United States Naval Academy

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A group of midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy hike through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

For midshipmen, ‘teachable moments’ hiking Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah trail

By Daniel de Vise, Published: April 15

Swift Run Gap, Va. — This is the U.S. Naval Academy’s idea of spring break: a 70-mile march along the craggy spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a sesquicentennial tribute to Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and his torturous Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Fourteen midshipmen forsook Cancun or Panama City last month for a five-day slog along the Appalachian Trail, eating peanut butter and gorp and drinking water collected from mountain streams. Only nine completed the journey. Injury and exhaustion claimed the rest — a development that only reinforced the week’s lessons about hardship and resolve.

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John Ripley (left) earned the nickname Baby Buck at an early age. His mischievous eyes transmitted a boundless energy to all those around him. The affectionate bond between him and his brother, Michael, was evident early on.

John Ripley (left) earned the nickname Baby Buck at an early age. His mischievous eyes transmitted a boundless energy to all those around him. The affectionate bond between him and his brother, Michael, was evident early on.

“Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
— Unknown

Excerpt from “An American Knight”.

It was evident at the time of his birth on June 29, 1939, that John Walter Ripley’s life would not be easy. Francis and Verna Ripley were living in Keystone, West Virginia and no sooner had they arrived home with their newborn when he had to be rushed back to the hospital because of an illness that almost took his life. Although no one remembers what the ailment was, it seemed appropriate that a man, who would endure every imaginable hardship on the battlefield, should begin his life with a struggle.

This natal fight in no way dampened his vivacious spirit, and his fight for life might have been what led his father to give him the nickname Baby Buck. Coupled with his rambunctious nature, the image of a wild horse immediately comes to mind with this fatherly pet name.

Francis Droit Ripley was described by those who knew him as possessing one of those unique personalities that are so lamentably rare in the modern world. He was rarely seen without a cigar in his mouth and then, only temporarily for Sunday Mass, which he never missed. The presence of this cigar and his gruff, straightforward way of being earned him several nicknames of his own. The one he most disliked was FDR and the one that most fit him was Bulldog. Most people just called him Bud, a name so frequently used that his own grandchildren often inquired what his real name was.

Francis Droit “Bud” Ripley (left of center) was all smiles as a Naval Academy midshipman with his friends. His joy was later turned to sorrow when he was expelled for missing his boat in Hawaii.

Francis Droit “Bud” Ripley (left of center) was all smiles as a Naval Academy midshipman with his friends. His joy was later turned to sorrow when he was expelled for missing his boat in Hawaii.

Bud Ripley was keenly aware that his ancestors had fought in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, including some who fought on different sides of the Civil War. There was something distinctly military about him, although his own military aspirations were cut short when he, much to his father’s chagrin, was expelled from the United States Naval Academy. It was not because of poor grades. In fact, his younger brother Louis, who went on to become a renowned orthopedic surgeon, considered him to be one of the most intelligent men he knew.

Bud’s expulsion occurred because of his curious nature. As a midshipman serving in the fleet, he went to visit a volcano while his ship was docked in Hawaii. As he was returning from his excursion, he realized that he had missed the boat—both figuratively and literally—and along with it the chance to be a commissioned officer. This missed opportunity left its mark on Bud Ripley and from that point forward, he always carried himself as a military man. He was well-groomed, well spoken and, above all, disciplined.

After this disappointing affair, he followed in the footsteps of his father, Walter Starr Ripley, and pursued a career with the railroad, became a mechanical engineer and later manager for the Norfolk & Western (N&W). He was determined, however, that his sons would not make the same mistake he had and cultivated in them the virtues so important for a military career. Foremost among them were a fanatical drive never to waste an opportunity, the tenacity to never quit and diligence in one’s duty.

This same spirit of determination is what must have animated Baby Buck one day as he crawled across the living room floor. He was only eighteen months old at the time, yet he approached the family sofa with a look of resolve that

became so much a part of his personality. When he reached the sofa, he pulled himself up to a standing position and then attempted, with great effort, to climb onto the couch, but his little legs were unable to fulfill the task. Verna was moved by the scene and approached in order to help. Francis Droit stopped her cold in her tracks.

“No, don’t help him, let him do it on his own,” he said, taking the ever-present cigar from his mouth. “He will learn.” After several attempts, Baby Buck did in fact achieve his goal and was no worse for the effort. It was a valuable lesson in perseverance… Read more.

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An American Knight: The Life of Colonely John W. Ripley USMC

First biography of legendary Marine Corps Colonel John W. Ripley.

by Norman Fulkerson

On November 1, 2008, Ron Darden was watching the evening news when an item, scrolling across the bottom of the screen, caught his eye. He was shocked to find out that his former company commander, Colonel John Walter Ripley, had died at his home in Annapolis, Maryland.

On that same day, I decided to write An American Knight, The Life of Colonel John W. Ripley, the first biography of this great man.

*                       *                       *

Sergeant Darden admitted that he was afraid when, as a 19-year-old lance corporal, he first joined Lima Company. He drew guard duty on his first night in Vietnam and described how his fears were put to ease when he received an unexpected visit from Captain John Ripley, Lima Company’s fearless commander, who jumped into the foxhole next to him.  The solicitous captain asked Darden where he was from, if he was married and how his parents were getting along without him.

During this night visit, John Ripley spoke to Ron Darden with the gentleness of a father and told him it was okay to be afraid, but that he should not let his fears dominate him. Sergeant Darden would go on to earn a Silver Star when he ran out into the middle of a firefight to save the life of a wounded Marine who lay helpless on the ground. He is a man who has seen the worst of war while serving under the best of battle field commanders.

