This article was originally published in 2012 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge to honor Colonel John Ripley, the man at the center of the story.
Norman Fulkerson, author of An American Knight, reflects on what made Ripley such a larger-than-life figure — and why we should emulate his moral courage.
To most of the world April 2, 2012, will be just another early spring day. To members of the armed forces, veterans, their families, military historians, and other patriotic Americans, the date will evoke images of unfathomable courage: an exhausted Marine captain crawling through razor wire and hand-walking beneath a bridge in Vietnam, rounds from enemy fire blazing all around him, sustained through the ordeal by his sense of duty, his love of country, and his utter reliance on a Higher Power.
The 40th anniversary of the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge — which delayed the North Vietnamese Army from taking Saigon for another three years — is a key historical milestone. Yet Norman J. Fulkerson hopes that Americans will commemorate this day by taking a moment to reflect on the example set by the man at the center of this case study in heroism. Not just during the operation itself but throughout his life, Colonel John Walter Ripley displayed a rare and priceless quality: moral courage.
“While very few of us could come close to achieving the raw physical courage he possessed, we can emulate Colonel Ripley’s moral courage,” says Fulkerson, author of An American Knight: The Life of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC.
“Our world is crying out for it. In times like these — marked by cultural decay, the unraveling of the principles that made our nation great, and widespread hopelessness and despair — we need men of moral courage more than ever.”
Fulkerson’s tribute to Colonel Ripley certainly appeals to military circles. (Indeed, the book was the Military Writers Society of America 2010 Gold Medal Winner.) Yet he hopes that its message will resonate with civilians who see much to be admired and valued in the story of a man who truly lived his values. It not only provides a gripping description of the Dong Ha Bridge operation (click here for an excerpt from the book), it paints a portrait of a man who truly personifies modern-day American knighthood.
How did Ripley’s moral courage manifest itself in his life? Fulkerson offers the following insights:
He Was Absolutely Fearless
It is, perhaps, fearlessness that we most obviously associate with moral courage. The men who fought alongside Colonel Ripley referred to his “resoluteness and old-fashioned bravery” and credited his leadership with their survival in Vietnam. Indeed, Fulkerson’s book is full of amazing stories that illustrate Ripley’s willingness to repeatedly take risks that very few others could imagine.
Ripley’s description of his attitude toward the Dong Ha Bridge mission provides a glimpse into the philosophy that allowed such fearlessness. Fulkerson reports the late Colonel saying: “The idea that I would be able to even finish the job before the enemy got me was ludicrous,” he said. “When you know you’re not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you’re going to [survive].”
He was Able to Keep Enduring in the Face of the Most Hostile Circumstances
Moral courage allows people to do what may seem to be impossible. The Easter Offensive, which began on March 30th and continued on for weeks after the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge, was intense and unrelenting. Fulkerson writes that Stephen Ripley, Colonel Ripley’s son, provided the following description of what his father had to endure:
“‘To get an idea of what that’s like,’ he said, ‘wake up at 4:00 a.m.; take a cold shower with your clothes on. Go outside; run a marathon. Don’t have lunch. Roll around in the dirt. Take another cold shower and keep going. Repeat that for 10 days.'”
He Knew His Strength Came not From Himself but From God
The Dong Ha Bridge mission pushed Ripley almost beyond the boundaries of physical endurance. At one point, after he had spent more than three grueling hours preparing the bridge for detonation, he felt his strength fading. Rather than giving up, which was unthinkable, he turned to his faith.”Marines are able to make it through physically demanding exercises with the use of rhythmic chants,” writes Fulkerson. “He decided to use his own improvised Catholic version and began a continual prayer of ‘Jesus, Mary, get me there!’ He said it so loudly that Major Smock, waiting for him on the bank, began repeating the same prayer, perhaps without realizing what it meant.” “By doing this,” Fulkerson reflects, “Colonel Ripley showed great humility and proved what an individual can accomplish when he invites Got to come along.”
He Showed a Tender Solicitude Toward the Weak and Defenseless
We tend to think of our military icons in terms of their war-like achievements. And yet, a warrior with moral courage never loses sight of why he is waging war — to serve and protect others. This, says Fulkerson, is an essential characteristic of a knight.
The author describes one incident when Ripley’s men wanted to kill some noisy pigs that were rooting around near their camp. Ripley refused to give the order. He told them, “That livestock might belong to a farmer who needs it to sustain his family.”
Later, in his description of the Dong Ha operation, Fulkerson describes Ripley’s saving of a terrified Vietnamese girl who was perilously close to the bridge only seconds before it was detonated. He bolted in her direction and scooped her up, both of them narrowly escaping death by projectiles of concrete and steel.
