[Review of An American Knight by Norman J. Fulkerson]
Every war has its share of heroes. Vietnam was no different. One of the greatest and most decorated officers of that bloody conflict was John Ripley, USMC. Born in 1939, Ripley was the youngest son of very interesting parents. His father, “Bud,” was a Catholic Midwesterner from Illinois; his mother, a Virginia Protestant blueblood who swore that she would never marry a Catholic a conservative, or a Republican. When Bud swept her off her feet, she had to eat those words, for not only did she marry a man who was all three, she herself became all three!
A new book titled An American Knight, published by The American Society for Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), tells the story of this genuine American hero. The author, Norman J. Fulkerson, compares our hero’s values, which he learned from his family and his Catholic and Southern traditions, to those of the Medieval Catholic knights. Ripley carried these values with him even into the living hell that was Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Growing up in rural Radford, Virginia, the young John Ripley had a “Huckleberry Finn” childhood, spending most of his time outdoors, swimming the New River, exploring the nearby woods and impressing his nephews and nieces with his daring feat of hand-walking from rail to rail under the bridge over the river, a skill that would serve him and his men in years to come during the heat of battle in a small nation at war in southeastern Asia.
A Military Family
“Bud” had attended the Naval Academy, but was expelled as a midshipman for literally “missing the boat” when his curious nature caused him to take too long in viewing a volcano while his ship was docked in Hawaii. Nevertheless, he always kept the heart of a military man. His ancestors were involved in every military conflict that engaged our country all the way back to the Revolutionary War. All three of Bud’s and Verna’s sons became Marines. John enlisted at seventeen, but later attended the Naval Academy. It was much harder for him to handle the academics at the academy than the physical rigors of training. His entire childhood was spent preparing himself physically for the endurance required for battle. It was the discipline required for “book learning” that did not come naturally. Realizing how important it was for him to excel academically as well as physically, John became a model student, developing a thirst for learning — and later teaching — that stayed with him for the rest of his life. His Catholic upbringing stayed with him throughout his whole life, especially in combat. As we shall see, John Ripley would always turn to prayer at the most momentous times of his life.
One of Colonel Ripley’s greatest heroes was General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederate Army. Jackson was a brilliant military man, a virtuous Christian, and a compassionate leader of men. Ripley imitated in his leadership style. An incident related by one of his privates shows his toughness: on a training mission at Camp Pendleton, California, when one of the men in the unit ran out of water, another attempted to sell him some of his. Ripley was furious. Instead of blowing up and using profanity at the man, he made all of the young Marines pour out their water saying, “When one person is out of water, everyone is out of water.” A lesson in the importance of unit cohesiveness! Another incident in Vietnam showed his concern for the ordinary Vietnamese people, victims of the terrible fighting. One day, when the soldiers were digging in to camp, some wild pigs were making nuisances of themselves. One of the men wanted to shoot the pigs. Colonel Ripley would not allow it because the local farmer probably needed these animals to feed his family. As tough as he was, his compassion was directed at the common people suffering from the upheaval brought on by war. His example in both instances made better Marines of his men.
Ripley was better prepared for the contingencies of battle than most of his fellow Marines. He went through Ranger training and Underwater Demolition training (predecessor of the Navy Seals). He trained with the British Royal Commandoes in Norway and became a master marksman with their Gurkha Rifles while undergoing more training in Singapore. After all this preparation, he was considered a quad body – a mortal danger to anyone he encountered. At the time, only three men on earth shared that moniker.
Ripley served his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966, where he was given command of Lima Rifle Company. He quickly earned the respect of the men, who, in the words of one of them, “would follow him into the gates of hell, because they knew he would lead them out again.” He led from the front, a fearless, but cunning warrior. He always had his men dig a foxhole at the end of the day; then after dark, he made them move some distance from the first foxhole and dig another one. This extra work made the tired men crazy, until one night the enemy bombed the first foxhole they had dug. Lesson learned! His men earned the name “Ripley’s Raiders” because of their fearlessness and success in battle. During this first tour, Ripley was wounded four times and came home with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with V for valor, and a Purple Heart. By rights, he should have earned more than the one Purple Heart, but refused to report all of his injuries, not wanting to jeopardize his chances of leading his men in battle.
