When word came by cell phone several weeks ago of John Ripley's death, I was driving in remote Michigan and had to pull over to get things back together. Rarely do men like him come this way.
John Ripley was a man's man, a Marine's Marine -- an American's American. Well prior to his death he was a Marine legend, one of its most decorated heroes. They named a building for him and wrote a hymn ("Uncommon Valor"). He was a Distinguished Graduate of the Naval Academy, and one of just two Marines depicted (he in a diorama) in the Academy's holiest of holies -- Memorial Hall. He was the only Marine ever inducted into the Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
A book ("The Bridge at Dong Ha," by John Grider Miller, Naval Institute Press, 1989) and numerous articles document his astounding exploits in single-handedly bringing down an American-built bridge in Vietnam -- thereby delaying North Vietnam's invasion of South Vietnam by years and saving many thousands of lives.
During his numerous combat tours he had been (his words) "shot, stabbed, blown up, poisoned, and snake-bitten." Two liver transplants extended his life earlier this decade, but the surgeons had to extract -- even then -- Vietnam-era shrapnel and bullet fragments to get the livers in. Passionate about history, Ripley was an instrumental force behind the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va. -- complete with its paramount spire paralleling the angle of the pole in Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the 1945 flag-raising on Suribachi. (He also selected many of the quotations engraved in the walls of the museum's main hall.)
The Marines do just about everything better. For John, at his Naval Academy funeral and burial, they outdid themselves. Permeating the attending throng were tears, chills, laughs, some old-boy lies that -- in his case -- were not lies at all, and abundant true stories about the thrills his many gallantries have given the faithful.
I knew John Ripley for more than two decades -- albeit never in a combat environment. Yet he was ever the warrior -- a word he revered and believed all military officers should be. He ran at two speeds, overdrive (usually) and off. He delved up to his eyeballs in any cause he undertook, and his principal cause of course was liberty. He led from the front, and those he led loved him for it. Passionate, devoted, colorful, and daring are adjectives that best describe him. He embodied the 10-word, 20-letter maxim, "If it is to be, it is up to me." John Ripley sooner would have died, at anything, than quit.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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