“The man who had single-handedly faced an opposing army during his trips out into the bridge, the Marine who, in a moment of desperation, had called down naval gunfire on top of himself in an attitude of supreme self-sacrifice, would not sit by and allow an innocent child to perish if he could help it,” he writes. “His spirit of chivalry would not allow it.”
He Put the Needs and Feelings of Others Ahead of His Own
It was Ripley’s “others before self” mindset that made him a great leader and earned him the love and loyalty of his men. And it didn’t manifest only in the heat of battle. In An American Knight, Captain Stephen Moore relates a story that showcases Ripley’s sensitivity toward the Vietnamese people and their customs. It occurred one day when they were sitting down to have a steak dinner — a true luxury in the field.
“‘As these huge juicy steaks were being taken off the grill,’ he said, ‘and Rip was about to devour them, a Vietnamese soldier approached. He had prepared a special meal for the senior officer, who happened to be Captain Ripley.’ He could have respectfully refused but realized that this gesture was an important part of the Vietnamese culture. To them it was an honor to serve the commanding officer and to refuse would have been an insult.
“‘I can still see his face,’ said Captain Moore, ‘as our people took his steak away and the Vietnamese replaced it with a specially prepared fish plate. His look was like that of a kid whose candy had been taken away. He watched it all the way as they took it away, but graciously accepted the meal provided by his host.'”
All Through Life, He Swam Upstream While Others Floated Downstream
Ripley never took the easy way out. He espoused socially unpopular views and did not flinch from the backlash. For example, he was firmly opposed to women in combat and homosexuals in the armed forces. He was able to lay out a clear and logical argument for his positions — indeed, transcripts of his testimonies on both issues appear as appendices in Fulkerson’s book and seem convincing enough to sway opponents to his point of view.
“Colonel Ripley had integrity,” reflects Fulkerson. “He was one of the most decorated veterans and seasoned warriors of his time and therefore knew what would and would not work in the military. It is sad to say it, but it was his integrity that made him controversial. The fact that some people did not accept his integrity is a sad commentary on the modern American culture.”
He Held Himself to the Highest Personal Standards
For example, Ripley was a practicing Catholic and never used foul language. Indeed, writes Fulkerson, “The closest thing to a curse word the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, ever heard him use was ‘doggonit.'” When producers approached him about making a movie about his life, one of his stipulations was that the person portraying him would not use foul language.
The other stipulation had to do with Ripley’s wife, Moline. He was deeply chivalrous and loyal to her. He let the producer know he would not tolerate his character having an extramarital relationship. “I have never been, nor will I ever be, unfaithful to my wife,” he told them.
“Many people in the public eye preach one thing and practice another,” says Fulkerson. “Ripley’s actions were absolutely aligned with his principles. This is in stark contrast to the public and private hypocrisy we see all around us.”
He Never Lost His Warrior Spirit
One might think that, after the grueling combat Ripley saw in Vietnam and his incredible heroism at Dong Ha Bridge, that he’d be happy to rest on his laurels in later years. Not true. Ripley’s career was winding down when the U.S. entered the Gulf War in 1990. His son, Lieutenant Stephen Ripley, was called up with his unit. Then the commanding officer of the Navy Marine Corps ROTC unit at VMI, Colonel Ripley sent a letter to a friend asking to be sent to Iraq.
Ripley’s impassioned plea went unheeded. Anyone who reads it, however, cannot doubt that Ripley was a true warrior through and through. It read, in part:
“I would give anything to be back with FMF [Fleet Marine Forces] Marines and in any capacity. I have no career ambitions, not that it would matter, just that I want to be with my Marines again and go out with some dignity…I will go anywhere, anytime, with no notice. I am a threat to no one. I have no hidden agenda; I just want to go…I will pay my own way…I know I am asking for a miracle, but I’ll go to my grave hating myself if I don’t.”
Colonel Ripley died in the fall of 2008. His life was, says Fulkerson, a testament to “walking the talk.” As he put it in his preface: “In one word, this book is for those Americans who look for someone to show them that their ideas are attainable.”
“No doubt Colonel Ripley was an extraordinary man with extraordinary gifts,” reflects Fulkerson. “Certainly few of us have what it takes to blow up a 60-ton bridge. But many of the things he did — putting others before self, standing up for his beliefs, staying loyal to his spouse, behaving with honor — are things we can all do.
“Moral courage is attainable,” he adds. “None of us are perfect but we can choose to do better than we’re doing now. Striving for a higher standard can lead to amazing things. It changes our lives as individuals and strengthens our entire culture.”
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