By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
John W. Ripley, 69, a highly decorated Marine Corps officer and demolitions expert during the Vietnam War whose destruction of a strategic bridge was credited with helping repel a Communist-led armored advance at Easter time in 1972, died Oct. 28 at his home in Annapolis. He had undergone liver transplants in recent years.
Col. Ripley -- then a captain -- participated in dozens of major combat operations during two tours of duty in Vietnam. His quiet daring not only led to two of the highest awards for valor -- the Navy Cross and the Silver Star -- but also induction this year into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga. He was the first Marine to earn that distinction.
He was best remembered for his actions against a North Vietnamese offensive of 20,000 men that began in late March 1972. Often called the Easter Offensive, the invasion was meant to reach Saigon and achieve a psychological and military victory over the South Vietnamese and their relatively few remaining American advisers as U.S. involvement in the war was winding down.
At the time, Col. Ripley was an adviser to a battalion of the Vietnamese marine corps that had been moved to Quang Tri province bordering the demilitarized zone separating the north and south.
Amid an onslaught of enemy shelling, Col. Ripley and about 700 South Vietnamese marines were asked to hold a pivotal crossing point near the DMZ -- a bridge that spanned the Cua Viet River at the village of Dong Ha. Col. Ripley later recalled orders to "hold or die."
According to his citation for the Navy Cross -- the service's highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor -- Col. Ripley on April 2, 1972, used 500 pounds of dynamite and C4 plastic explosives to take down the bridge.
He and a U.S. Army colleague were chiefly responsible for rigging the bridge with explosives -- with Col. Ripley hand-walking along the beams while his body dangled 50 feet above the swift current. The bridge was more than 500 feet long, and the work of rigging it required about three hours of intense work.
"I had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus and leap over the other I-beam," Col. Ripley told the Marine Corps Times in June. "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."
Col. Ripley helped provide the first success against the North's incursion and delayed the advance of more than 200 enemy armored vehicles, including tanks. His actions gave the South Vietnamese marines further time to regroup along another defensive line. They eventually stopped the Communist invasion in Quang Tri province.
"Saigon would probably have been lost in 1972 but for Ripley," said retired Marine Corps Col. John Grider Miller, author of "The Bridge at Dong Ha" (1989).
John Walter Ripley was born June 29, 1939, in West Virginia and was raised in Radford, a southwestern Virginia town where his father was a railroad manager.
He joined the Marine Corps after high school in 1957 and was a 1962 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He went on train at the Army Ranger School and with the Royal Marines, among other elite units.
He began his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966. As a company commander the next year he received the Silver Star for his relentless attack against well-concealed enemy gunfire from a North Vietnamese regimental command group.
After his Vietnam service, Col. Ripley became a regimental commander. He also was the senior marine at the Naval Academy and the Virginia Military Institute before retiring from active duty.
From 1999 to 2005, he was director of history and museums for the Marine Corps and played a key role in the fundraising, planning and design of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., near Quantico.
Survivors include his wife, Moline Blaylock Ripley of Annapolis; four children, John Ripley of Palm Beach, Fla., and Stephen Ripley, Thomas Ripley and Mary Ripley, all of Annapolis; a sister; and eight grandchildren.