On Easter Sunday, April 2nd, 1972, Marine Corps Captain John Ripley was embedded in a small South Vietnamese village on the southern bank of the Cua Viet River. The important crossroads town was a few miles south of the front lines, and Ripley was a senior American military officer chilling with about 600 South Vietnamese Marines. His mission was pretty basic: hang back, get these guys trained and ready for action, and then await further orders.
So you can probably imagine Captain Ripley's surprise when he looked out across the Cua Viet River that morning and saw an entire full-strength North Vietnamese Army armored division assembling to attack. Twenty thousand battle-hardened asskickers with AK-47s, RPGs, and 81mm mortars. Two hundred brand-ass-new Soviet T-54 main battle tanks. Armored personnel carriers. Anti-aircraft trucks. Friggin' pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the bed.
And the only thing standing preventing this armor-plated face-smashing juggernaut and the complete epic annihilation of all Democracy in Quang Tri Province was a 200-meter-long bridge made of solid concrete and steel.
Gunshots, mortar fire, artillery, tank cannons and RPGs started erupting throughout the American base on the south side of the River. With bullets whizzing in every direction, Captain Ripley radioed in immediately, requesting an airstrike to level the bridge and save him from having to fight off a force that had more armored vehicles than Ripley had soldiers. The request was denied. There was too much anti-aircraft firepower in the area. Even worse, this full-scale Easter assault wasn't just happening in Quang Tri – it was a massive, coordinated attack across all fronts. The biggest NVA attack since the Tet Offensive.
Ducking through mortar blasts, Ripley went to his commanding officer and requested permission to set charges and blow the bridge himself. His commander radioed that request along to headquarters, and it was also denied. Too dangerous. Too little chance of success or survival. Dig in, Marine, and prepare to fight to the last man... a glorious, futile, idiotic stand that would probably last about eight minutes against a Brigade of goddamned T-54s when all you have for firepower is an M16 and a couple frag grenades.
Ripley's boss hung up the radio and looked straight into the Marine Captain's determined eyes. Ripley stared him back, gritted his teeth like a badass, and asked again. Give me a chance. I can do this. You know we're fucked if that bridge is still standing two hours from now.
Captain Ripley's commanding officer stared out at the endless wall of NVA firepower assembling on the other side of the river, sighed, and said OK. He knew he was sending John Ripley to his death, but sacrificing this man on an impossible mission was the only possible way he was going to keep his command alive.
Rushing back out into the explosion-riddled Marine base, Captain John Ripley didn't share his commander's pessimistic outlook on life. This balls-out warrior sprinted through mortar fire, jumped a barbed wire chain-link fence, kicked open a lock, broke the explosives out of the base's ammo dump, stuffed 40 pounds of TNT in a few giant satchel bags, strapped them to his body, and started fucking monkey bars-ing his way hand-over-hand along the underside of the bridge so he could start planting explosives.
Nobody had ever doubted that John Ripley was one of the toughest, most fearless, and most badass warriors the United States Marines Corps had ever produced. After growing up in Radford, Virginia, Ripley enlisted in the Marines out of high school, graduated the Naval Academy in '62, and had been serving in 'Nam since the early days of the war. He'd also racked up some pretty damn decent hardware as well – two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart.
The Silver Star had come on August 21, 1967. He was leading a rifle platoon from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines on a mission to reinforce a team that was pinned-down at the front, when suddenly his convoy came under heavy enemy fire from the jungles on either side of the road. Despite panic, machine gun fire, RPG contrails whipping past him in every direction, and a bullet in his leg, Ripley leapt out of his transport truck, ran over to a nearby M42 Anti-Aircraft armored vehicle, jumped onto the .50 cal heavy machine gun, and started spraying bullets in the direction of the enemy. As soon as he spotted the enemy, he ordered the M42 to lower its plane-killing cannons to zero elevation and start ripping the jungle apart. Ripley spent the next three hours forming a defensive perimeter, commanding his Marines to fight off the attack, and radioing in coordinates for air strikes and artillery that fought off the ambush.
And all that had been five years ago. Since then, he'd served with Marine Force Recon (the Marine Corps' Special Forces), the Royal Marines, and the Army Airborne Rangers. To this day, he's the only Marine in the Army Ranger Hall of Fame.
What he did on the Bridge at Dong Ha, however, is the stuff that took him from "Vietnam war hero" to "all-time, all-world badass".
