John Walter Ripley, Colonel, USMC
With his passing on 28 Oct 2008, the US Marine Corps and the Army Rangers lost one of their best. But 2008 was also the year in which COL John Walter Ripley became the first Marine inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
John Walter Ripley was born June 29, 1939, in West Virginia and was raised in Radford, Virginia. He joined the Marine Corps after high school in 1957 and was a 1962 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He went on train at the Army Ranger School and with the Royal Marines, among other elite units.
He began his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966. As a company commander the following year he received the Silver Star for his relentless attack against well-concealed enemy gunfire from a North Vietnamese regimental command group.
The training he received at Ranger School, as well as his time serving with the British Royal Marines prepared him well for his tours in Vietnam, especially his famous destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge in 1972.
During his assault on the bridge, Ripley called on the skills gleaned during his Ranger training. He later credited Ranger training as a key component to his success at Dong Ha. He remembered Ranger School as being so demanding that the lessons he learned about himself and what he could do under extreme circumstances prepared him personally for most any combat situation.
His legendary actions on 2 Apr 1972, while advising the 735 man South Vietnamese Marine battalion against a North Vietnamese offensive of 20,000 men that had begun in late March 1972, earned him the Navy Cross. Often called the Easter Offensive, the invasion was meant to reach Saigon and achieve a psychological and military victory over the South Vietnamese and their relatively few remaining American advisers as U.S. involvement in the war was winding down. At the time, the South Vietnamese Marines had been moved to Quang Tri province bordering the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North Vietnam form South Vietnam.
Under continuous enemy shelling, Ripley and about 700 South Vietnamese Marines were asked to hold a pivotal crossing point near the DMZ -- a bridge that spanned the Cua Viet River near the village of Dong Ha. Ripley later recalled his orders to "hold or die."
According to his citation for the Navy Cross -- the service's highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor -- Ripley on April 2, 1972, used 500 pounds of dynamite and C4 plastic explosives to take down the bridge.
He and a U.S. Army colleague were chiefly responsible for rigging the bridge with explosives - with Ripley hand-walking along the beams while his body dangled 50 feet above the river's swift current. The bridge was more than 500 feet long, and the work of rigging it required several hours of intense work.
"I had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus and leap over the other I-beam," Col. Ripley told the Marine Corps Times in June 2008. "I used my teeth to crimp the detonator and thus pinch it into place on the fuse. I crimped it with my teeth while the detonator was halfway down my throat."
By his actions, Ripley helped provide the first success against the NVA incursion and delayed the advance of more than 200 enemy armored vehicles, including tanks. His actions gave the South Vietnamese Marines more time to regroup along another defensive line. They eventually stopped the Communist invasion in Quang Tri province.
"Saigon would probably have been lost in 1972 but for Ripley," said retired Marine Corps Col. John Grider Miller, author of "The Bridge at Dong Ha" (1989).
John Walter Ripley, Marine, Army Ranger, and patriot will certainly be missed. He was the ideal that we Rangers look up to. He truly did "lead the way."