A Warrior Departs: "Tell Them My Story"

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Nov 20, 2008 12:00 AM

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.

In his later years, he encountered his profoundest sadness. Naval Academy Chaplain Peter McGeory, a Ripley friend, referenced it in his eulogy. At a Naval Academy reception, "out of the corner of my eye, way down at the far end of the room, there was the colonel, on his knee, talking gently to (his wife) and feeding her as she sat in her wheelchair. He treated her like royalty. I commented to (someone nearby) that everyone reveres Colonel Ripley as a well-documented hero. But for me, that quiet, loving scene of a totally devoted husband that I accidentally witnessed was what made him a real hero."

The Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, related two Ripley quotes in his eulogy. A native of Radford, Va., Ripley told Conway that if he had been with the South during the Civil War, "I might not have stopped Grant, but I believe I could have slowed him down." Conway also recalled Ripley saying, "There are sheep and there are wolves, and in the end the wolves always win."

John Ripley's correspondence contains many such quotes. He invariably would end his letters to me with "never retreat," or "fit for duty," or "pass the ammunition," or "press the attack." Following his second liver transplant, he wrote eloquently to a friend, "My entire life has been one of walking on the edge of a razor blade, and this is just another occasion." Still, he wrote to another friend:

"I am supported in life by a beautiful symphony. Everyone knows his or her role and plays it to perfection. . . . I never could have made it this far without everyone in the symphony, nor would I have qualified for my first or my second liver had the doctors not seen this level of support: If a young officer or Marine ever asks what is the meaning of 'Semper Fidelis' ('Always Faithful'), tell them my story."

But it is this, in the most extraordinary letter to come my way, that tells most about the extraordinary John Ripley, his appreciation of valor, and his commitment to the American cause. The letter arrived at Thanksgiving 21 years ago. Imagine the scene. "Dear Ross," it began:

"Certainly you have received no other letter from here. . . . I'm on a desolate, lonely mountaintop. It's the middle of the night -- cold, windy, uncomfortable, and profoundly moving. I'm looking down on a tiny island three miles wide and five miles long. Down there, and here where I'm writing by flashlight, over 7,000 Marines died.

"The mountain is Suribachi, the island Iwo Jima. Of the hundreds of thousands of words written about this place, nothing comes close to describing its starkness, its inestimable cost, and now, sadly, the poverty of its abandonment. . . .

"This island, its name, and most especially this very spot where I sit -- where the flag was raised -- is immortalized in our national consciousness for as long as there is an America."

Indeed.

And so it is with the John Ripley the immortal warrior -- now inside The Gates and pressing the attack.