An M42 Duster AA truck
For three solid hours, Captain John Ripley climbed hand-over-hand along steel I-beams beneath the 200 meter long Bridge at Dong Ha. He did this with 40 pounds of explosives strapped to him while hundreds of snipers and infantry on the other side of the bridge fired full-auto AK-47s at him, their rounds pinging off the steel girders as he muscled himself along with brute fucking force. When he got to a spot where he thought he needed to plant some bombs, he would brace himself between the girders, wire up the explosives, bite down on the blasting cap (this is never recommended, because if you bite incorrectly you could detonate the cap and blow your skull into shrapnel), and wire it up.
Think for a second about how damn hard it is to hang off something with just your hands. The screaming muscles in your arms, the crippling pain in your fingers, the uncertainty that you'll be able to hold on for another second...... this guy did this for three hours straight, with no support wires holding him, with 40 pounds of gear while people were actively trying to kill him. This Marine knew that a single slip would drop him into the river, where – if he survived the fall – he'd be swept down-current, captured, and probably executed. Failure, falling, mis-wiring a charge, or placing his bombs in the wrong places meant that 200 T-54 tanks were going to drive over the bridge any minute and flatten everything on the other side.
This is fucking Ninja Warrior meets the Thin Red Line meets MacGuyver.
not impressed, lol
It took Captain John Ripley five trips back-and-forth to wire up all of the bombs. He set them in a diagonal pattern, using some badass science-engineering calculus shit to determine that a diagonal pattern would blow the damn bridge at an angle that would rip it off its moorings and send it into the River. If he'd set the bombs in a straight line, there was the chance the bridge wouldn't actually fall, and that NVA transports would be driving across it any minute now.
On his fifth trip, Captain Ripley set the explosives that were positioned the closest to the enemy side of the river. He bit down on the blasting cap, was happy when he didn't blow his head off, set the timer for thirty minutes as bullets ricocheted off the steel around him, and then prepared to monkey bar his way back across the bridge one final time.
When he set the timer, Ripley wasn't convinced 30 minutes was enough time for him to get back. But he had to make sure this bridge blew, and, in Ripley's mind, there was no chance he was getting back alive anyway. By this point in his mission the entire North Vietnamese Army knew he was there, his arms were burning, shaking, and exhausted, and he was fairly certain he had no chance of ever surviving this one-man voluntary suicide mission.
With sniper rounds zipping past his head and the detonation timer ticking down, Ripley brute fucking forced his way 650 feet along the underside of a bridge like some kind of epic freeclimbing combat graffiti artist trying to tag an impossible underpass. Miraculously, against all odds, Ripley somehow reached the south bank of the river, dropped down, started running and then was blown through the air like a fucking action movie when the bridge detonated and exploded behind him. When the smoke cleared, John Ripley looked up and saw the entire bridge had collapsed down into the deep rushing waters of the river below, and there were a bunch of Russians and North Vietnamese standing on the far bank shaking their fist at him.
Ripley calmly, like a badass, reached into his pocket and pulled out his radio.
Then he started calling out coordinates for American aircraft and artillery to start raining hell onto the NVA forces that were now bottlenecked and stuck on the far side of the bridge.
Captain John Ripley's actions literally single-handedly stopped a full division of enemy forces from capturing an entire province. The shit was so impressive and unbelievable that nowadays there's a diorama in the U.S. Naval Academy depicting him making his climb. But this Marine's work wasn't done yet.... Ripley actually stayed behind for the next three days helping the South Vietnamese Marines fight off any attempts by the NVA to assault across the river.
The United States pulled out of Vietnam at year after Ripley's heroics, but this Marine stayed in the service until 1992, retiring as a Colonel after 35 years of service. He survived two tours in 'Nam, taught History at the Naval Academy, trained Naval officers at the Virginia Military Institute, earned two Legion of Merit awards, stayed married to the same woman for 44 years (this, in my experience, might be even more difficult than serving two tours in 'Nam), and was a driving force behind the creation of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. He's such a legend that the Marines do a 5K run every November to honor him. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 69.
The United States Marine Corps will celebrate its 240th birthday on November 10, 2015. When the Corps looks back at its greatest heroes, Captain John Ripley will be one of the names featuring prominently on the list.
NY Times Obituary
Ripley at the Bridge
Medal Citations for John W. Ripley