22d MEU (SOC)'s FOB in Afghanistan pays homage to Marine hero

10 May 2004 | Gunnery Sgt. Keith A. Milks

In a remote patch of arid Afghan desert in south-central Afghanistan, a new forward operating base (FOB) bears the name of one of the Marine Corps' most respected combat veterans.

"He's a hero to the Marine Corps," said Colonel Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., commanding officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), referring to Col. John W. Ripley, the new FOB's namesake.  "He's a true warrior and an honorable man."  McKenzie puts Col. Ripley with the small group of Marine leaders mentioned prominently in the Corps' proud history.

Ripley first enlisted in the Marine Corps in June 1957 and spent a year as an enlisted Marine before securing an appointment to the United States Naval Academy.  In June 1962, he graduated with both a degree in electrical engineering and the gold bars of a Marine second lieutenant.

Trained as an infantry officer, Ripley saw sea duty on the USS INDEPENDENCE, was a platoon and weapons platoon commander with the 2d Bn., 2d Marines, and served with the 2d Force Reconnaissance Company.

Beginning in October 1966, Ripley began the first of two tours in Vietnam.  Assigned to the 3d Bn., 3d Marines just south of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam, he saw heavy combat in the 'Leatherneck Square,' a hotly-contested area encompassing Dong Ha, Con Tien, and Khe Sanh.

After Vietnam, he pulled duty at Headquarters Marine Corps before heading to Great Britain for an exchange tour with the British Royal Marines.  While with the Royal Marines, he served throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and in Norway, Singapore, and northern Malaya.

Ripley returned to Vietnam in 1971 as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps and once again found himself in the border region.  When tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops backed by hundreds of Soviet-made tanks made a late Spring 1972 push south in what came to be known as the Easter Offensive, Ripley and his battalion found themselves in the path of the Communist advance.

Realizing the Dong Ha Bridge was a key avenue for the North Vietnamese advance, Ripley set about destroying the bridge.  Supported by South Vietnamese marines and Army Maj. Jim Smock, Ripley spent a harrowing five hours nearly single-handedly rigging the bridge for demolition.

Under near-constant rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire, he affixed more than 500 pounds of explosives to the bridge.  To do so, he was forced to repeatedly hand walk the beams beneath the bridge, attach the explosives while dangling precariously over the water, crimp detonators with his teeth, and race the burning fuses to safety.

This feat destroyed the bridge and stymied the North Vietnamese advance, forcing them to find alternate routes south.  The delay gave South Vietnamese forces the time needed to rally an effective defense and repel the invasion, and earned the young captain the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for battlefield valor.

Following Vietnam, Ripley served as the Marine Officer Instructor at Oregon State University, pulled duty at Headquarters Marine Corps, commanded Marines at the battalion and regimental levels, was the senior Marine and taught at the Naval Academy (where he commissioned a record 500 midshipmen into the Marine Corps), served on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was assistant chief of staff for the 3d Marine Expeditionary Force, and commanded the Navy-Marine Corps ROTC at Virginia Military Institute until his retirement in June 1992.

Col. Ripley went on to become the President, and later Chancellor, of Southern Virginia College until 1996 when he moved on to assume responsibility as the President of the Hargrave Military Academy.

In June 1999, Col. Ripley returned to the Marine Corps fold when he became the Director of Marine Corps History and Museums, and Director of the Marine Corps Historical Center.

Col. Ripley is seen as the benchmark by which other Marines judge themselves, and he is the subject of, or mentioned, in more than 30 books on combat leadership and adversity.  "The Bridge at Dong Ha," written by John G. Miller, recounts Ripley's exploits on Easter Day 1972, and he is widely sought as a motivational speaker.

A graduate of the Amphibious Warfare School and Naval War College, Ripley also completed the Airborne, SCUBA, Ranger, Jumpmaster, and Royal Marine Commando Courses.  In addition to the Navy Cross, his personal decorations include the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals with Combat 'V,' the Purple Heart, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, and the Combat Action Ribbon.

On having a FOB named after him, Ripley is understandably humble.  In a conversation with Col. McKenzie, Ripley said he was flattered that the FOB would be named after "an old campaigner" like himself, and proud it will serve as his connection to today's young Marines.

FOB Ripley will serve as the 22d MEU (SOC)'s base of operations as it conducts combat and civil military operations as part of Combined Joint Task Force 180.

The 22d MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), and MEU Service Support Group 22.

For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit