Valor Friday

| August 4, 2023

Colonel John Ripley

John Ripley, who hailed from Radford, Virginia, first enlisted into the US Marine Corps in 1957. He did so at the age of 17, immediately after graduating Radford High School. He must have made quite the impression on the Corps, because a year later he received one of the rare appointments to the US Naval Academy afforded to the Secretary of the Navy for active and reserve sailors and Marines.

Ripley graduated in the class of ‘62. Among his classmates, many of whom would see service in Vietnam, were astronaut Rear Admiral S. David Griggs and future vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Owens. Thirty men of this class would die while on active duty in the next few years.

Commissioned into the Marines, young Second Lieutenant Ripley went through The Basic School before hitting the fleet as part of the Marine detachment aboard USS Independence (CV-62). From there, he joined 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines.

From 2/2 Marines, Ripley was transferred in 1965 to the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company. Force Recon Marines are some of the service’s most elite special operations forces. They are comparable in training and employment to Navy SEALs. They are, as the name would imply, the reconnaissance element of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, but they are also employed in small unit, direct action operations. In Vietnam, Force Recon would serve on many of the same missions as their US Army Green Beret brethren.

Ripley deployed with his platoon to Vietnam. He was moved to command Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines in October 1966. 3/3 Marines had been heavily engaged all year, and had suffered casualties along the way. In November, Ripley’s sister company, Mike Company, fell victim to a horrible friendly fire incident. Two American F-4 Phantom IIs bombed Mike Company’s position near Qu?ng Tr? Province, killing 17 Marines and wounding a dozen more. It was one of the worst friendly fire incidents of the war.

In March 1967, Captain Ripley was leading Lima Company (known as “Ripley’s Raiders” to the men) on a patrol when they stumbled across a North Vietnamese Army regiment trying to cross the DMZ. In the ensuing melee, 12 Marines would be killed in action, dozens more critically wounded, and almost every man of the company some level of walking wounded, including Ripley. The NVA regiment suffered heavy casualties as well and was forced back across the border.

Ripley recovered and returned to full duty. By August he was probably counting down the days to the end of his tour, but duty would call first. On 21 August 1967 a friendly convoy had been surprised by a large enemy formation. Pinned down, Ripley led a platoon of his company, a small command group, and two M-42 Duster self-propelled anti-aircraft guns to relieve them.

As the relief column was coming to help the convoy, they too were ambushed. Taking heavy automatic weapons and recoilless rifle fire, the men dove for cover. Ripley disregarded his own safety to mount one of the M-42s and fire the machine gun mounted thereon.

The steely captain fired into the source of the enemy fire, his fire pointing the way to the concealed enemy position. This allowed the Dusters’ 40mm anti-aircraft cannons (while designed for use against airplanes, were used to great effect against unarmored ground troops in Vietnam) to open up on the ambushers and silence them for good.

Ripley then ordered his men to dismount their vehicles and take up defensive positions. He then coordinated with the rest of his company, which had become spread out. For the next three hours, Ripley moved from position to position, called in artillery strikes, and kept his men organized. For his actions that day, Ripley received the Silver Star.

After engaging in heroics in Southeast Asia, Ripley was selected for an exchange program with the Brits in October 1969. He served with both the commandos of the Royal Marines and the Special Boat Service of the Royal Navy.

Ripley was sent back to Vietnam in 1971. Despite ground operations ostensibly shifting to be led by South Vietnam instead of the US, special operations forces were still heavily employed for years.

In the Easter Offensive of 1972, a conventional land invasion conducted by the North Vietnamese (the largest such invasion since the Korean War), Ripley responded to a call that a reinforced division-sized NVA mechanized force was moving south along Route #1 near Dong Ha. Facing off against the enemy incursion was a single South Vietnamese infantry battalion of about 600 men. The NVA had already seized everything up to their side of the bridge, the North Vietnamese flag clearly visible to the defenders.

Ripley said the enemy artillery barrage directed at the defense on their side of the river was more intense than anything he’d ever experienced before. He recalled, “That was when they started an artillery barrage that was just indescribable. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Hundreds and hundreds of rounds of artillery trying to reduce resistance at Dong Ha. The enemy didn’t want any trouble crossing the river.”

It soon became obvious that a key bridge would need to be destroyed to prevent the NVA from overrunning the defenders. The NVA numbered 20,000 men and 200 tanks. There were so many tanks, an aerial observer said he didn’t think they could even turn them around. In their way was a single Force Recon Marine, John Ripley. They didn’t stand a chance.

