“We’ve got to blow that bridge at Dong Ha,” Ripley radioed to Turley. “We’ve got to buy some time.”
Je-sus Ma-ry get me there. Jesus-Mary-get-me-there. JesusMarygetmethere!” Marine Captain John Walter Ripley repeated this rhythmic chant over and over as his fingers gripped the flanges of the “I” beam under the bridge and he swung himself, hand-over-hand, toward the boxes of explosives carefully nestled in the steel girders.
For three grueling hours, Ripley had clung to the underside of the bridge, dragging some 500 pounds of explosives along the steel beams, meticulously preparing the structure for destruction, all the while under often-intense enemy fire.
Fighting complete exhaustion, he was now willing himself through the last steps of the long operation, attaching the blasting caps and fuse cord to the explosives and then getting safely back to the riverbank in one piece. With the leading edge of a massive mechanized offensive by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)—some 200 tanks and 20,000 troops preparing to rumble across the bridge—the very future of South Vietnam hung in the balance.
Earlier that day, as the sun rose in the sky and the overwhelming enemy juggernaut prepared to roll over the meager forces arrayed against it, Ripley was sure that he would not live to see that day’s sunset. In his own mind he was a dead man walking, on his way to certain death. As American involvement in Vietnam was winding down in March 1972, the North Vietnamese decided that the time was right to launch a final offensive, one that would end not only in a military victory but would also deliver a crushing psychological blow to the South Vietnamese and their U.S. allies.
The goal of the so-called Eastertide Offensive was to capture Saigon, and the North Vietnamese planned to reach this prize by making three separate but coordinated drives southward: through the Central Highlands, down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and down the coastline on Highway 1. It was this last invasion force, which had as its objective the ancient city of Hue—a necessary first step to the eventual capture of Saigon—that Ripley encountered at the bridge near the village of Dong Ha.
Days earlier, the North Vietnamese Army began putting pressure on South Vietnamese firebases near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Although the assumption was that the NVA would engage these bases and then back off, South Vietnamese marines nevertheless began moving north to counter the enemy threat.
As the lone American adviser to the 3rd Vietnamese Marine Corps infantry battalion, Ripley was with the unit as it moved north to the village of Dong Ha, less than seven miles south of the demilitarized zone. Reaching Dong Ha on April 1, Ripley and the South Vietnamese marines were met with a brutal NVA artillery barrage that lasted all night.
Enemy Tanks Stretch From the Dong Ha Bridge Back to the DMZ
At daylight the next day—Easter morning—the shelling slowed and Ripley left his bunker to do a reconnaissance and check nearby craters to try to find where the enemy was shooting from. The previous day’s actions and heavy artillery onslaught had allowed him and his South Vietnamese marines little sleep or food. With craters everywhere, the area resembled the moon, yet it was familiar terrain to Ripley.
He had lived, worked and fought around Dong Ha for 12 months in 1967 as a company commander with a U.S. Marine unit. Moreover, Ripley was very familiar with the bridge spanning the Cua Viet River. He had been there when Navy Seabees built it, so he knew how the bridge was constructed, and he understood its tremendous strategic importance as the only bridge that could carry heavy tanks, self-propelled artillery and other similar military vehicles up and down Highway 1—South Vietnam’s only major north-south route.
When Ripley returned to his bunker after checking out the situation, he received a call from Lt. Col. Gerald H. Turley, assistant U.S. senior adviser to the Vietnamese marine corps. Turley informed him that a number of enemy tanks were heading south along Highway 1. Initial reports of 20 tanks soon grew to 200. Ripley and the Vietnamese marine battalion commander, Major Le Ba Binh, had solved many tactical problems during their time together, but the threat at the bridge was different—Binh’s marines had little capability to stop Soviet-built T-54 tanks.
Ripley asked Turley about getting Air Force ordnance to take out the NVA armor, but was told that the ceiling was too low to call in airstrikes and that, even if aircraft were available, there were other threats.
As Turley put it, as big as the threat facing Ripley was, “It ain’t the only war in town…every fire base up here is taking crap and some have already gone under….You’re all we have…you’ve got to hold that goddamn bridge and you’ve got to do it alone…. There’s nothing here to back you up with…do you read me?” Ripley replied to Turley that he understood.
But when he learned minutes later that a spotter plane had observed enemy tanks stretching all the way from the Dong Ha Bridge back to the DMZ, he realized that the only way to stop them was to destroy the bridge. He knew that if those 200 tanks and 20,000 North Vietnamese troops crossed the bridge, the enemy could be in Hue by nightfall, and it might well be the beginning of the end for South Vietnam.
