Chapters on the Destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge from An American Knight

by admin on March 12, 2012

3-d_bookChapter 15: The Dong Ha Bridge[1]

The intensity of the battle took its toll on Captain Ripley’s battalion but also on the civilian population. The situation he faced as he gazed at the 60-ton bridge he was ordered to destroy was best described by eyewitnesses as “chaotic.” South Vietnamese jammed the roads in a frantic attempt to escape the wrath of the Communist NVA who intentionally targeted those very roads to kill civilians. Many fell dead and wounded from enemy fire that came from an aggressor intent on spreading panic. Mothers clutching crying babies staggered down the road in zombie-like fashion, followed by shell-shocked children. Thousands of South Vietnamese Marines, seeing the futility of resistance, threw down their arms, removed their military insignias and joined the amorphous mass.

As the North Vietnamese continued pounding the South into submission with seemingly unlimited artillery, it became clear that they were dead set on crossing the bridge. The only thing standing in their way at this point was a brave, but battered, Vietnamese Marine battalion and one lethal U.S. Marine armed with the know-how to become their worst nightmare.

Colonel Turley recalled visiting John Ripley on the evening of April 1. As they sat in a makeshift bunker, shells were landing all around them. Their brief conversation was constantly interrupted by incoming rounds which forced them to take cover. In spite of the intensity of the situation and the daunting task that lay ahead of him, Colonel Turley was amazed at how calm John Ripley was.

Blowing the bridge would not be easy, but his training with the Army Rangers, Navy Underwater Demolition team and Royal Marine Special Boat Service (SBS) made him more than qualified to do the job. Shortly before he arrived at the structure aboard an M-48 tank driven by Major Jim Smock, a South Vietnamese Marine Sergeant fired upon and disabled one of the T-54 tanks on the North Side of the River. This stopped the whole column, purchasing John Ripley precious time to do his work.

Both he and Major Smock dismounted their tank under the cover of an old bunker. They were then forced to run across an open space under heavy artillery and small arms fire before arriving at the juncture of the bridge and the approach ramp. Awaiting their arrival were five Vietnamese army engineers hiding beneath the foot of the bridge, frightened to death by the intense incoming fire. Although they had carried over 500 lbs of TNT and the necessary C-4 explosives under the bridge, they flatly refused to assist in its destruction. Eventually, all five faded away, leaving Ripley and Smock completely alone.

Reliving His Adventuresome Childhood

After surveying the structure, Captain Ripley realized that to bring it down he would have to place the TNT in a staggered alignment between the six gigantic girders. This would require numerous trips into the underbelly of the bridge, each time pushing wooden crates of TNT between the girders and carrying two 40-lb satchel charges over his shoulders. It also meant he would have to go deep into the bridge super structure to accomplish this task which would bring him closer to enemy fire on the opposite bank.

The scenario before him was hauntingly similar to the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain he knew by heart as a boy. The big difference here was that he was practically alone in the undertaking. Everything depended on him and he did not waste a minute in accomplishing the task. Comparisons to his youth did not end with the history of Radford, but also included one of his favorite boyhood stunts.

To get the TNT into the bridge he had to hand-walk into the structure, a feat that was reminiscent of his “Huckleberry Finn” days in Radford. Once again, like he did as a boy under the trestle over the New River, he would walk arm over arm under the bridge, clutching the I-Beam girders. Although, this time he would not have enthusiastic nephews egging him on, but angry North Vietnamese trying to kill him.

“Commence Firing Immediately and Don’t Stop”

What complicated matters was the chain link “sapper” fence strategically placed at the abutment in order to prevent sabotage to the under section of the bridge. On top of the fence was razor sharp concertina wire. Captain Ripley had to crawl over the top of the concertina, and let Smock hand him the explosives. This meant passing through the wire which shredded his uniform and tore into his flesh. The subsequent loss of blood only increased his fatigue.

His first trip out was a good indication of what the whole ordeal would entail. Grasping the bottom flanges of the I-Beam, he began hand walking. Arriving at the designated spot for the placement of the first satchel charges, he laboriously swung his body back and forth to catapult himself up in-between the girders. The effort sapped his low supply of energy as he dangled precariously above the water 30 feet below. After several attempts, he was finally able to lodge his heels in the I-Beams and work his way into the steel where he placed the explosives. He then crawled back to the bank still inside the flanges of the I-Beams where Major Smock passed him a crate of dynamite, requiring an equally grueling trip back to the same spot, dragging the 180-lb load. Each time he swung back down out of the steel, Communist NVA on the opposite bank fired at him causing rounds to ricochet all around.

