A Father 'Semper Fi': In Memory of Col. Ripley

Past Newsworthy Dads


Colonel Ripley

Heroism comes in many forms, but here’s a working definition:

Hanging by hand and foot for hours while strapping 500-pound packs of explosives beneath a key strategic bridge, under heavy enemy fire, and detonating the charge while bodily shielding others from tons of flying metal and mortar.

That is just a brief sketch of what Marine Col. John Walter Ripley did during the Vietnam War on Easter Sunday 1972, when he received orders to “hold and die” at the bridge at Dong Ha. His heroic actions slowed the advance of some 20,000 North Vietnamese troops and their armored vehicles, and saved the lives of countless American and South Vietnamese soldiers.

He received the Navy Cross for bravery, and his deed is taught as “Ripley at the Bridge” to every student of the U.S. Naval Academy. A book titled The Bridge at Dong Ha recounts the events of that day.

Though fit and active in retirement at age 69, John W. Ripley died peacefully at his home in Annapolis, Maryland, early last month. He had survived two liver transplants, and still exercised daily and was a fixture at the U.S. Naval Academy’s campus, where he was a 1962 graduate.

In a funeral ceremony on Nov. 7 at the Naval Academy, which was attended by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, four-star General James T. Conway, Col. Ripley was buried with full military honors, a 21-gun salute, and a Marine Corps Harrier plane flyover in “missing man” formation.

Man of Faith

Yet a full account of John Ripley’s extraordinary life must include his self-sacrificing love of his faith and his family.

He was a devoted husband to his wife, Moline, and a strong and involved father to his three sons and one daughter.

“As good a Marine as he was, he was even a better father,” said Mary D. Ripley, who works as the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis.

His son Thomas, also a retired Marine, said in his eulogy at the Funeral Mass, “Our father gave everything to us. He never had a nice car, took individual vacations, or had lavish things – all of that went to our education and betterment. He was a selfless parent. Despite all his achievements, we always knew that we were his greatest accomplishment.”

His son added, “Faith always played a powerful role in our father’s decisions. Faith is why John Ripley was always incredibly optimistic.”

Indeed, Col. Ripley was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily at the Naval Academy’s chapel.

In his funeral homily, Father Peter McGeory spoke not of “Ripley at the Bridge,” but of “Ripley at the Family,” “Ripley at the [Naval] Academy,” “Ripley at the Chapel,” and “Ripley at the Gates” of heaven.

He noted that Col. Ripley was not content to rest after his many medals and commendations, but lived every moment, even in retirement, as a Marine – “Semper Fi!”

Father McGeory recalled a moment that summed up the strength and humility of the man, when at a Naval Academy football game, he saw by chance the colonel in a corner of the stadium, on one knee, feeding his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer's.

“For me, that quiet, loving scene of a totally devoted husband which I accidentally witnessed was what made him a real hero,” Father McGeory explained. “He had those Christ-like qualities of genuine humility and true servant leadership that naturally attracted so many to him.”

(A video of the heroic “Ripley at the Bridge” has been posted on YouTube by the U.S. Naval Institute, which has kindly provided information and the photo for this article.)




Tribute to a Friend - Podcast

Col. Charles H. Gallina, USMC/Ret., who served with Col. John W. Ripley on Okinawa, offers a personal look at the man behind the legend. Col. Gallina is Assistant for Military and Veterans Affairs for the Knights of Columbus.