By Bryan Mitchell - Staff writer
Retired Col. John W. Ripley, the legendary leatherneck whose exploits in Vietnam earned him a Navy Cross and an eternal spot in Marine Corps lore, became the first Marine inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
“It's pretty amazing really. I can't believe it,” said Ripley, who retired in 1992 after a 35-year career. “When I was called by Fort Benning and this sergeant first class told me what was happening, my jaw just dropped. I couldn't believe it.”
Ripley said his famous assault on the Dong Ha Bridge, on Easter morning 1972, was straightforward. There was a bridge to demolish, and he was the Marine to do it.
“I was a little surprised because the Vietnamese engineers had pre-positioned explosives there,” Ripley said. “And that's when I showed up.”
Ripley had to climb underneath the bridge to avoid enemy fire and to perfectly position the explosives to bring it down.
“I had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus and leap over the other I-beam,” said Ripley, whose combat awards also include the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars with combat “V.” “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.”
The destruction of the bridge allowed his unit of 735 Vietnamese Marines to hold off several thousand approaching enemy fighters.
Lt. Col. Jeff Knudson, 39, commanding officer for the Marine detachment at Fort Benning, Ga., said it's impossible to overstate the importance to the Corps of Ripley's induction into the Ranger Hall of Fame.
“At a recent ceremony here, we had the chief of staff of the U.S. Army at the 2008 Best Ranger Competition. He said that if the Army is the strength of the nation, then the Ranger is the heart of the Army,” Knudson said. “So when you hold it in that level, with the title and distinction of being a Ranger, to select a retired Marine Corps officer is evidence of how impressive his career is.”
The Ranger Hall of Fame honors and preserves the contributions of the most extraordinary Rangers in American history, according to the Web site of the U.S. Army Ranger Association . It strives to identify and highlight individuals as role models for current Rangers and to educate the public about the culture of the U.S. Army Rangers.
The 2008 class includes 13 former Rangers, as well as Ripley. Of those, eight served as officers while six were enlisted.
Ripley spoke to Marine Corps Times by phone from his home in Maryland before traveling to Georgia to be ushered into the group on June 11. Friends, family and former comrades from across the country were slated to join Ripley at the ceremony.
Selected for Ranger school
Ripley enlisted in the Corps in 1957 and was selected to attend the U.S. Naval Academy a year later. While serving as a first lieutenant, he was selected to attend Ranger school at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1965.
He took the class in the dead of winter, which he recalls as being especially brutal that year.
“They had to break the ice for us to qualify in the water survival class,” Ripley said. “It was so cold that we had to constantly worry about frostbite and hypothermia. The real leadership of these men stood out.”
To create a true-to-combat training environment, the troops were deliberately kept hungry.
“They wanted you to continue to perform under these extremes of physical depravation,” he said.
The training he received at Ranger school, as well as his time serving with the British Royal Marines, prepared him well for his tours in Vietnam, especially his famous destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge.
“Not once in my entire command was I ever surprised by the enemy,” he said. “On the contrary, we surprised them. We would ambush the enemy. So we were by far the best.”
During his assault on the bridge, Ripley called on his skills gleaned during his Ranger training.
“That could not have happened had I not had the training I had at Ranger school. I was exhausted, at night, freezing cold and when I got there you had to rely on just your adrenaline and your staying power,” Ripley said.
After he retired, Ripley worked in education for a number of years before he served as the director of history and museums for the Marine Corps. In that position, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Triangle, Va.-based National Museum of the Marine Corps.
About two dozen Marines currently attend Ranger school each year, with about a 50 percent graduation rate. That attendance is down from a historical average of approximately 85 Marines annually going to the grueling school, Knudson said. The strain of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan translates into fewer opportunities for Marines to attend the 10-week course.
Asked if there were Ripley protégés serving in Iraq and Afghanistan today, the legendary Marine spoke of the sacrifice today's Marines are making for the country.
“I would dare say there are a number, and God bless them,” he said. “Every service has dozens of them who are just solidly performing, doing the hard work and serving their country.”
RANGER JOHN W. RIPLEY
Colonel Ripley is inducted into the Ranger Hall for Fame in recognition of his extraordinary and illustrious military career both in combat and command. During 35 years of military service, Ranger Ripley lead troops with distinction at every unit level from Rifle Platoon through Regimental Commander. As a Reconnaissance Officer with the 2 nd Force Reconnaissance Co., Ranger Ripley attended the Ranger Course as member of Class 5-65 and was recognized as the Distinguished Honor Graduate.
Commanding a Rifle Company with 3 rd Marines in “I” Corps just below the DMZ, Ripley saw extensive combat from the famous " Leatherneck Square " area of Dong Ha to the ‘Rockpile'. He was involved in warfare at every DMZ Fire Base from Laos to Khe Sanh. Wounded four separate occasions, Ripley refused evacuation on the first three events while managing to avoid the paperwork and 3 Purple Hearts which would have mandated his removal from the fight. Seriously wounded a fourth time, Ripley was forced to evacuate and upon recovery insisted he be returned to his Company to complete the mission of leadership to his men. In addition to the Purple Heart, Ripley was awarded the Silver Star Medal and Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” for Valor.
