In this "War Stories" Web exclusive, senior producer Martin Hinton reflects on traveling to Dong Ha, Vietnam, with Marine Corps legend Col. John Ripley who died, at age 69, last month.
For four years I had the pleasure of traveling America and the world with Oliver North as a producer for "War Stories." There have been many great men and memories, but today I want to tell you about just one.
As an immigrant and naturalized citizen to this great nation I have always held a deep sense of what I owe to men like John Ripley. In the spring of 2006 I traveled to Vietnam with Col. Ripley. Along for the journey were Gregory Johnson, Kelly Guernica, Andrew Stenner and Oliver North.
After arriving in Hanoi we traveled south to a small town called Dong Ha. It isn’t a tourist destination. It is poor by any measure. Thirty-four years earlier John Ripley was a Marine Corps adviser to the South Vietnamese. There was a battle raging in and around the town of Dong Ha and there are still relics of war everywhere. The carcass of a destroyed tank pushed to the side of the road and almost perfectly round ponds not made by the hand of god, but the iron and explosives of falling bombs. That battle is known as the Easter Offensive.
• See Col. Ripley's story in the War Stories classic episode "The Furious Fight for Dong Ha," Monday, November 10 at 3 a.m. ET
By 1972 most American forces were out of Vietnam and the North was pushing hard for victory. Taking Dong Ha and the town’s bridge across the Cua Viet River was vital to their success. On Easter Sunday John Ripley and a handful of men achieved what might have seemed impossible: They blew that bridge and stopped the North Vietnamese in their tracks. How they did it is the stuff of legends and for his actions that day John Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross.
In this short piece I can’t do their feat justice. What I hope to do is give you a sense of what it was like to stand on the shore of that river with him.
When you return to the battlefield with a veteran you are asking a lot of them. Most don’t simply remember their experiences, they relive them. But there isn’t bragging or boasting, just intensity and memories — many for those that did not survive.
As we traveled in and around Dong Ha taping, you would catch a glimpse of John and see "that look." I’ve seen it many times. We were standing in 2006, but his mind was in 1972. We visited key places like Con Thien and the Rockpile — sites known to any Marine. As we did our work an amazing thing happened. Slowly word spread about our presence and who this American was and what he had done. There was no hostility or anger. On the contrary, the Vietnamese were hosts in every positive sense of that word. They simply wanted to know about their history from a man who was there. Just this week I asked a few of the people on that trip to send me some thoughts about our journey:
“It was amazing to see the reactions of the citizens of Dong Ha to Col. Ripley. They crowded around him as he showed them pictures of their city as it was 30 years before”, said Andrew Stenner.
It was amazing to see. Few of these people were alive during the war and they were genuinely fascinated by this living connection to their hometown’s past.
On our last day John went to the new bridge at Dong Ha for a quiet ceremony of his own design. Producer Gregory Johnson vividly remembers that moment and offered me this:
“It was an honor returning with Col Ripley to the Bridge at Dong Ha and hear him tell the story of his war time experience there. But it was an honor for Ripley himself to return. In a personal ceremony during our trip, Col Ripley placed on the bridge Marine Corps coins commemorating other great chapters in Marine Corps history. In this way, he saw his efforts defending South Vietnam from invasion as just one episode in the long history of Marine Corps courage and sacrifice.”
He was a fantastic man and that week we spent together, as Greg says, was an honor.
I’m not sure if this is how John felt, but there was a poetic justice to our trip. This town played witness to a ferocious battle, one that could have easily ended Col. Ripley’s life. Decades later, seeing him wander the shore line and rice paddies, there was a sense of peace about him. One moment is particularly vivid. I was standing with John and Ollie as they looked out over a rice paddy. Ollie was pointing to the spot where his first combat patrol began and recounting that day. Ollie told us that just a few hundred meters into the patrol they came under fire. He started to say more, but his voice trailed off. There was no need to say anymore. They stood their silently for a few minutes. I started to think about all that John had done and thought thank god for men like him — men braver than me.
John Ripley is survived by his wife, Moline; three sons Stephen, John and Thomas; a daughter, Mary Ripley; a sister, Susan Goodykoontz; and eight grandchildren. He was buried Friday at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery.