of My Lai fame.
We Marines love our heroes, and we all know their names: Dan Daley, Smedley Butler, John Basilone, etc. But among those who populate this select pantheon, none surpasses John Ripley and the legend of “Ripley at the Bridge.”
John graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1962, receiving a commission in the Marine Corps. In October of 1966, he assumed command of “Lima” Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in Vietnam. During this tour he was wounded in action and awarded the Silver Star medal for valor.
John had a successful career in the Marines, serving as an infantry battalion and regimental commander. He also earned the “Quad Body” distinction, graduating the Army’s Rangers School (he is the only Marine in the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame), the Army’s Airborne school, Marine reconnaissance training, and Britain’s Royal Marines training course.
But the action that would make John a legend occurred in 1972. By spring of that year, most of the American troops had left Vietnam, leaving only advisers to the South Vietnamese military. He was one of them, a senior adviser to the 3rd Battalion of the Vietnamese Marine Corps.
On March 30, 1972, the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam — the North — abandoned irregular warfare, launching the biggest conventional offensive of the war. The “Easter Offensive” far exceeded the Tet Offensive of 1968 in scope. Hoping to negate U.S. air power by taking advantage of the monsoon season, they attacked with massive armor and artillery on three fronts, including the area south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). On this northern front, one division attacked directly south across the DMZ toward Quang Tri while another assaulted eastward from Laos along Route 9, through Khe Sanh and into the Quang Tri River Valley.
Caught by surprise, the South Vietnamese could only try to slow the offensive, retreating south of the Cua Viet River at Dong Ha. But 20,000 soldiers and 200 tanks from the North were poised to strike across the river — and they were planning use a bridge defended by about 600 Southern soldiers, who had been ordered to “hold and die.” John related later that he would never forget that order. The only way to stop the North was to destroy the bridge. Fortunately, South Vietnamese engineers had placed 500 pounds of TNT and plastic explosives near the bridge. But the explosives would still need to be placed properly to bring down the twin spans.
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.