Ranger Ripley next served as an Exchange Officer with Royal Marine Commandos and saw action in Singapore with the 3rd Commando Brigade; in Northern Malaya with 40 Commando and campaigned with the famous Gurkha rifles. Ripley was privileged to command the RM's Recce Troop (Reconnaissance) in the Artic and Malaya as well as ‘Yankee' Commando, Royal Marines, a light infantry company deployed throughout Great Britain and Norway .
Ripley's most famous tour of combat duty was as a Senior Military Advisor during the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Invasion. NVA troops and Soviet T-54 tanks had crossed the DMZ and were approaching a strategic bridge over the Cam Lo River. For over two hours and under withering small arms fire, Ripley swung hand-over-hand out to the spans and stringers under the bridge setting over 40 pounds of explosives. Exhausted and with enemy troops and equipment on the bridge, Ripley blew the bridge. It is written that, “ What Ripley did was simply impossible” . Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism.
During his two years of Vietnam service, Ranger Ripley participated in 26 major operations and holds the distinction of more field combat command experience than any other Marine commander of that era.
In retirement Col. Ripley was President and Chancellor of Southern Virginia University and served as President of Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham , Virginia . In 1999 Col. Ripley became the Director of Marine Corps History and Museums, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. Col. Ripley's exploits have been chronicled in the book The Bridge at Dong Ha ; His action is forever memorialized at the US Naval Academy with a diorama titled " Ripley at the Bridge "; Col. Ripley was the first Marine officer to be honored with the Naval Academy's Distinguished Graduate Award ; The Naval Academy Prep School dedicated a dormitory as “ RIPLEY HALL ” in perpetual honor of their former graduate; Ranger Ripley's heroic actions in Vietnam are a subject of Oliver North's “ War Stories ” titled “ The Furious Fight for Dong Ha ”; “ Ripley's March ” was written honoring Col. Ripley for his military service, valor in combat and contributions to the United States; “FOB Ripley” is a Firebase located in south central Afghanistan named in honor of Ranger Ripley.
Colonel John W. Ripley, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired
John Walter Ripley was born June 29 th , 1939 in Radford , Virginia . Colonel Ripley served 35 years active duty in the Marines. Graduating June 1957 from Radford High School , Ripley served one year of enlisted service in the Marine Corps before entering the United States Naval Academy upon obtaining an appointment from the Secretary of the Navy. In June of 1962, Ripley graduated with a Bachelor's of Science degree in electrical engineering and was commissioned a 2 nd Lieutenant of Marines.
Upon completion of The Basic School for Infantry Officers, Lt. Ripley was assigned Sea Duty with Marine Detachment, USS Independence. Lt. Ripley was next assigned to 2 nd Battalion, 2 nd Marines, commanding a Rifle Platoon, then Weapons platoon. In May 1965 Lt. Ripley was transferred to 2 nd Force Reconnaissance where he completed the US Army Airborne Course, Jumpmaster course and US Navy SCUBA School. Ripley next attended the US Army Ranger Course as a part of Class 05-65. Successfully completing Ranger training, now Ranger Ripley was recognized as the Distinguished Officer Graduate and awarded the coveted RANGER Tab. Upon completion of his Special Operation training, Ranger Ripley deployed overseas with his Force Reconnaissance platoon.
Captain Ripley arrived in Vietnam in October 1966 and took command of Lima Company, 3 rd Battalion, 3 rd Marine Regiment (L 3/3) just below the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the northern sector of South Vietnam 's I Corps. Ranger Ripley's Lima Company saw extensive combat action in the famous " Leatherneck Square " area of Dong Ha, Con Tien, Khe Sanh and the “Rock Pile”. Because of Ranger Ripley's exceptional leadership and command capabilities, commanders constantly committed Lima Company to active battle sites all along I Corps's DMZ. Ranger Ripley was w ounded in action on four separate occasions, finally being forced to medically evacuate and recover from his wounds. Each event qualified for the Purple Heart, but Ranger Ripley skillfully avoided the paperwork and settled for a single award of the medal. According to Ranger Ripley, “Three Purple Hearts on three occasions would mean mandatory removal from the field, and worse, command!” Ranger Ripley insisted on returning to command his Company and did so providing experience and leadership until end of tour.
Ranger Ripley next attended the Amphibious Warfare School and on completion of the course became the Infantry Officers Monitor, Headquarters , US Marine Corps. In October 1969 he was selected to serve as the Exchange Officer to the British Royal Marines. He attended the Marine Commando Course at Lympstone , England , then served in Singapore with the 3rd Commando Brigade and with 40 Commando in northern Malaya , campaigning for several months with the famous Gurkhas, the 1 st of the 2 nd Gurkha Rifles . Ranger Ripley also served with the Special Boat Service (3rd SBS) and with "Zulu" Company Group in Norway . Ripley then commanded "Yankee" Commando, a light infantry company, as they deployed throughout England , Scotland , and Wales . Ranger Ripley returned to Norway for his second winter to complete the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Course at Elvergardsmoen. He also completed the Joint Warfare Course at Old Sarum, England .