Radioing back to their command, the men asked for permission to destroy the vital river crossing. US Marine Corps Colonel Gerlad Turley, the ranking American officer liaising with the RVN Marines, gave his assent to immediately destroy it. Ripley is said to have replied, almost gleefully, that he had always wanted to blow a bridge.

Captain Ripley moved to the bridge to assess the situation. He located, pre-positioned near the bridge, 500 pounds of high explosives and some South Vietnamese engineers. The explosives would be perfect for taking out the bridge, but the enemy had the whole of the bridge under heavy, accurate fire. Where the sappers had the charges, it wouldn’t have fully collapsed the bridge. They’d need to be moved to better spots along the bridge structure.

Ripley was undeterred. His plan? To carry 500 pounds of explosives personally, under the bridge by hanging from the bridge’s support structure and monkey-barring his way forward and back. US Army Major James Smock, the other American advisor in the battalion, had joined Ripley.

Under constant, focused enemy fire, Smock pushed out the heavy packages of explosives to Ripley. Ripley took all the explosives he could carry, and then hand walked, dangling under the bridge, to place the charges. He couldn’t do it all at once. He did this five times in total. As he said, he and Smock went about “the very deliberate and detailed effort to blow it up.”

The sheer inhuman physical exertion demonstrated by Ripley was truly Herculean. It’s been called “the most extraordinary act of individual heroism of this war or any war.” He later said his faith in God helped him along. As he pushed past the point of muscle failure, he began rhythmically chanting “Jesus, Mary, Get me there.” By his estimation, Ripley and Smock were working on the bridge demo for two and a half hours. Perhaps there was some divine intervention. The day of his heroics was Easter Sunday, 2 April 1972.

During the ordeal, the two combat tested officers maintained their wherewithal. At one point, Smock took issue with Ripley’s methodical placement of the charges and yelled, “Hey, you dumb Jarhead, that isn’t necessary. Work faster!” Ripley, who had received his explosives training at the Army’s Ranger School, shot back, “This is the way the Army taught me. You tankers don’t know anything!”

Despite doing this within the clear view of the enemy, they didn’t seem to concern the North Vietnamese. Ripley said, “The whole thing was almost surrealistic. I kept thinking, ‘Why aren’t they trying to get across the bridge? Why aren’t they directing some of their attention to me? What are they doing over there?’ And yet the NVA never seemed to do that with any seriousness.”

The South Vietnamese didn’t have any electric detonators, so in the heat of battle Ripley had to try and remember how to estimate the correct length of timed fuses. When he couldn’t find any crimpers, he used his teeth. He had to put the end of the cap on his molars in order to get the correct pressure, so deep in his mouth he was gagging. One wrong move and the blasting cap would blow his face off.

By now the NVA had really gotten angered up, and were finally taking Smock and him under fire. As the two men laid on the ground working lighting their timed fuse, right there in front of Ripley’s face was a box of electric fuses. He thought, “Man, if I leave here and the time fuses don’t work, I’ll never get lucky enough to get back under there” to set the electric fuses.

So Ripley, with the timed fuse burning for an uncertain amount of time, and Smock began placing the electric fuses. Smock took some extra explosives to a nearby railroad bridge that looked like the enemy could repair it in short order, and they wired that into the rest, and spooling telephone wire behind them made a mad dash for friendly lines.

With the South Vietnamese Marines cheering them on, the two valiant officers made it to the safety of the friendly lines. Ripley ran to an overturned Jeep, and used its battery to try to trigger the electric fuse line. He scrapped the battery terminals, touched the wires, and…nothing. Again, he tried to clean off the battery’s contacts and trigger the electric charges, but no luck. Standing there thinking, “What am I going to do now?” Ripley was thrown backwards by the shockwave of the charges going off. The good old-fashioned timed fuse had worked!

The explosives decimated the bridge, keeping it from being utilized by the enemy. Some heavy timbers that had been part of the bridge’s supporting structure. The explosives caused them to ignite and the fire burned for five days.

Ripley at the Bridge

For his actions at Dong Ha, he would be awarded the Navy Cross. His was one of fewer than 500 Navy Crosses awarded during Vietnam. At the USNA, in Bancroft Hall, the portrait at the top of the article of Ripley now hangs. It sits near a powerful diorama (pictured above) of Ripley’s greatest moment.

The war wasn’t over for Ripley or Smock. Both men would continue to fight with their South Vietnamese brothers for another five days against the largest frontal assault of the war, before they were able to be pulled back. In total, Ripley spent two years in Vietnam. He participated in 26 major operations. In addition to the Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Navy Cross, he also received two Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”.

Post-war he served in a variety of operational and staff assignments. He rose to the rank of colonel, commanded the 2nd Marines, and was an instructor (and the senior Marine) at the US Naval Academy. He retired in 1992 after 35 years of active service.

