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
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.
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
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.