Ranger Ripley returned to Vietnam in 1971 and served as Senior Advisor to the 3rd Vietnamese Marine Battalion, which operated along the DMZ. Ripley was at Dong Ha with his battalion during the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Invasion. It was during this invasion that Ranger Ripley heroically performed the action at the Dong Ha Bridge, for which he was awarded the nation's second highest honor, the Navy Cross. John G. Miller's book, The Bridge at Dong Ha , documents this action.
Returning from Vietnam in 1972, Ranger Ripley became the Marine Officer Instructor at Oregon State University . In 1975 he attended American University in the Advanced Degree program. Upon earning a Master of Science, Ripley was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Staff, Headquarters Marine Corps, serving in Special Projects Directorate then later as the Administrative Assistant/Aide to the Chief of Staff.
Ranger Ripley next commanded 1 st Battalion, 2 nd Marines from July 1979 to May 1981. During this time they deployed for Combined Arms Exercise 2-80, then to Mountain Warfare Training Center and winter operations.
Upon completion of his tour with the 2 nd Marines in 1982, Ranger Ripley attended the Naval War College . Upon graduation he reported to the Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving as Political-Military Planner and Branch Chief, European Division, J-5.
Ranger Ripley was next assigned to his Alma Mater, the U.S. Naval Academy where he served as Senior Marine and Director, Division of English and History from 1984-1987. During this period he established a record of commissioning more than 500 Academy midshipmen into the Marine Corps. Ranger Ripley next spent a year as Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 with 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan .
In July 1988, Ranger Ripley assumed command of the 2 nd Marines and twice deployed the Regiment to Norway . Ranger Ripley also commanded Regimental Landing Team 2 (RTL 2), a combined reinforced infantry regiment, with armor, artillery and Marine Air, deploying over 10,000 Marines to the Arctic Circle , the first Marine unit ever to do so. Upon leaving the Regiment, he commanded the Navy-Marine Corps ROTC Unit at Virginia Military Institute. During his time at VMI, Ranger Ripley created the largest, most productive NROTC unit in the country.
Ranger Ripley has earned six valorous and fourteen personal decorations including the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit, two awards of the Bronze Star with Combat "V", the Purpose Heart, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the President Unit Citation, the Navy Unit Citation, the Combat Action Ribbon, the Vietnamese Distinguished Service Order and the Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star.
Ranger Ripley's heroic action at the Dong Ha was selected as a single act to memorialize all Naval Academy graduates during the Vietnam War. In Memorial Hall at The Academy, a large diorama titled " Ripley at The Bridge " represents the noble and gallant actions of all Naval Academy men who fought there.
Following his retirement in June 1992, Col. Ripley became president of Southern Virginia College in Buena Vista , VA. While there he was credited with saving the financially-troubled college. After turning the College over to new management, Col. Ripley was asked to remain as Chancellor where he received resolutions and citations from the Trustees, the City of Buena Vista , and the Office of the Governor.
In 1997, Col. Ripley assumed the responsibilities as President, Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham , VA. While serving in this capacity, he shored up parental confidence in the program of instruction, refocused the financial plan on infrastructure improvement, dormitory and classroom modernization, updated curricula to include additional offerings thereby enhancing the overall program and established innovative sources of revenue through positive change and sound management practices.
In June 1999, Col. Ripley was selected by the Commandant to serve as the Director of Marine Corps History and Museums and Director of the Marine Corps Historical Center, a position he held until his final retirement from the Corps in 2006.
Col. Ripley has been elected to Phi Alpha Theta, a history honorary, and to Who's Who Worldwide. He also holds the distinction of having commissioned more officers in the Marine Corps than anyone on record. During his years of Vietnam service he participated in 26 major operations which included numerous battles at the Rifle Company, Battalion and Division level. He has the distinction of more direct combat command experience at the rifle company and battalion level than any other Marine. He is the subject dozens of books and film documentaries and has lectured widely on combat leadership, performance in adversity and the value of humanities, classics, and liberal arts. He is in high demand as a motivational speaker and participates in numerous national seminars. His testimony before Congress as part of a Presidential Commission on the role of women in combat, and numerous writings, has been entered into the Congressional Record.
As a result of combat action, Ranger Ripley contracted a disease that would require a liver transplant in the summer of 2002. On his death bed with little life left and having twice received Last Rites, one of the Marine Corps' greatest living heroes was dying. Once a liver had been located in Philadelphia , the Commandant of the Marine Corps, calling Col. Ripley a living symbol of pride, dispatched helicopters from the MARINE ONE squadron, the Presidential Fleet, to ferry the transplant team to the University of Pennsylvania hospital to remove the donor liver and then transport the doctors back to Washington for the successful operation.
In October 2006 Col. Ripley returned to the site of the Dong Ha Bridge to film a documentary of his exploits. The documentary was hosted by Oliver North and featured on an episode of LtCol. North's ‘War Stories” on FOX.
Colonel and Mrs. Ripley reside in Annapolis , Maryland . They have four children. Two sons are graduates of VMI and each served as Captains of Marines.