Seeing the intensity of the fire and the possibility that his efforts would be in vain, he radioed for immediate naval gunfire to be placed on the bridge and surrounding enemy position from Captain William Thearle aboard the USS Buchanan now situated off the coast in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those monitoring the radio calls knew that the situation was desperate. Captain Ripley was actually calling for Buchanan’s 5.54-inch guns to fire almost directly on top of his own position. Captain Thearle initially refused this “danger close” mission until he reviewed his tactical maps, since he recognized how close the rounds could come to Americans in the area. John Ripley’s response to the delay showed clearly that the fulfillment of the mission was primary, even if it meant his own destruction.

“Commence firing immediately,” he said, “and don’t stop.”

The physical effort and mental concentration required in this effort took such a toll that at one point Captain Ripley passed out under the bridge while straddled between two I-Beams. He was jolted to consciousness once again by a 100mm tank round from the disabled T-54 main battle tank, that slammed into the side of bridge, sending shock waves through his body. The vibrations almost knocked him into the river.

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Chapter 16: “Jesus, Mary, get me there!”

Before the completion of the first part of his mission, Captain Ripley had made a dozen trips between the abutment and the underbelly of the bridge. It is one thing for a soldier in the heat of battle to look death in the face and accomplish his mission, what Captain Ripley did was much more. Considering the continual enemy fire, each trip into the bridge was a conscious decision to sacrifice his life. Yet, each time Major Smock squeezed another crate of dynamite through the wire, Ripley pushed his tired body back out into the line of fire and faced death once more in spite of the extreme level of physical exhaustion he was now experiencing.

At one point, he remembered it was Easter Sunday which provoked thoughts of family back home and his children opening their Easter baskets.  He denied himself even this comfort since the precise demolition work he was doing demanded total concentration. He could not allow thoughts from home to stir his emotions.

Putting the explosives in place was merely the first part of his heroic undertaking. Now, he would have to go back to set the detonators. Although he would have preferred electrical blasting caps and wire to do the job, none were in sight. He was thus forced to use the old-fashioned percussion caps and primer cord, but here also he ran into an obstacle. The crimpers used to connect percussion caps to primer cord were also missing. Undeterred, he fell back on the field expediency he learned in Army Ranger School. In such circumstances, they were trained to crimp the detonators with their teeth. What stuck out in his mind at that point, however, were the consequences of a wrong move. This was graphically exemplified by a Ranger instructor illustrating what a blasting cap was capable of doing to a softball. As he crimped the detonators with his teeth, he suppressed the horrifying thought that one wrong move would be sufficient to blow his head off.

Divine Intervention

After successfully crimping a sufficient number of caps, he now had to make another trip out into the bridge to set the detonators and time fuse into the plastic explosive. Once he reappeared, the North Vietnamese began firing with even greater intensity than before. Hundreds of rounds whizzed by his body. However, he reached the explosives and lit the end of the time fuse, the length of which he calculated would give him about thirty minutes.

It had taken him over three grueling hours to prepare the bridge for detonation and at this point, he felt his strength fading and feared he might pass out again.

“The only way I was going to be able to do this,” he said, “was simply to ask God to come along with me.”[2] Marines are able to make it through physically demanding exercises with the use of rhythmic chants. He decided to use his own improvised Catholic version and began a continual prayer of: “Jesus, Mary, get me there!” He said it so loudly that Major Smock, waiting for him on the bank, began repeating the same prayer, perhaps without realizing what it meant.[3]

After making what he thought was his last trip, the exhausted Marine was greeted by a smiling Major Smock. “Look what I found,” he said. Captain Ripley almost fainted upon seeing a box clearly labeled “electrical detonators.” It was at this point that the value of the second effort, another of his life lessons, came flooding back.

“You can prepare very well and yet you can fail,” he said years later. “It is the second effort… that’s what wins.” Most men would have called it a day, but he had always been taught to rig a backup charge in case the blasting caps did not work. A return trip would be very different since he now had not only enemy fire to contend with, but also the nagging thought of how much time remained of the 30-minute fuse he had lit. These were the thoughts that ran through his mind as he pulled himself upwards, went through the concertina wire once again and was greeted by a hail of arms fire from his angry opponents on the opposite bank.

After setting the electrical detonators, he returned to Major Smock, alive but completely exhausted, before mechanically falling to the ground.