The defining moment of John Ripley’s life came in 1972 in the small village of Dong Ha in South Vietnam, just south of the DMZ. By that time, President Nixon had seriously diminished the American forces in Vietnam from 500,000 at the war’s height down to 27,000 by late 1971. These 27,000 were to remain in an advisory capacity as the South Vietnamese forces took over the conduct of the war. Back in 1954, when the French were defeated in Vietnam and more than 800,000 refugees fled to the south to avoid the clutches of the North Vietnamese Communists, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Croizat, USMC, aided their escape and went on to establish an elite South Vietnamese Marine force. The relationship between these two units — United States Marines and South Vietnamese Marines — was from that time a strong one, each trusting the other to do the right thing under pressure. This co-operation was sorely needed, when, on the night of March 29, 1972, the North Vietnamese Communist Army began their offensive march unhindered (or so they thought) into the South. They would have to cross the main obstacle, the Cua Viet River, over a sixty-ton bridge built by the Americans some years before.
Enter Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Turley, USMC, who had command of the operation to defend the bridge thrust upon him while he was “just passing through.” A more providential choice could not have been made than when this tough Irish Catholic Marine was put in charge. Turley and his fellow Marine cohorts, John Ripley and his Vietnamese counterpart, Major Le Ba Binh comprised a determined and unbeatable team that would prove their worth at the Dong Ha bridge. The orders were to blow the bridge before 200 enemy tanks and 30,000 heavily armed soldiers could cross it. The Viet Cong were close and getting closer, firing on the beleaguered South Vietnamese forces with big guns. To complicate matters further, thousands of frightened Vietnamese citizens were fleeing ahead of them.
The details of how Colonel John Ripley and his lone assistant, Major Jim Smock, completed their mission make for a nail-biting, intense scene. Vietnamese army engineers had carried five hundred pounds of TNT to the base of the bridge — but that was as far as they would go. The lead tank of the approaching North Vietnamese Army was disabled by a well-placed shell, halting the entire column and giving Ripley time to set the satchels and place the charges. Again and again he crawled through razor sharp concertina wire, which tore into his face, legs, and arms, to set forty pound charges at strategic places in the superstructure of the bridge. The experience of his boyhood stunt of hand-walking the bridge in Virginia served him well, and every ounce of specialized training he received in special services made his movements instinctual. This was a man who knew what he was doing! All the while, he was being watched and shot at by the approaching enemy. Each time Ripley returned for another satchel, crawling through the slicing wire, dropping down to hand-walk a bit further under the bridge and lift his body up again, his prayer was “Jesus, Mary, get me there.” Just as the job was completed, while waiting for the bridge to blow as fuses burned, he saw a poor village mother, missing one foot, running with her baby and followed by a crying little girl. His sense of chivalry could not allow this defenseless child to die. He scooped her up just as the bridge blew apart throwing huge chunks of concrete all over. Both of them landed on a pile of dead bodies, but the child was alive and rejoined her mother. This tough Marine who single handedly took on the entire approaching North Vietnamese Army could not let a little child die unnecessarily. Mission accomplished with uncommon valor. These events occurred on Easter Sunday, 1972.
The Colonel went on to an illustrious career at the Naval Academy. He was a dedicated husband and father who once stated that if ever a movie were made of his exploits in Vietnam, it better not have him being unfaithful to his wife. He and his beloved Moline raised a beautiful family, with two of their sons entering the Marine Corps and the third son a graduate of Virginia Military Academy. Their only daughter was named Mary, following the Ripley family tradition of naming the oldest daughter for Our Lady.
John Ripley’s last fights were not on the battlefield. They were in the halls of Congress and to a Presidential Commission in the nation’s capital. He was passionate about two issues that were under discussion in the early 1990s and still are: The inclusion of women in combat and allowing homosexuals in the military. Given his conservative Catholicism and intimate military background, we certainly know where he stood on these issues. Both of these testimonies are included in the book, An American Knight, and speak eloquently to the problems that would surely exist if these situations were allowed. He valued womanhood so highly that he thought no woman should have to experience what men did in battle. And his description of wallowing in other men’s blood is unforgettable. In fact, he developed Hepatitis B from exposure to tainted blood — something unavoidable in battle — and later required two liver transplants.
For all the danger he exposed himself to during his childhood, in military training and in war, John Ripley died a quiet death in 2008. He is one of the most highly decorated Marines in the history of the Corps, a man so honored by his fellow Marines, that he was not carried chest-high by the honor guard at his funeral (the Marine custom); he was carried at chin level. This is an unforgettable story of a true Catholic American hero.