COL. JOHN W. RIPLEY, U.S. MARINE CORPS (ret.), recipient of the Navy Cross and for years one of my personal heroes, has passed away.
Ripley, 69, was awarded the Navy Cross – the nation’s second-highest award for valor in combat – for single-handedly blowing up the Dong Ha Bridge in Vietnam, thus blunting the North Vietnamese Army's Easter Offensive on April 2, 1972.
The enemy was attacking in great strength – huge numbers of infantry, tanks, artillery – and Ripley's little force was ordered to "hold and die."
Dying would be easy. But the only way to hold was to blow the bridge spanning the Dong Ha River. And, as Ripley said, he was "the Marine there to do it."
Then a 33-year-old captain, Ripley accomplished his task by dangling from the bridge's I-beams, climbing along the length of the bridge hand-over-hand, his body weighted down with explosives, the enemy shooting at him, desperately trying to kill the lone Marine hanging beneath the bridge.
In a June 16, 2008 interview for Marine Corps Times, Ripley said “I had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus and leap over the other I-beam. ... I would work myself into the steel. 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.”
Ripley set the charges and moved back to the friendly side of the river, all the while under heavy fire.
When the timed-fuses detonated, Ripley – running for his life on the road leading away from the bridge – was literally blown through the air by the massive shockwave he had engineered. The next thing he remembered, he was lying on his back as huge pieces of the bridge were hurtling and cartwheeling across the sky above him.
In an interview for Americans at War (U.S. Naval Institute), Ripley said, "The idea that I would be able to even finish the job before the enemy got me was ludicrous. When you know you're not gonna make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you're going to save your butt."
A Virginia native, Ripley served in the Marine Corps for 35 years: He commanded three Marine infantry platoons (one rifle, one weapons, one reconnaissance), three rifle companies, a British Royal Marine Commando company (which operated alongside Gurkha infantry in Malaya), a U.S. Marine rifle battalion and a Marine infantry regiment. He also held a variety of other posts from professor to university president. He directed the Marine Corps' History and Museums Division. He testified before Congress on the dynamics and rigors of combat. And a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan was named for him.
In addition to being one of the Corps greatest heroes and a legend among midshipmen at Annapolis (his alma mater), this year Ripley became the first Marine inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
Incidentally, a signed copy of Col. Charles H. Waterhouse's painting depicting Ripley's exploits at the Dong Ha Bridge hangs in my office as a reminder that – as we read in Philippians – "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."
Considering the lives saved and the superhuman feat performed under intense enemy fire at Dong Ha, I believe Col. Ripley's Navy Cross should have been – and should be – upgraded to the Medal of Honor.