Pressing for Permission
“We’ve got to blow that bridge at Dong Ha,” Ripley radioed to Turley. “Got to buy some time.”
Turley told him that he could not get permission to destroy the structure, explaining that higher headquarters wanted to save the bridge—for a counterattack.
“What are they smoking back there?” an incensed Ripley shouted into the radio. “If we try to stop 200 tanks and God knows how many troops with two rifle companies, there’s not going to be any goddamned counterattack!”
While Turley agreed that blowing up the bridge was the right thing to do, he didn’t have the authority to give Ripley the go ahead. But, as Ripley later recalled, “Lt. Col. Turley took matters into his own hands. He had accepted an enormous responsibility and assumed the authority.”
Turley shouted to Ripley over the radio, “Do it, and worry about the consequences later!” But before Ripley could take action, the NVA launched another intense barrage of hundreds of rounds of artillery to smash any resistance to their advance at Dong Ha.
Ripley, more determined than ever to get to the bridge, realized that there was a South Vietnamese tank battalion nearby and that he could use one of its M-48A3 tanks to get up to the bridge. The South Vietnamese tankers were not enthusiastic when Ripley asked for one of their tanks, but he managed to persuade them with help from Army Major James E. Smock, the Vietnamese armor unit’s adviser. More important, when Ripley and the tank moved out for the bridge, Smock went with him to provide critical aid.
Retired Marine Colonel John G. Miller, author of the book Bridge at Dong Ha, explains that when Ripley and Smock reached the bridge, “the two Americans discovered that South Vietnamese Army engineers had brought TNT [trinitrotoluene] to the bridge…but these engineers had not placed the explosives under the bridge, much less attempted to rig it for destruction, since they were terrified of being so far forward.”
Ripley’s Plan to Blow the Bridge
Ripley’s plan was to move the TNT up into the steel “I” beams supporting the bridge and push the explosives about 100 feet out from the south side. The TNT would be used in concert with satchels of C4 plastic explosive. The C4 would cut the girders, and the exploding TNT would lift a section of the 500-foot bridge up and then twist it off its supports, sending it crashing to the water below.
Ripley knew more than most Marines about explosives because after his first tour in Vietnam, he had a two-year stint with the Royal Marines in Great Britain, where he received practical instruction in demolitions. He had learned during Ranger training that a so-called “crooked earmuff charge” could be used to cut a steel girder. The technique required explosives be put on both sides of the steel beam—like a pair of earmuffs, but at an angle. If the explosives were placed directly opposite each other, when the two went off, they would cancel each other out. But if they were put on like crooked earmuffs—one forward and one back—the force of the two charges would push right past each other and shear the steel beam, taking out one entire section of the span and making the bridge useless to enemy tanks or troops trying to cross the river at Dong Ha.
To get to the bridge, Ripley planned to climb over a chain-link fence topped with concertina wire. The Seabees who built the bridge had put up this fence precisely to prevent an enemy saboteur from getting under the bridge and doing precisely what Ripley intended.
With Smock depressing the wire, Ripley reached up to the downstream “I” beam girder, grabbed the beam’s flanges and began climbing through the wire. After seeing the numerous cuts Ripley was getting across his arms and legs, Smock told him, only half-joking, “Just don’t bleed to death before you make it through, Rip!”
Clearing the wire, Ripley tightened his grip on the “I” beam and let his legs drop free. With his body dangling 50 feet above the river and enemy bullets snapping around him, he hand-walked about 100 feet along the downstream girder carrying two 15-pound C4 satchel charges, his weapon and water slung over his back. His arms ached and he feared losing his grip and falling, but Ripley mustered the strength to swing his torso up into the first of the five channels created by the adjacent girders.
He took off the two satchels and then wedged a satchel charge on each side of the first girder—set slightly off like crooked earmuffs. Ripley then inched his way back down the first channel to the south bank of the river to get more explosives. Smock had already lifted up the first two 75-pound boxes of TNT and satchel charges and pushed them through the wire into the channel.
Dead-tired but fixated on the task ahead of him, Ripley grabbed the bottom box and began dragging the explosives after him, inch by inch, along the beam to the satchel charges he had already set up. He carefully tucked the boxes of TNT into them. He then dropped down below the channel long enough to grab the flange on the adjacent “I” beam and swing up into the second channel.