Among the many career accomplishments of Colonel Ripley, he graduated no less than four grueling special operations training programs; the US Army Ranger School, US Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), Royal Marine Commando, and his primary position as a US Force Recon Marine.

Ripley was the first Marine to be given the “Distinguished Graduate Award” by the USNA. He was also the first Marine to be inducted into the US Army Ranger Hall of Fame.

Ripley died suddenly, of unknown reasons, at age 68 in October 2008. His wife Moline died within a year of complications from Alzheimer’s.

To say that Ripley is admired among Marines is an understatement. A Naval History Magazine editor, Fred Schultz, said Ripley is “the most revered war hero no one’s ever heard of.” When the colonel was suffering ill health later in life, and was recovering from a liver transplant, the Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Jones and the Color Sergeant of the Marine Corps paid him a visit. They brought the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps. “The Colors don’t leave the room until you do,” Jones told Ripley. That’s not something that happens for just any old Marine.

Ripley was laid to rest with full military honors at the US Naval Academy Cemetery.

Category: Historical, Marine Recon, Marines, Navy Cross, Valor, We Remember

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ninja

“Charles Waterhouse’s painting depicts Capt. John Ripley dangling from the bridge to thwart the advance of the North Vietnamese Army. Image courtesy of the US Naval Institute Archives.”

Wow, Mason.

What an amazing Marine.

Thank You once again for sharing another story of an Unsung Hero. IMHO, Colonel Ripley should have received the Medal of Honor.

Fred Schultz, senior editor of Naval History Magazine, a publication of the United States Naval Institute, nailed it when he made the comment to the New York Times when Colonel Ripley passed away:

“Colonel Ripley is well known in marine circles,” Mr. Schultz said, “but he’s the most revered war hero no one’s ever heard of.”

“This was 1972,” he added, “and people didn’t pay too much attention to war heroes at that time.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/washington/04ripley.html

Rest In Peace, Sir.

Salute.

Never Forget.

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Fyrfighter

Agreed Ninja. Definitely seems like a MOH kinda action… Not sure what else he would have needed to do to qualify..

ninja

Amen, Fyrfighter!

Animal shared and commented that the reason he was not recommended/received the MOH was due to the lack of US Observers.

We agree exactly what you wrote…so true: “Not sure what else he would have needed to do to qualify..”

The only thing we could think of is if he died that Easter Sunday, 2 April 1972.

John 15:13.

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Skivvy Stacker

He should have gotten THREE for that single action.

STSC(SW/SS)

He should have dropped his massive balls on the bridge it surely would have collapsed.

RIP Sir.

KoB

Word! 500 pounds of explosives would be a fanny pack load in comparison. The narrative also gives the classic example of “bringing any and every weapon to bear…” “fire the machine gun”…”40mm anti-aircraft cannons”… “artillery strikes”… “a single Force Recon Marine”… “500 pounds of explosives” … “his faith in God”… (Psalms 144 – 1 & 2)… “timed fuse”… “the way the Army taught me (grin)”…

Hardcore, indeed! And agree, why was not a MoH Awarded?

Battery Gun Salute for this Warrior’s Warrior!

Another great Valor Story, Mason. Thank you!

Green Thumb

Hardcore Motherfucker.

Animal

Col Ripley spoke at my Infantry Officer’s Course graduation. One of the most memorable people I’ve heard speak.

The reason we were told it wasn’t a MoH was the lack of US observers.

Last edited 9 months ago by Animal
President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Graduated from:
US Army Ranger School,
US Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT),
Royal Marine Commando,
US Force Recon Marine.

I’d say that the Jarheads got their money’s worth.

Lmn0351

Col Ripley was my battalion co back in 79….was glad to know him….one hell of a (humble) Marine

Prior Service

Like this guy, I’m coming up on 35 years in service but that’s where the comparison stops. Any random duty day by this stud outclasses pretty much anything I’ve ever done.

AW1Ed

 “This allowed the Dusters’ 40mm anti-aircraft cannons (while designed for use against airplanes, were used to great effect against unarmored ground troops in Vietnam).”
Improvise adapt overcome.

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JustALurkinAround

IIRC, what Ripley accomplished WRT Rangers, Force, UDT, and Royal Marines, earned him the distinction of being a “Quad Body”, named so for successful graduation from those 4 schools. There were very few Quad Bodies in the history of the USMC.

I’m trying to recall from memory what I read about this mission and Marine 30-some years ago while on duty in Puerto Rico, so any mistakes in my claims are purely mine.

Suffice to say there are bad motherfuckers, and then there are men like COL Ripley.