About Colonel John Ripley (USMC)
John Walter Ripley (June 29, 1939 – October 28, 2008) was a United States Marine Corps officer who received the Navy Cross for his actions in combat during the Vietnam War. On Easter morning 1972, Captain Ripley, repeatedly exposed himself to intense enemy fire over a three hour period as he prepared to blow up an essential bridge in Dong Ha. His actions significantly hampered the North Vietnamese Army's advance into South Vietnam. The story of "Ripley at the Bridge" is legendary in the Marine Corps and is captured in a diorama at the United States Naval Academy. His story is required reading for academy students.
John Walter Ripley was born on June 29, 1939 in Keystone, West Virginia and his family lived there until he was five years old. They then moved to Portsmouth Ohio, where they remained for some years before finally settling in Radford, Virginia. John Ripley enlisted into the Marine Corps in 1957 at 17 years of age. A year later, he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy by the Secretary of the Navy. He graduated in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering, and received his commission as a second lieutenant. After completing the Basic School, he joined the Marine Detachment on the USS Independence (CV-62).
After his sea duty, he joined 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines. In May 1965, Ripley was transferred to 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company, and after training, he deployed to Vietnam with his platoon.
In October 1966, Ripley joined 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines in South Vietnam. He served as Company Commander of Lima Company, known as Ripley's Raiders was wounded in action, then returned to active duty and completed his combat tour.
During his two years of Vietnam service, he participated in 26 major operations. In addition to numerous decorations for extensive combat experience at the rifle company and battalion levels, Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in destroying the Dong Ha bridge during the April 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive (also known as the Nguyen Hue Offensive). That action is memorialized at the Naval Academy with a large diorama titled "Ripley at the Bridge."
While under intense unrelenting enemy fire, Ripley dangled for an estimated three hours under the bridge in order to attach 500 pounds of explosives to the span, ultimately obliterating it. His action, conducted under enemy fire while going back and forth for materials, definitively thwarted an onslaught by 20,000 enemy troops and dozens of tanks and was the subject of a book, The Bridge at Dong Ha, by Colonel John Grider Miller. He attributes his success to the help of God and his mother. When his energy was about to give out he began a rhythmic chant, "Jesus, Mary, Get me there". His body taxed to its extreme limits, his action is considered one of the greatest examples of concentration under fire in the annals of U.S. military history. It also delayed NVA forces from taking Saigon for another three years.
Following his tours in Vietnam, Ripley served with Marine Force Reconnaissance, was an exchange officer with the British Royal Marines and was a Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and the 2nd Marine Regiment. His final tours in the Marine Corps were in charge of the NROTC detachments at Oregon State University and the Virginia Military Institute, and as the senior Marine at the United States Naval Academy teaching English and history. He earned the "Quad Body" distinction for making it through four of the toughest military training programs in the world: the Army Rangers, Marine reconnaissance, Army Airborne and Britain's Royal Marines, according to Miller's book. He was also the only Marine officer to be inducted in the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame. Ripley retired from the Marine Corps in 1992 after 35 years of active duty service. He received more than five awards for his acts of bravery in Vietnam.
After his retirement from active duty in 1992, Ripley became president and chancellor of Southern Seminary College for Women (now Southern Virginia University) in Buena Vista, Virginia. He was selected in 1999 by the Marine Corps Commandant as the director of the History and Museums Division.
As a result of combat action, Colonel Ripley contracted a disease that in the summer of 2002 required a liver transplant. Nearing death, with little time left and already having received Last Rites twice, a replacement liver was located. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, who called Col. Ripley a living symbol of pride, sent a section of CH-46s helicopters from the Marine One presidential squadron to Philadelphia to retrieve the liver. After further coordination with the Washington D.C. Police to obtain a landing zone in the city, the liver was delivered in time for a successful transplant.
In June 1992 Col. Ripley testified against women in the military before a presidential commission. He based his arguments on a defense of “femininity, motherhood, and what we have come to appreciate in Western culture as the graceful conduct of women.” In the following year he spoke against homosexuals in the military during the House Armed Services Committee hearings that preceded the implementation of President Clinton’s "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.
In October 2006, John Ripley returned to the site of the Dong Ha Bridge to film a documentary of his action. The documentary was hosted by Oliver North, and was shown on November 12, 2006 on Fox News.
Awards and honors
In addition to the Navy Cross, his personal decorations include the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals with 'V' for Valor, the Purple Heart, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon, the South Vietnamese Army Distinguished Service Order, 2nd Class, and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star.
In 2002, he also became the very first Marine officer to receive the “Distinguished Graduate Award”, the highest and most prestigious award given by the United States Naval Academy. Also, in May 2004, Marines of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit named a Forward Operating Base after him (FOB Ripley) in south-central Afghanistan.
In July 2006, the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island dedicated its new dormitory as "Ripley Hall", honoring their former graduate.
On June 11, 2008, Ripley became the first Marine to be inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame — honored for the assault on the Dong Ha Bridge, on Easter morning 1972.
On Tuesday November 11, 2008, Veteran's Day, Ripley's hometown of Radford, VA held a ceremony in memory of him. It had been originally intended to be in honor of him, but he died a couple weeks before the ceremony took place. His son was presented with a key to the city and a plaque declaring November 11, 2008, John W Ripley day in Radford, VA.
Ripley died suddenly on October 28, 2008 at his home in Annapolis, Maryland of undetermined causes at age 69. He was survived by his son, Stephen, by his wife of 44 years, the former Moline Blaylock; a sister, Susan Goodykoontz; two other sons, Thomas and John; a daughter, Mary Ripley; and eight grandchildren. Moline Blaylock Ripley died on September 12, 2009, from complications due to Alzheimers disease, at the age of 68.
When he passed way, his son Thomas related at his funeral that Commandant James L. Jones visited him in his hospital bed accompanied by Color Sergeant of the Marine Corps Sgt Jewel and the Battle Colors, He told Ripley, "The Colors don’t leave the room until you do." He was buried with full military honors on November 7 at the United States Naval Academy.
On October 28, 2009, the first biography about Col. Ripley was published. It was written by Norman Fulkerson and is titled An American Knight, The Life of Col. John W. Ripley.