Defending the Innocent

After catching his breath, he was back on his feet. With a roll of detonating wire slung over his shoulder, he and Major Smock made their way back to the bunker where they searched for a way to trigger the explosion since they had no blasting box. Some distance away they found an old burned-out jeep with a battery that appeared to be in good condition. In haste he applied the electrical wire to the battery terminals. Nothing happened! He then switched the wires, expecting any minute to see the bridge go up in smoke. Still nothing, nothing but the terrible thought of failure and a paralyzing fatigue.

As he was waiting for the bridge to explode, he noticed two figures walking down the road towards him. As they got closer, he could make out the desperate scene of a mother who had lost her left foot and was hobbling along on a makeshift splint. She held a baby in her arms and some steps behind was her daughter, a terrified little girl, barely able to keep up. The scene caused Captain Ripley a movement of compassion and fear. Although he was unable to blow the bridge with the electrical rigging, the time fuse was still burning. If the bridge blew, the little girl would certainly not survive the impact.

The man who had singlehandedly faced an opposing army during his trips out into the bridge, the Marine who in a moment of desperation called down naval gunfire on top of himself in an attitude of supreme self-sacrifice, would not sit by and allow an innocent child to perish if he could help it. His spirit of chivalry would not allow it.

Forgetting everything else, he bolted in her direction and scooped her up with one arm while still running. When they had almost reached her mother, the two were lifted off the ground by the explosion of the bridge and thrown through the air before landing on top of a heap of dead bodies on the roadside. The girl landed on top of him, dazed but alive. As John Ripley looked in the direction of the explosion, all he remembered was seeing massive chunks of concrete and steel spiraling through the air. After coming to her senses, the little girl jumped up and ran off. Seeing her moments later wandering aimlessly along the road, he picked her up again and took her to the nearest house for safety where she was eventually reunited with her mother.

“The Bridge Is Down”

He then found his radioman and called Lieutenant Colonel Turley. Without the slightest bit of bravado, he succinctly announced, “Sir, the bridge is down.” It was Easter Sunday and the entire South Vietnamese Army, after being beaten down for days, had received their own type of resurrection. While they gave shouts of joy, however, Captain Ripley knew that the battle was not over.  A column of NVA tanks and a hornets’ nest of angry North Vietnamese wanting revenge were just north of the Cua Viet River. However, the USS Buchanan was just off the coast, ready to send more naval gunfire their way.

Here was Captain Ripley’s chance. It was payback time for the North Vietnamese who had wreaked such havoc upon his men and the defenseless South Vietnamese populace. He was just about to call in the big guns again, when he stopped. He remembered the little girl once more and feared for her safety. To destroy enemy tanks that were now log jammed along Highway 1 just north of the river would be an easy task for the Buchanan, but he did not want to risk injuring the little girl in the process. He ran back to the place he had left her and saw two figures walking up the road. It was the injured woman and her daughter. With her safely out of the way, he called for artillery fire which decimated many of the enemy tanks.

Colonel Turley could not have been more surprised at the successful completion of a mission he was certain would end in Ripley’s death. In a later report on the Easter Offensive, he summarized John Ripley’s actions in the following way:

Captain Ripley’s success against impossible odds in actually destroying the bridge was an epic struggle in itself. And in a climate of seemingly national policy failure on the Vietnam War, Captain Ripley’s destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge and halting the NVA’s primary attacking forces was immediately recognized at the National Command Authority (NCA) and Defense Department levels as the single historic event which brought the advancing NVA’s multi-division [assault] to a halt on the North side of the Cua Viet River. One man’s persistence to complete his mission, his leadership under the most stressful combat conditions and his raw courage made the difference in the hundreds of smaller battles that took place that day. Captain Ripley’s indomitable spirit, conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life was far above [what we commonly consider] ‘beyond the call of duty,’ as his actions helped turn the tide of the Easter Offensive 1972. Within hours, his singular destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge was hailed by the U.S. newspaper and television crews on the scene and dispatched back to the United States. Captain Ripley justifiably received international recognition of his heroic act.[4]

Patrick Mooney was a personal friend of Colonel Ripley and now works at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia which John Ripley was instrumental in establishing. He qualified the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge as an act of heroism on par with the greatest acts of valor in American history.

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[1] See Appendix III for an article on the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge by TFP author Jeremias Wells.  Colonel Ripley considered it to be the most accurate article of any he had seen describing his actions at the Dong Ha Bridge.  The author personally saw numerous copies of this piece in Colonel Ripley’s private file cabinet.

[2] TFP lectures.

[3] John Grider Miller, The Bridge at Dong Ha (Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Institute Press, 1989) p. 126.

[4] Excerpt from Colonel Turley’s official account of John Ripley’s actions at the Dong Ha Bridge.

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