John W. Ripley

Marine colonel, member of Ranger Hall of Fame, was known for the destruction of a bridge during the Vietnam War

November 03, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

John W. Ripley, a retired Marine Corps colonel and a renowned hero of the Vietnam War, was found dead at his home in Annapolis over the weekend, family members said. A cause of death for Ripley, who had undergone two liver transplants, had not been determined yesterday. He was 69.

A Virginia native, Colonel Ripley was best known for a daring feat during the Easter Offensive of 1972, when he dangled for three hours under a bridge near the South Vietnamese city of Dong Ha to attach 500 pounds of explosives to the span, ultimately destroying it. His action, under fire while going back and forth for materials, is thought to have thwarted an onslaught by 20,000 enemy troops and was the subject of a book, The Bridge at Dong Ha, by John Grider Miller.

Last week, after he failed to appear for a scheduled appearance at a Marine Corps event in New York, worried associates contacted one of his sons, Stephen B. Ripley, who went to his father's house Friday to check on him. The younger Ripley concluded that his father - who lived alone near the gates of the Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1962 - had died in his sleep Tuesday night.

"His health was good for someone who'd had two liver transplants," said Mr. Ripley, who also honored a family tradition by serving in the Marines and retired as a captain.

When asked to describe a single quality that defined his father, Mr. Ripley said, "Tenacity."

"He was tenacious in his love for his country, his family and the Marine Corps," said Mr. Ripley, who also lives in Annapolis. "He never did anything halfway."

Earlier this year, Colonel Ripley was inducted into the U.S. Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga., an honor that he added to his many decorations. They included the Navy Cross, the second-highest combat award a Marine can receive; the Silver Star; two awards of the Legion of Merit; two Bronze Stars; and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. His tale is required reading for every Naval Academy plebe. In Afghanistan, a forward operating base was named for him.

"I admired John not only because of his obvious war heroism, but because of how he conducted himself after the war," said Thomas L. Wilkerson, a retired major general in the Marines and chief executive of the U.S. Naval Institute. "John was the standard to which we all aspire. There wasn't any baggage around John about how things should go. He walked his own talk."

Another Marine Corps colleague, Ray Madonna, who served with Colonel Ripley in Vietnam and retired as a lieutenant colonel, said he had known him for almost 50 years and had seen him Oct. 25 at the Navy football game against Southern Methodist University in Annapolis.

"He was with a couple of his grandchildren," Mr. Madonna said yesterday. "He looked fine. He was walking a couple of miles a day, building himself back after the surgeries. So it was a total shock."

In July 2002, after unsuccessful transplant surgery, Colonel Ripley's life was saved by a second operation at Georgetown University Medical Center, in which he received a liver from a 16-year-old gunshot victim in Philadelphia. The surgery became possible only after a high-speed military mission transported the organ to Georgetown in a Marine Corps helicopter from the president's fleet.

Colonel Ripley's liver had been damaged by a rare genetic disease as well as by a case of hepatitis B that he believes he contracted in Vietnam.

Describing the Dong Ha incident in a June 2008 interview with Marine Corps Times, Colonel Ripley said he "had to swing like a trapeze artist in a circus."

"I used my teeth to crimp the detonator and thus pinch it into place on the fuse." He said. "I crimped it with my teeth while the detonator was halfway down my throat."

Yesterday, on the Web site of World Defense Review, Maj. W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former Marine infantry squad leader who has researched Colonel Ripley's life, wrote that after Colonel Ripley had set the charges and moved back to the friendly side of the river, the fuses detonated and Colonel Ripley "was literally blown through the air by the massive shock wave" 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," Major Smith wrote.

Major Smith quoted an interview that Colonel Ripley gave for Americans at War, published by the Naval Institute, in which he 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."

Colonel Ripley was shot in the side by a North Vietnamese soldier and during two tours of duty was pierced with so much shrapnel that doctors found metal fragments in his body as recently as 2001. After Vietnam, Colonel Ripley continued to serve, losing most of the pigment in his face from severe sunburns while stationed above the Arctic Circle.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to his son, Colonel Ripley is survived by his wife, Moline; three other children, Mary D. Ripley, Thomas H. Ripley and John M. Ripley; a sister, Susan Goodykoontz; and eight grandchildren.

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