iwo jima

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The grave of Medal of Honor Recipient Pfc. David Nash. St. Mary of the Woods Cemetery, Whitesville, Kentucky.

It occurred to me after I posted the moving story Sergeant Rafael Peralta how some people might find it hard to believe that an American Serviceman would do such like jumping on grenade.

However, this is not an uncommon thing in the American Armed Forces. I grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, for example, and will always remember the time a relative took me to visit the memorial for Pfc. David Nash, in nearby Whitesville. Very much like Sgt. Peralta and Michael Monsoor, this 21 year old young man, who was in the prime of his life, also jumped on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War. It was hard for me to believe that tiny little Whitesville, Kentucky produced such a man and I don not hesitate to say it gave caused a flood of emotion, and no small amount of pride, to stand there and read about his deeds.

Relatives say Jason never regained consciousness after sustaining a head injury when he jumped on a grenade, April 14, in the Iraqi city of Karbala.

I had the privilege of meeting Dan and Debbie Dunham at a recent event. Their 22 year old son Cpl. Jason Dunham also received the Medal of Honor posthumously, for throwing himself on a grenade in 2004 during the war in Iraq. When I told Mrs. Dunham about this blog and my desire to recognize and celebrate the heroism of American fighting men she emphatically responded, “Keep it up, we need to tell their stories.”

You might think I have run out of names, but I have not.

Nineteen year old Pfc. Ross McGinnis also joined the hallowed ranks of those who gave their lives so that others might live and he did so in exactly the same manner. Take time to look at the picture of him on the front page of this website and what you will see is a smiling young kid, bursting with life. Yet this young man accomplished a man size feat, on December 4, 2006, when he chose to give his life for others. Lastly there is Medal of Honor recipient, Jack Lucas who covered two live grenades, during the WWII battle for Iwo Jima. Although one of the grenades was a dud, Jack Lucas absorbed the explosion of the other and ultimately saved those in the trench with him. He was only 17 at the time, but miraculously survived to tell the story.

Stop for a moment and reflect on the unselfishness it takes to perform such an act and the frequency with which Americans have done this.

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Colonel Ripley with Members of TFP Student Action.

Colonel Ripley with members of TFP Student Action.

A Story of Exceptional Valor and Faith

by Cesar Franco

An old adage states that you only meet two great people in a lifetime. After visiting Col. John W. Ripley, I can say I met my first one.

As Col. Ripley politely invited my colleagues from Tradition, Family and Property Student Action and me into his office on October 31, I felt tremendously honored to meet one of America’s greatest living war heroes — a man who served on active duty for thirty five years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Before serving two tours in Vietnam, he completed scuba, Ranger, airborne and jump master training. He was also an Exchange Officer to the British Royal Marines, during which time he participated in a Northern Malaysian campaign with the famous Gurkha Rifles.

One Marine Cripples North Vietnamese Invasion

Diorama depicting Colonel John Ripley’s exploits in Dong Ha. It is located in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Diorama depicting Colonel John Ripley’s exploits in Dong Ha. It is located in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Col. Ripley is most famous for blowing up the bridge at Dong Ha in Vietnam. He accomplished this act of epic heroism after three days of intense combat, without any food or sleep. A few sips of water from his canteen provided his only sustenance. This superhuman feat crippled the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter invasion which ended in defeat. Thus, the government honored Col. Ripley’s leadership, heroism and self-sacrifice at Dong Ha with a Navy Cross, America’s second highest military decoration.

Members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition Family and Property (TFP) present Colonel John Ripley with a rosary. "This rosary will not collect dust," said Colonel Ripley in response to this gift.

Members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition Family and Property (TFP) present Colonel John Ripley with a rosary. "This rosary will not collect dust," said Colonel Ripley in response to this gift.

Col. Ripley is also a man of faith. He attributes the destruction of the Dong Ha bridge to the grace of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. He related how he felt all physical strength evaporate while placing explosives under the bridge. To continue, he composed a simple rhyming prayer: “Jesus, Mary, get me there… Jesus, Mary, get me there…” He repeatedly said this prayer on the bridge and a supernatural assistance came to his aid at a much-needed time. He stated: “This aid was tangible. It was all-consuming.” His mission would have been impossible without it.

