Lest We Forget: Ripley at the Bridge

By Lieutenant Commander Tom Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods. . . .

Horatius miraculously held the enemy at bay until his colleagues could destroy the bridge, thus saving Rome and etching his name forever in the annals of military legend. 

As fate would have it, I was never faced with a challenge of that magnitude and will never know if I could have measured up to such a standard, but in a strange twist of irony, I was saved by a man who did. 

It was 1972, and the North Vietnamese Army was sweeping down from the north during what is now known as "The Easter Invasion."  Despite some brave resistance by pockets of South Vietnamese soldiers and sailors, and a running gun battle between a lone American destroyer and NVA tanks advancing along the beaches to the north of us, it seemed likely that we naval advisors would be facing the oncoming enemy before long, a prospect we were hardly prepared for and did not much relish.

But just as the Etruscans had to cross the Tiber to get to Rome, so the NVA had to use the Dong Ha Bridge to cross the Cua Viet River and, just as Rome was fortunate enough to have Horatius, so we had a young Marine advisor named Captain John Ripley. 

Even Horatius would have been impressed as Ripley repeatedly dangled by his arms from the supporting structure beneath the bridge, hand walking his way along the beams, placing explosive charges while under constant fire from the enemy on the north side of the river.  The primers he had clenched in his teeth would have blown his head off had they detonated, and the main charges he carried out with him were heavy as well as potentially lethal. It was a superhuman feat that future generations will likely recall with some doubt because it is almost more than we mortals can comprehend. 

Colonel Ripley's retelling of events in

the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series

Miraculously, Ripley not only succeeded in bringing down the bridge, but he survived and was subsequently awarded the Navy Cross.  Today, a forward operating base in Afghanistan bears his name, and whenever Ripley's name is spoken by Marines and by those of us who know of his feat, it is always with a sense of awe and mystic reverence. 

And wives still pray to Juno
For boys with hearts as bold
As his who kept the bridge so well
In the brave days of old.

Poetic lines quoted from "Horatius" by Thomas Babington Macaulay

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy .


Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy.

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You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

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