Guessing the Length of Fuse Cord
As soon as his body was exposed, however, the North Vietnamese started firing at him again. Their rifle shots missed, but the ricocheting bullets seemed to go on forever. In the next 90 minutes, Ripley crawled back to the south bank and hauled boxes of TNT into place in each of the five “I” beam channels. The South Vietnamese marines provided some covering fire from the south bank of the river, but the North Vietnamese maintained a constant stream of fire at Ripley from the north bank.
Ripley could see the column of North Vietnamese ganged up on the north bank, ready to roll, and he kept thinking: “Why aren’t they trying to get across the bridge? Why aren’t they directing some of their attention to me? What are they doing over there?”
The South Vietnamese marines and Smock’s tankers on the south side of the bridge, defending Ripley, would not have been sufficient to deter the North Vietnamese from crossing. Regardless of why, Ripley was thankful for every spare second he could get.
When he went to wire the explosives, he could not find any electric caps, so he decided to use time fuses—a little more problematic. He would have to guess the length of the fuse cord he needed so that he and Smock would have time to escape the blast. Ripley knew that the cord was supposed to burn about a foot a minute, but he had to estimate how much to use—which he did by using his arm as a three-foot measuring stick.
Ripley discovered that he also didn’t have a crimper—a plier-type tool used to fasten a blasting cap to the fuse. “I had to take the blasting cap and open the one end,” he said later. “Then I had to take it and stick it backwards in my mouth with the opening out and put it way back in and bite the end of this thing. It was gagging me, it was so far back in my mouth.” If Ripley bit too low on the blasting cap, he would not get a good crimp. If he bit too high, he might set the blasting cap off—and literally lose his head.
With the blasting caps in his breast pockets and the fuse cord coiled over both shoulders, Ripley crawled through the razor wire yet again, grabbed the “I” beam’s flanges and hand walked out to the explosives—praying to God as the sounds of hundreds of ricocheting bullets rang out that he could get there and return in one piece.
Ripley’s rhythmic chant, “Jes-sus Ma-ry get me there” kept his momentum going as he hand-walked down the steel beam. Just after reaching the upstream box of TNT and pulling himself up into the “I” beam’s channel, a T-54 tank round hit less than two feet from where his left hand had grasped the lower flange.
“Holy Mother of God, they’ve got me this time!” he thought. The round failed to explode on contact, however, because the tank’s angle of fire was too sharp. But, glancing off the steel beam, it struck the south bank of the river and detonated. Ripley nearly lost his grip.
Regaining his composure, Ripley located the C4 and dug a hole in it with his K-Bar knife. He inserted a blasting cap into the plastic explosives, which remained attached to one of the coils of primer cord, struck a match and lit the fuse cord. It began to burn like a Fourth of July sparkler. Ripley repeated the process, working as fast as he could. He reached the downstream “I” beam, dug a hole with his K-Bar in the satchel charge, inserted the blasting cap and lit the second cord. He calculated for, and hoped for, about 30 minutes of burn time.
Going Back Up Under the Bridge…Again
When Ripley finally rejoined Smock on the south shore of the river, to his dismay he discovered a box of electric caps that he hadn’t seen earlier. Ripley knew that he had to go back up under the bridge one more time and set the electric caps as a back up to the now-burning fuse cord.
Finding some old communication wire, Ripley attached it to the wire leads of five electric caps, and then—in the face of withering NVA small-arms fire directed at him—climbed once again through the razor wire and hand-walked out the upstream “I” beam.
Once he got to the nearest box of demolitions, Ripley pulled himself up into the channel and inserted the first cap into the satchel of C4. He did the same with the remaining four caps, spliced their lead wires and then returned—hand over hand—to the south bank of the river.
Ripley and Smock had realized earlier that, even if they succeeded in destroying the Seabee-built bridge, an old French-built bridge located nearby could possibly be used by the enemy as an alternate means to cross the river. So, while Ripley set the electrical caps in the Route 1 bridge, Smock put a few boxes of TNT under the old bridge in the hope that it would be destroyed by sympathetic detonation when the main Dong Ha bridge blew up.
Their rigging missions finally complete, Ripley and Smock sprinted back to friendly lines—to the cheers of the South Vietnamese. Ripley spotted a destroyed jeep and realized that its battery would give him the electrical source needed to detonate the electric caps. When he touched the wire to the battery terminals, however, nothing happened.
At that moment, Ripley saw a young Vietnamese girl who had been separated from her mother as they ran for cover along the road. When an enemy mortar round hit right behind the girl, Ripley realized she would never make it to safety on her own. Sprinting to the girl, he scooped her up in his arms and ran with her toward her mother. When he neared the woman, he and the girl were blown off their feet by a massive explosion.
The time fuses had worked! As the young girl scrambled to her feet and ran away, a stunned Ripley looked back toward the bridge to see a 100-foot gap between the river’s south bank and the rest of the bridge. The wooden timbers of the rest of the bridge were also ablaze, and would continue to burn for five days. Even the adjacent old French bridge had been blown in half.
The Bridge Is Down
“The bridge is down!” Ripley radioed to Colonel Turley. “I say again, the bridge is down. She’s in the river. They won’t cross at Dong Ha!” Ripley’s daring had literally saved the day—and countless South Vietnamese lives at Dong Ha.
After the bridge was blown, the North Vietnamese on the north bank stopped firing their weapons, turned off their tank engines and opened the hatches. Many of them could not escape death, as Ripley now called in naval gunfire from American destroyers on the gun line offshore. The Navy walked its gunfire, with Ripley adjusting, along the north bank of the river, destroying many of the NVA tanks.
Ripley never understood why the North Vietnamese had not crossed the bridge during the three-hour period that he and Smock labored to rig it with explosives. “That was one of the most inexplicable parts of the whole affair,” he said. While the enemy invasion down Highway 1 had been halted—the North Vietnamese never did cross the Cua Viet River at Dong Ha—things were not going as well for the South Vietnamese to the south and west.
Eventually the NVA fought its way across upstream bridges to the west, where it then battled South Vietnamese defenders at My Chanh River, 15 miles south of Cua Viet. But the course of the invasion had been changed dramatically by the destruction of the bridge at Dong Ha, a critical factor in the eventual failure of the entire 1972 North Vietnamese offensive to end the war. It would take another three years before the NVA would be able to mount another offensive on this scale.
Ripley’s heroic action on Easter Sunday 1972 is perhaps the best example of how an individual can change the outcome of a battle, if not a war. Captain John Ripley was just one man at one bridge on one day near the end of a long war, but what he did will be heralded by warriors for generations to come.
A Mighty Marine Legend: John Ripley
Born on June 29, 1939, John Walter Ripley, known as “Rip” to his friends, grew up in Radford, Va. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school in 1957, completed the Naval Academy preparatory school and then entered the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1962 and was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant.
After finishing The Basic School, Ripley was assigned to the aircraft carrier Independence for a year, then joined the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, where he served as a rifle and weapons platoon commander. He also completed basic parachutist, scuba, Ranger and Jumpmaster training.
Ripley first went to Vietnam in October 1966 as a captain and commander of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. While with “Lima 3/3” near the demilitarized zone, he was wounded in action and was decorated with the Purple Heart. He also received the Silver Star for his gallantry during an attack against a North Vietnamese Army regimental command post.
In October 1969, Ripley was chosen to be an exchange officer to the British Royal Marines. He was one of the last U.S. Marines to go through training with Royal Marine recruits and later was deployed with them to Singapore and northern Malaya. He spent several months on campaign in the jungle with the famous Gurkha Rifles and received additional training in demolitions.
At the end of his two years with the Royal Marines, Ripley had developed a set of fighting skills possessed by very few U.S. Marines. He returned to Vietnam as the lone adviser to the 3rd South Vietnamese marine battalion in June 1971, and he was with them during the NVA-Easter Offensive in 1972. After leaving Southeast Asia later that year, Ripley served in a variety of assignments. He commanded 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, from 1979 to 1981 and graduated from the Naval War College in 1982.
He then served on the joint staff before becoming Senior Marine and Director, Division of English and History, at the U.S. Naval Academy.
In 1988 Ripley took command of the 2nd Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune. After completing this tour, he commanded the Navy-Marine Corps ROTC at Virginia Military Institute. Retiring as a colonel in 1992, Ripley was tapped to be president of Southern Virginia College and later served as president of the Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.
Ripley returned to the Corps in 1999 as the civilian director of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division. In 2002 he became the first Marine officer to receive the Distinguished Graduate Award from the Naval Academy. Ripley left his history and museums position in 2005. He died on October 28, 2008, at his home in Annapolis.
Fred L. Borch served for 25 years as an active-duty Army lawyer. A professionally trained historian, he is the regimental historian and archivist for the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. His latest book, Sea Service Medals, was published earlier this year by the Naval Institute Press.