After this operation, Colonel Ripley’s mission was far from over. Unlike Hollywood movies, in which a bridge blows up and everyone lives happily ever after, the North Vietnamese found an alternate route. During the next days of fighting, Life Magazine published a famous picture of Colonel Ripley running as a mortar round blows up nearby. He showed us this amazing photograph during our meeting and many other war relics.

Chivalrous Behavior for a Fallen Soldier

Pointing to his picture, he recounted its exciting story. As the enemy approached within yards, he loaded the dead bodies of five news correspondents into an armored personnel carrier, putting himself in harm’s way. Then the armored personnel carrier left without him.

He was stranded with the limp, lifeless body of his radio man. As the enemy drew closer, he refused to run for cover. Like the knights of old, he preferred to die rather then abandon his fellow soldier’s body. He would not leave his radio man behind even though he was in clear view of the advancing enemy.

He picked up the body of his radio man and walked away very slowly, expecting a bullet to hit him at any moment. Suddenly, some South Vietnamese bodyguards or “cowboys,” as he called them, popped up over a ledge about 100 meters away and addressed him by his Vietnamese nickname, which meant “Captain Crazy.” They told him to duck while they sprayed cover fire allowing him to make a desperate 100-meter dash for safety. Smiling, Colonel Ripley recalled how he ran those 100 meters in 3 seconds!

The Four Bullets

TFP member holds the four bullets that nearly took the life of Colonel Ripley.

TFP member holds the three bullets that nearly took the life of Colonel Ripley. The fourth one he found on the Island of Iwo Jima.

While showing us some of his war relics, he pulled something out of his pocket. It was a brass-colored safety pin that connected four bullets. Grinning, he said: “I am personally acquainted with three of these.” One bullet pierced through the deck of the chopper in which he was flying and struck a magazine clip on his ammo belt, barely stopping its entry into his abdomen!

“When I’m having a bad day,” he said, “I pull these out of my pocket and say to myself, no, it’s not that bad… I’m not having such a bad day.”

He also showed us a neatly arranged collection of stamps he had acquired from a captured North Vietnamese postal worker.

What Is True Leadership?

The most interesting part of our meeting was when Colonel Ripley explained the essence of a true leader is one who sets the example and shows his troops how to act, rather than tell them what to do from a desk and ask them to report back. Colonel Ripley is one such leader. He never shied away from action, but always preferred to be on the front lines with his men.

In addition to being deadly on the battlefield, this tough marine is also lethal in the realm of ideas. After hearing about

TFP member John Miller debates the Traditional Marriage issue with a student at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut California.

TFP member John Miller debates the Traditional Marriage issue with a student at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut California.

the TFP Student Action debates on university campuses, he described the wonderful time he had appearing on Crossfire to debate a female Air Force general defending the need for women in the military. She could not stand up against the bulletproof logic of Colonel Ripley’s real life combat experience.

Tribute, Respect and Admiration

Colonel Ripley deserves our tribute, respect and admiration.

He taught us that to be a true leader one must have faith in God and Our Lady. He explained how being a leader means setting the example. Moreover, his heroic actions at Dong Ha speak even louder than his words.

It was truly an honor and privilege to meet this model soldier, a man with profound zeal for the Catholic Church and high ideals for which he is willing to give his life. My TFP colleagues and I will never forget him.

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Written by Norman Fulkerson

It is not every day that one meets a veteran of World War II much less one who was present during the historic battle for Iwo Jima. But I knew something was different about Norbert Arnold as he approached me during a presentation about Fatima at his cousin’s home in St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania.

He appreciated the chance to venerate the large pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima that day. “Looking at her mantle” he said, “brought back a lot of memories.”

There was a reason for this.

He is the son of German immigrants and was blessed to have a pious mother who gave him very valuable advice before he left for war. “Ask Our Lady,” she said, “to surround you with her mantle.”

Mr. Norbert Arnold poses beside the Fatima statue

Being a good son, Mr. Arnold did as his mother asked. As he faced the many trials of war, he often reminded Our Lady to do just that. This was made much easier by the fact that he always carried a small leather pouch which contained not only his rosary but also miniature statues of Saint Joseph and Our Lady.

Miraculous Assistance
Towards the end of the war, he and his fellow soldiers were low on everything including food and water. Mr. Arnold decided to leave the safety of his foxhole to obtain supplies for his men from the headquarters a short distance away.

