ANNAPOLIS, Md. --
On the battlefield, many servicemembers have collectively fought to win major battles, but one special Marine performed a task so bold and decisive that it changed the course of an entire war.
The Marines of Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., honored one such leader, Col. John Ripley, a celebrated war hero of the Vietnam War, who recently passed away and was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy, Nov. 7.
Attended by Gen. James T. Conway, 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, 16th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, as well as more than 500 servicemembers and civilians from around the world, Ripley’s funeral was a fitting tribute for a Marine whose leadership and courage under fire have left an indelible mark on the Corps.
During the funeral procession, the Marines crossed a bridge over an inlet on the Chesapeake Bay. Conway reflected during Ripley’s eulogy of the symbolism behind that funeral march.
Ripley was a student of warfare and most admired the famous Confederate General, Stonewall Jackson, he remarked. Conway then recalled a conversation in which Ripley spoke of the final words of Jackson, as he laid down with fatal wounds. “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees,” Jackson said.
“Now, in a few moments, we will move with Col. John Ripley, United States Marine Corps Retired, across the river to rest under the shade of the trees,” Conway said.
Ironically, Ripley is best remembered for stopping the North Vietnamese Army from crossing one such bridge.
It was Easter Sunday, 1972, when more than 20,000 North Vietnamese troops launched a major offensive against South Vietnam near the village of Dong Ha. The NVA were moving towards a bridge built by Navy Seabees, as it was their only was to cross the nearby river. With a small garrison of around 600 South Vietnamese troops, Ripley knew that the only way to stop the offensive was to destroy the bridge.
In a deliberate and extraordinary act of heroism, Ripley retrieved explosives and dangled underneath the bridge, swinging hand over hand with 80 lb. of explosive ordinance strapped to his body and enemy rounds flying towards him. Ripley exposed himself to fire from enemy rifles, machineguns, and tanks while he fastened an intricate web of explosives and fuses across critical points in the bridge structure.
As he set the final fuses, Ripley noticed that they were wet and might not light. With a grenade in hand, he recalled he was prepared to trigger the grenade and drop down into the river in hope the current would carry him far enough before the bridge came crashing down upon him.
To his luck, the fuse lit, and Ripley successfully escaped peril and accomplished the mission. His action delayed the invasion of South Vietnam for several years and saved countless lives. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the Naval Service’s second highest award for valor.
Ripley enjoyed a successful Marine Corps career, but faced health problems later in life. Nevertheless, he survived because the Marine Corps never gave up on him. Thomas H. Ripley, his son, told the story of how his father was hanging on for his life after a liver transplant. Thomas recounted the event before the funeral party in the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel. Gen. James L. Jones, 32nd CMC, stepped into the hospital room with the Color Sergeant of the Marine Corps and the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps.
“The Colors don’t leave the room until you do,” said Jones.
The sight of the Battle Colors gave Ripley the inspiration to live on, Thomas recounted in memoriam.
Before the Marines escorted Ripley to his final resting place in the cemetery, Navy musicians played the Marines Hymn, provoking thunderous shouts of “OOH-RAH!!!” throughout the chapel.
Included in the funeral escort was the 32nd Color Sergeant, Sgt. Scott A. Jewel, who was flanked by the Battle Colors. One final time, the Color Sergeant would stand watch over Ripley.
Led by Col. Andrew H. Smith, the commanding officer of Marine Barracks Washington, the escort, consisting of the Marine Corps Color Guard, U.S. Marine Band, Marine Body Bearers, and two infantry platoons marched on to Ripley’s final resting place. Once at the gravesite, the Body Bearers raised Ripley to the sky in tribute just as the sun broke through the clouds and cast an angelic yellow hue upon the cemetery.
Ripley passed away to join ranks with his own legendary hero, Stonewall Jackson. Like Jackson, Ripley stood like a “Stonewall” against a persistent foe, inspiring generations of warriors with a legend of his own.