As Darden related stories about John Ripley during a phone interview, I sensed that this Silver-Star-recipient was fighting back tears as he remembered this remarkable man and that unforgettable night so many years ago. He could not believe the lack of news coverage of this great man. His surprise quickly turned to frustration and then anger as he searched for more details about the passing of a man, who, long before his untimely death had already been revered as a “living legend.”

The news of Colonel Ripley’s death did in fact begin to hit the airwaves and his obituary eventually appeared in

Painting by Col. Charles Waterhouse of John Ripley dangling above the Cua Viet River as angry North Vietnamese soldiers fire upon him.

Painting by Col. Charles Waterhouse of John Ripley dangling above the Cua Viet River as angry North Vietnamese soldiers fire upon him.

The New York Times.What the Times and so many others newspaper articles recounted was the story of a man who blew up the Dong Ha bridge on Easter Sunday in 1972. This is understandable considering that Colonel Ripley almost singlehandedly halted the largest Communist offensive of the entire Vietnam War. This amounted to stopping 30,000 enemy troops and 200 tanks. He was successful in this task and would later sum up in actions in a succinct way:

“The bridge was there, the enemy was there, and I was there.”

Desiring to Tell the Whole Truth

What he did on that day defies belief and I could not fail to narrate the Dong Ha story in An American Knight. There is so much more to Colonel Ripley, however, that has been conveniently overlooked or glossed over by those either unable or unwilling to tell the whole truth. Colonel Ripley was a rare type of warrior who willingly and, his sons told me, enthusiastically addressed a number of politically incorrect issues of his day.

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Ashley Gonzalez of the United States Air force. No comment!!!

I saw the importance of one of the issues he addressed when I was “mugged by reality” in an airport some years ago by the sight of a young lady about to board a plane. She was a picture of femininity, in every way, except for her battle fatigues and the rucksack thrown over her shoulder. Moments later, her tearful parents said their final farewells to a daughter being sent off to do a man’s job.

It was only natural, therefore, that I drew an enormous consolation when I first read the heroic testimony of Colonel Ripley against sending women, like this one, into harm’s way. While others paid homage to the “god of equality,” he chose to defend the noble ideals of womanhood and femininity. This, and his care for children, were the things which caused me to see in Colonel Ripley a modern-day knight.

Since justice is the virtue whereby man renders to each what is due to him, I could do nothing less for this great man. This was one of the motivating factors which urged me to write his life. Mysteriously enough, I was egged on in this project as much by Colonel Ripley himself, as anyone. In a letter to a friend he said something which struck me like a voice from beyond the grave: “If a young officer or Marine ever asks, what is the meaning of Semper Fidelis, tell them my story.” After reading such a thing, I could not fail to tell this man’s story?

“I Walked with a Hero.”

There was another motivating factor which urged me on and that was my desire to console hero-seeking-Americans who yearn for a role model like Colonel Ripley who they can admire and emulate. During the researching of An American Knight, I took time to read numerous website commentaries and was inspired by the eulogies posted by average Americans.

One man, no doubt inspired by the Marines’ Hymn which speaks of Heaven being guarded by U.S. Marines said the following.

“We claim Semper Fidelis as our motto, but it was Col. Ripley’s life. His loyalty was complete, in all directions. The earth is less today without his soul, but the heavens are a safer place tonight.”

Another comment was even more impressive but demands an introduction.

Colonel Ripley was an outstanding officer who took great pride in the position he earned. This can be seen in the picture I chose for the cover of An American Knight. Yet he was a man that had a profound humility and never wanted attention drawn to himself. Colonel Ripley was not a man who tried to impress others with his Navy Cross or his legendary status. In fact he would often point out the achievements of those of lesser rank and frequently expressed his unbounded appreciation for the common Marine Corps grunts that “get the job done.”

He did this in a very refreshing way without ever adopting the “one of the guys” egalitarian attitude, so lamentably

John Ripley (right) as a Naval Academy midshipman with his brother Michael who died while test flying the Harrier.

John Ripley (right) as a Naval Academy midshipman with his brother Michael who died in 1971 while test flying the Harrier.

common among many people of higher station. Colonel Ripley was, from top to bottom, a serious Marine Corps officer and was not ashamed of it. Yet he never missed the opportunity to challenge those around him to reach higher. It is for this reason that towards the end of his life he gave himself wholeheartedly to mentoring. He loved to counsel young men starting out on their military careers, especially those of the United States Naval Academy, his alma mater, which he loved with his whole heart.

All of this helps in understanding better a comment of a midshipman after Colonel Ripley’s death:

“This is the same man who sat at dinner with me and asked me, a first class midshipman, about to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, to sign his program for the evening because he was going to read about me in the papers and all the great things I did for the Marine Corps. I walked with a hero. Semper Fidelis.”

Rest in Peace Now!

I saved the best eulogy for last. It came from a mother of four, who defined herself, even if inaccurately, as a simple American women.” I pray that she someday know how moved I was to read her words.

“I never had the honor of meeting Col. John Ripley. In fact, before a dear friend suggested that I look him up, I had never heard his name. But I have sat here and read stories of his life and countless postings by the people that loved him and will miss him dearly. I am a simple American woman enjoying a world that Col. Ripley dedicated his life to protecting. I am humbled by the recounts of his heroism and tireless dedication to his country. I suppose I’d just like to say thank you. Thank you from the core of my being and on behalf of my four children. When the time is right, I will tell each of them of this great man, Col. John Ripley. May God bless your soul.”

I thank you also Colonel Ripley. Rest in peace now, I will them your story.

Back cover Marine

Back cover of An "American Knight". A solitary Marine pays his final respects beside the coffin of Colonel John Ripley.

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