Upon leaving headquarters with his supplies, an officer yelled out: “Arnold, you forgot your water.” Already weighted down, he decided to leave the water for a return trip. While walking to his foxhole, a can of pineapple fell out of his jacket. When he returned to get the water he had left behind, he tripped on the can. Instead of continuing on to headquarters which would have been the most logical thing to do, he decided to take it back to the fox hole.

A moment later, the headquarters received a direct hit from a shell which killed everyone. The explosion sent shrapnel flying in all directions. One three-inch piece went spinning through the air until it hit, and tore into Mr. Arnold’s jacket.

“If it would have hit me in the face,” he recounted, “it would have killed me.” Upon further examination he found that the shrapnel did considerable damage to his jacket but left him perfectly unscathed.

He later attributed this to Our Lady and remembered what his mother had told him.

The Breaking of a Myth
As I looked into the eyes of this 84-year-old marine, I could not help but admire him as he recalled these miraculous events with such unpretentiousness. Here was a man that truly represented the ideal soldier. He not only answered the call of duty to his country but remained a man of faith conserving that which is most important to a Catholic: a love of God and devotion to Mary Most Holy.

Men with faith such as this often go unnoticed. The current trend is to portray American soldiers as mere beasts who take delight in bringing pain and suffering to those they combat. This negative image was only enhanced with the lamentable episodes at Abu Ghraib, about which the mainstream press gave more than ample coverage. Photos of flag draped coffins and sordid stories of prisoner abuse, generously provided by the media, depict America as an “imperialistic” country only concerned with flexing her muscle in the conquest of weaker nations. This is the last place one would expect to find anything closely resembling the ideal soldier.

However, the ideal American soldier can be found wherever Americans have serviced. A few facts from our military history prove this.

“I’ll Say a Mass Beneath it”
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the battle at Iwo Jima and there are few Americans who have not seen the famous sculpture which immortalized that battle. Everyone knows about the flag raising, but few know about the Catholic Mass celebrated immediately afterwards. This fact was related in the book, Battlefield Chaplains Catholic Priests in World War II, by Donald F. Crosby, S.J.1

He narrates how anxious marines, as they approached Mount Suribachi, quipped: “Wouldn’t it be nice to plant the flag on top!” None of them balked when Fr. Charles Suver suggested something even better. “You get it up there,” he said, “and I’ll say Mass under it.”

Days later he kept his promise. As curious Japanese popped their heads from cavernous hideouts, seasoned American soldiers, with rifles locked and loaded, united their sufferings with those of Our Lord in the unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary on the summit of Mount Suribachi.

Father Crosby relates many similar stories where soldiers, entrenched in battle, practiced their faith, requesting confession and communion. In one such incident, a group of soldiers in a foxhole were killed from a direct hit only hours after receiving sacramental absolution from the Church.

Devotion in Vietnam
Similar examples were also found in the Vietnam War. They provide a clear contrast to the fabricated image of Vietnam veterans as drug-abusing baby-killers.

Sam Gallaher was there and as a personal friend often told me stories of his adventures. He is never so eloquent as when he speaks of the consolation he received from the sacraments of the Church.

“Every six days we would have mass,” he explained. The soldiers would construct the altar themselves by stacking their ruck sacks on top of each other. “You would look forward to it because it was the time you could escape [the war]” he said. “I never attended mass, like I did when I was in Nam.”

He did his duty, stayed close to God and, in spite of his 6 feet 8 inch frame which made for an easy target, miraculously survived the war. He, like Mr. Arnold, attributed his safety to Divine Intervention.

Equally impressive are two facts about Col. John Ripley, one of the most decorated living Marines.2 He almost single-handedly stopped a North Vietnamese offensive at the village of Dong Ha. He does not fail to credit the intercession of our Lord and His Holy Mother. When he was out of strength, he turned to them. “Jesus, Mary, get me there” was his own improvised version of the rhythmic chants often used by Marines.

Diorama depicting Capt. John W. Ripley hanging under the Dong Ha Bridge over the Cua Viet River, as he placed explosives, under fire, in full view of the North Vietnamese riflemen and tanks poised to attack across the bridge. The enemy’s firing came to a stop when the bridge blew; they would not cross at Dong Ha.

