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Marine inducted into Ranger Hall of Fame

11 Jun 2008 | Art Powell

Col. John Ripley was inducted into the U. S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame during ceremonies conducted June 11 at Ft. Benning, Ga., making him the first Marine ever invited to join the small fraternity of Hall of Fame Rangers.

“To express how this feels is jolly difficult. The Rangers are almost a legendary entity. They’ve been around since the Revolution and they’ve always had that very distinctive air about them. And rightly so. In just about every war this country has had, there’s been some kind of Ranger action, or special operations. When they told me I was going to be inducted, I just couldn’t believe it,” said the Naval Academy graduate.

While Ripley is the only Marine ever inducted based on a military career solely in the Marines, there have been previous inductees who served in the Marines, then later joined the Army and became Rangers.

Nominations from select Ranger units and associations representing each era of Ranger history are considered by the Ranger Hall of Fame Selection Committee each year. The 2008 inductees range from a four-star general, John Galvin, to a PFC, WWII Ranger Ellis Reed, who served in the European theater.

“Once a Ranger, always a Ranger, that’s my comment,” said Maj. Gen. Walter

Wojdakowski, commanding general, Ft. Benning, as he waited for the induction ceremony to begin in the George C. Marshall Auditorium at Ft. Benning.

“No matter what service, what they do, Ranger school and the Ranger tab means you’re one of the best leaders in whatever service you’re in. We don’t differentiate between Marines or Navy SEAL’s or anybody. If they’re wearing a Ranger tab, we’re really proud to honor them, and the Marine Corps ought to be proud of him, too,” he concluded.

Ripley’s visit to Ft. Benning for the induction ceremony differed greatly from an earlier visit, in 1965, for Ranger training.

During the first week of training, one exercise involved being pushed off the end of a diving board into a pool, blindfolded, with weapon and gear, then swimming to the side of the pool. Ripley was pushed into the outdoor pool after Rangers first broke the ice.

“We started the class with about 150 people, but when the others saw me go into the icy water, about 20 of them refused to do it and quit the program right there. It was our single biggest loss during training,” said Ripley, who was wounded in action four times.

More rigorous training followed as Ripley earned the right to call himself a Ranger.

“I came from a small, very select unit in the Marine Corps called Force Reconnaissance, and the requirements to get into Force Recon were very, very physically and mentally demanding. Since we specialized in things like small unit actions, recon behind the lines and pre-assault recon, we had the opportunity to go to schools, and Ranger was one of them. The Army allowed 2-3 Marines into each class,” added Ripley, now a resident of Annapolis, Maryland.

He attended other schools such as SCUBA, Airborne and Pathfinder, but he says he knew the value of Ranger training.

“Everyone knew the elite qualities attached to it, and that was very attractive,” he said.

When asked to compare current Ranger training to what he experienced in 1965, Ripley focused on the value of rigorous training.

“In our training, we were kept in a constantly deprived state, sleep deprivation all the time, and even food. And they did that purposely, and it was a very good effect, because you learned you could operate under these conditions when your body was weak and your mind was addled. I don’t know if they do that to the extent now that they did then,” explained Ripley.

He pointed to the changes in society over the years and how they might affect such demanding training today.

“I’m not sure that the changes in society would permit the sustainment of that at the level we did, I think they would challenge it,” said Ripley, who retired with 35 years of active duty in the Marine Corps.

He said that when he arrived for Ranger training, he was “tougher than woodpecker lips,” yet still lost 20 pounds. He finished Ranger School as the top officer graduate.

During his second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1971, he was the senior advisor to the 3rd Vietnamese Marine battalion, and the benefits of intense Ranger training paid off during the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter invasion of South Vietnam when Ripley and his battalion were at the Dong Ha bridge.

The bridge had to be destroyed in order for his 735 Vietnamese Marines to hold off several thousand approaching North Vietnamese troops.

“I went into that situation well prepared. It’s been said that the only man with the right knowledge, was at the right place, I say the wrong time. No one else on the face of the earth had the expertise, plus the experience, the real experience for doing what had to be done precisely,” he explained.

