Monday, April 02, 2012

TFH 4/2: Captain John Walter Ripley, USMC

John Walter Ripley was born on June 29, 1939 in Keystone, West Virginia. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at age 17 in 1957 and was appointed to the United States Naval Academy a year later. He graduated with the class of 1962, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.

His first fleet assignment was to the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Independence (CV-62). He then served with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines until being selected to join the elite 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company in 1965. As part of his recon Marine training, he attended parachute and Ranger school with the United States Army as well as the Navy's SCUBA school.

He deployed for combat in Vietnam with both 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company and as the Company Commander of L Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines. During this tour in August 1967 he was decorated with the Silver Star for gallantry in action.

About four and a half years later, Ripley was serving as an advisor to the South Vietnamese Marines like yesterday's TFH Honoree, Ray L. Smith. Like his Leatherneck comrade, the Vietnamese unit Ripley was assigned to faced the onslaught of North Vietnam's Easter Offensive. At Dong Ha, a bridge that had been built several years before by US Navy Seabees would allow the attacking Communists to pour deep into South Vietnam if it was left intact. It fell to then Captain Ripley to demolish this bridge. Repeatedly he exposed himself to enemy fire as he placed explosives, including when he dangled beneath the bridge structure and carried himself hand-over-hand. All told, he was exposed for three or four hours preparing the bridge for demolition. He was successful, and for his courage, he was awarded the Navy Cross.

From Military Times' Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Captain John W. Ripley (MCSN: 0-84239), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism on 2 April 1972 while serving as the Senior Marine Advisor to the Third Vietnamese Marine Corps Infantry Battalion in the Republic of Vietnam. Upon receipt of a report that a rapidly moving, mechanized, North Vietnamese army force, estimated at reinforced divisional strength, was attacking south along Route #1, the Third Vietnamese Marine Infantry Battalion was positioned to defend a key village and the surrounding area. It became imperative that a vital river bridge be destroyed if the overall security of the northern provinces of Military Region One was to be maintained. Advancing to the bridge to personally supervise this most dangerous but vitally important assignment, Captain Ripley located a large amount of explosives which had been pre-positioned there earlier, access to which was blocked by a chain-link fence. In order to reposition the approximately 500 pounds of explosives, Captain Ripley was obliged to reach up and hand-walk along the beams while his body dangled beneath the bridge. On five separate occasions, in the face of constant enemy fire, he moved to points along the bridge and, with the aid of another advisor who pushed the explosives to him, securely emplaced them. He then detonated the charges and destroyed the bridge, thereby stopping the enemy assault. By his heroic actions and extraordinary courage, Captain Ripley undoubtedly was instrumental in saving an untold number of lives. His inspiring efforts reflected great credit upon himself, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.

Here, in two segments, is Ripley telling his own story of the destruction of the Dong Ha bridge:

And, from his earlier time in Vietnam, here is his citation for the Silver Star:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Captain John Walter Ripley (MCSN: 0-84239/1653859), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving as Commanding Officer of Company L, Third Battalion, Third Marines, THIRD Marine Division, in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 21 August 1967, Company L was assigned the mission of reinforcing a convoy that had been surprised by a large enemy force and was pinned down. With one rifle platoon, a small command group, and accompanied by two M-42 dual 40-mm. anti-aircraft guns, Captain Ripley was leading the relief column when it suddenly came under intense enemy automatic weapons and recoilless rifle fire. Disregarding his own safety and the heavy volume of hostile fire, he moved to the machine gun mounted on the vehicle and opened fire, pinpointing the location of the well concealed North Vietnamese and enabling the 40-mm. guns to deliver accurate fire on the enemy positions. Directing his unit to dismount, he quickly organized a defensive perimeter while coordinating supporting artillery fire and simultaneously controlling the remainder of his company which was widely separated from his position. Repeatedly exposing himself to the hostile fire, he directed artillery fire and air strikes upon the attacking enemy force and courageously adjusted fire missions to within fifty meters of his position. Throughout the following three hours, his skillful employment of supporting arms and direction of the fire of his men repulsed the determined enemy attacks and forced the hostile units to flee in panic and confusion. His aggressiveness and outstanding professionalism were an inspiration to all who served with him and were instrumental in the successful extraction of his unit from an extremely hazardous situation. By his steadfast courage, superb leadership and unfaltering devotion to duty at great personal risk, Captain Ripley upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

Ripley later served as an exchange officer with the United Kingdom's Royal Marines and also commanded the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and the 2nd Marine Regiment. He retired after 35 years of active service in 1992 as a full Colonel. In 2006, Ripley returned to the site of the Dong Ha bridge as part of a documentary series on Fox News. Then in 2008, Ripley was the first Marine inducted into the US Army Ranger Hall of Fame.

John Walter Ripley, American Hero, died suddenly at his home on October 28, 2008. He rests in peace at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery. Author Norman Fulkerson published An American Knight: The Life of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC in 2009. It's another one I've added to my reading list.

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