While speaking to a TFP audience about this incident he was brought to tears when recalling that among the civilians in the village of Dong Ha he saved, was a school full of innocent children. This tender solicitude for the weak and defenseless was an essential characteristic of the medieval knight but often overlooked when exhibited by an American soldier such as this.

“Ranger Rosaries”
Skeptics will disregard what has been pointed out thus far as examples of “old devotions” and noble attitudes perhaps practiced long ago by a few, but now discarded in favor of a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude often attributed to the American soldier.

Critics such as these have not heard about what Sgt. Frank Ristaino and his ten children are doing.

Realizing the consolation of the rosary in time of combat, they came up with the unique idea of the Ranger Rosary. The soldier’s rugged and often grueling life was the main consideration for the creation of these Marian military beads. The final product was a rosary made with an almost indestructible parachute cord and the necessary camouflage color for use in the field. These rosaries are now found all over Iraq and other battlefields. It is the type of rosary a soldier can hold in one hand while gripping an M-16 in the other, providing him the means to honor Mary and, at the same time, fight terrorists attacking innocent civilians.

What began in Sgt. Ristaino’s living room in the late nineties has grown a lot. With the help of schoolchildren, rosary guilds, and a variety of other Catholic organizations, over 30,000 rosaries have been produced thus far.3

One military chaplain, whose identity was concealed for security purposes, wrote back to express his appreciation:

The soldiers have been briefed on the importance of devotion to Our Lady and we rely on her protection. The battalion has already undertaken to program a trip to Lourdes as soon as we return safely to Germany.

Your rosaries have been a huge hit with everyone. Words cannot express the gratitude we feel for all of the hard work that you and your rosary making team have gone through to support our mission here in Iraq. Though the violence continues unabated, I am sure that things would have been worse had it not been for the constant intercession of Our Lady. Your efforts have helped to increase the devotion to her intercessory powers.4

Not Even Pat Tillman is Spared
Contemporary society is so racked by scandals which consistently place individual gratification above man’s obligations to God. Few would think to look towards our armed forces for examples of the contrary. Their brand of knightly honor is passed over in favor of negative news.

Even Pat Tillman’s unselfish sacrifice was briskly downplayed with the excuse that, “he would not want all the attention.” Much attention would later be given to the fact that his death was the result of friendly fire. (As if that takes away from the sacrifice he made by forgoing a hugely lucrative NFL contract.) His heroic tale is now callously presented as merely a means of the military, “to foster a patriotic response across the country.”5 Patriotism is a virtue and one that becomes much easier to practice when inspired by such examples as this.

Perhaps this was the reason for my enthusiasm when meeting Norbert Arnold. He is an elderly gentleman who has carried with a great degree of dignity something of the ideal American solider as he reaches the end of his life.

Mr. Arnold is now being treated for physical ailments that come with age and the lingering pains of war in the form of post traumatic stress syndrome. Yet he relates all this with an admirable patience and an attitude which can only be defined as supernatural. “When I say my morning prayers,” he said, “I am ashamed to include myself.” Such is the self-sacrificing attitude of a man who is still alive thanks to Our Lady.

On the 60th anniversary of the battle for Iwo Jima, I felt deeply honored to shake the hand of one who had been involved in such a noble endeavor. True soldiers such as he are an image of the medieval knight who accomplishes his duty no matter the hardships. He defends the weak and helpless and does so primarily because of his love of God. These are the qualities of all those mentioned above.

Amidst the barrage of disparaging propaganda belittling the efforts of our men of arms, I believe we should be looking at the ideal American soldier among them. Their dedication and pious devotion is a tale so often untold.

In the modern armies in our secular world, one would hardly expect to find soldiers inspired by the knightly idea and religious devotion in the United States of America.

Yet it is the part of the paradox of our fascinating society. Amid the selfish hedonism of our day, this ideal soldier is a shining example of something found “only in America.”


1. http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/crobat.html

2. http://www.tfp.org/student_action/activities/ripley.html

3. A Strong Rosary Helps Give Soldiers Strength by Wayne Laugesen – National Catholic Register – August 8-14, 2004

4. Ibid.

5. “Pat Tillman’s parents rail at Army’s ‘lies’. They say probe into ex-NFL player’s friendly fire death was a sham. Josh White, Washington Post Monday, May 23, 2005


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