For someone who knows what they’re doing, successful demolition can be accomplished with the proper charge at the proper place and huge stocks of explosives aren’t necessary.

 “When I started out on the bridge, I knew the likelihood of my being successful was minimal. The enemy was in such preponderance in the other side of the river, I knew they weren’t going to let me go out there and be there very long,” he said.

Ripley swung on the girders under the bridge as small arms fire, heavy machine gun fire and even fire from the main gun of an North Vietnamese Army tank searched him out.

 “We had disabled the tank turret so it couldn’t turn, but the driver was able to turn the tank itself and they started shooting at me. One round hit the bridge, but was at such a severe angle that it ricocheted off the bridge and exploded on the bank. And, boy, when that 100MM round went off with me in the steel of the bridge, what a racket,” he said.

He credited the company commander of one of the two rifle companies supporting him with “reading my mind” when Ripley was on the bridge. The units presented covering fire for Ripley when they could.

“Demolition training from Ranger school taught me one very important thing, and that’s how to cut steel. My Marine explosives training consisted, for the most part, of using half-pound blocks of explosives to blow up something,” said Ripley.

From the Rangers, he said he learned how to use minimum explosive charges for maximum effect.

“I learned how to place charges on opposite sides of a rail so the blast twisted a critical support. It would have never been successful had I not known that. I have to credit my Ranger training and also my British Royal Marine commando training,” he added.

For his actions at the bridge, Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross, a book was written about his exploits, and a diorama in Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy, entitled “Ripley at the Bridge” is devoted to the actions of all academy graduates who fought in Vietnam.

Ripley was awarded six valorous and 14 personal decorations during his Marine career, including the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two awards of the Legion of Merit and two awards of the Bronze Star with Combat “V”.

Read his biography and the word ‘hero’ comes to mind.

“I find that humbling and somewhat embarrassing because there are so many, so, so many Marines that fit that category perfectly, but they never get the recognition,” he explained.

“The best that I can do is hope that I represent those men by my demeanor and the way I conduct myself the rest of my life that brings honor to them,” he continued.

Ripley pointed out that the men who provided cover fire for him while he was on the bridge paid a high price. Most of the Vietnamese Marines didn’t survive the battle.

“When we finally got out of there and returned to Hue City, we had 52 (Vietnamese) Marines out of 735 with us, all of those men who protected me where lost. Did they get the recognition? No,” he concluded.

“It’s something that straightens your backbone forever. You just cannot lose sight of that,” he said.

While in the process of destroying the Dong Ha bridge, he said “it took everything that I had inside me.”

And he credited Ranger training, being exhausted, hungry and cold during that winter in 1965 at Ft. Benning, for preparing him to reach inside and find a “second effort” that went beyond a tired body and an exhausted mind, to overcome physical weariness and accomplish the mission.

Later in his career, Ripley became involved in education, serving at the U.S. Naval Academy, Navy-Marine Corps ROTC at the Virginia Military Institute, and was later tapped by the Commandant to serve as the director of Marine Corps History and Museums, and as director of the Marine Corps Historical Center, a position he held until his final retirement from the Marine Corps in 2006.

His daughter Mary Ripley, of Annapolis, Md., was at the Ranger hall of Fame induction ceremony with her dad.

“This recognition couldn’t have come at a better time in his life, a wonderful end to the winter. He never talks much about things like this, he classically underplays all of his accolades. He does talk about the value of his Army training during the actions at Dong Ha, and what an honor it is to be recognized by the Rangers,” she said.

“This is a very big deal,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Knudson, commanding officer, Marine Corps Detachment, Ft. Benning, Ga., about Ripley’s induction into the Ranger Hall of Fame.

“The selection process has the entire history of the Rangers to look at,” said Knudson, whose staff of 18 supports the approximately 1200 Naval service students who attend schools at Ft. Benning each year.

“The cream rises to the top and as they (the selection committee) continue to look at Rangers for the Hall of Fame, Marines Rangers will continue to be recognized, but in smaller numbers because of the difference in the number of Army and Marine Rangers,” said Knudson, a veteran of 22 years of service to the Marine Corps.  

Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany