RIPLEY AT THE BRIDGE:
DONG HA, SOUTH VIETNAM
2 APRIL 1972
Marine Charles D. Melson
There were few Americans in combat in Southeast Asia by 1972. The majority of U.S. Marines “in country” were fire support or communications specialists and the advisors with the South Vietnamese Marine Corps. The TQLC, or VNMC in English, was formed from former French commando units after the 1954 cease fire that established North and South Vietnam . An elite unit by any standards and closely associated with the U.S. Marine Corps, the VNMC had been fighting the Communists for over a decade. Those Americans Marines selected to serve with the VNMC were considered the “chosen few” for being the last Marines in combat and for the exotic nature of their assignment. As advisors, they wore the distinctive Green Beret and “tiger stripe” battle dress of the VNMC. As part of the South Vietnamese national reserve, two Marines brigades were deployed along with demilitarized zone with the 3 rd ARVN Division following the departure of American combat units from Military Region 1 in 1971. For them the war was not over yet and a major test of their efforts cam during the Communist Spring Invasion that started on 30 March 1972 .
Easter Sunday, 2 April, proved to be a fateful day for the 3 rd ARVN Division defending northern Quang Tri Province . After three days of continuous artillery fire and tank-infantry assaults, it appeared that the North Vietnamese were making their main attack along the axis of the national highway, QL-1. At this time Camp Carroll and Mai Loc fire support bases to the west were still in friendly hands, but all resistance the north of the Cam Lo River had crumbled. The 308 th NVA Division's thrust from the DMZ to the south had gained momentum as each ARVN outpost and fire support base fell. Intelligence reports estimated that three NVA mechanized divisions were attacking with approximately 10,000 infantry, 150 T-54 and PT-76 tanks, 75 tracked anti-aircraft vehicles, one artillery regiment of 47 130mm guns, and anti-aircraft missiles units.
By mid-day Eastern Sunday, nothing was on the QL-1 axis between the enemy and the coveted Quang Tri City except a river, a bridge and a battalion of Vietnamese Marines and tanks. With them on the ground in MR-1 were the advisors. The 3 rd VNMC Battalion, with Captain John W. Ripley as its sole American advisor, was spreading along Route 9 from Cam Lo to Dong HA. Ripley was on his second tour in Vietnam , a U.S. Naval Academy graduate with experience from Force recon and Royal Marine exchange tours. He provided “advise” and fire support coordination to the 700 man unit on the south side of the river sent to gain enough time for the 3 rd ARVN Division to organize a new defense line south of the Thach Han River.
With the report of approaching tanks, Major Le Ba Binh, the 3 rd VNMC battalion commander, was ordered by his brigade commander to hold Dong Ha. The brigade commander sent four jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles north for the support. Also sent forward were 42 brand-new M48 main battle tanks of the 20 th ARVN Tank Battalion. Binh was ordered to “hold Dong Ha at all costs.” Ripley was told to expect the worst: a column of Communists PT-76 and T-54 tanks were approaching, refugees were clogging the roads out of Dong Ha, and no further units were available to help. A large red North Vietnamese flag was seen flying over the railroad bridge, NVA infantrymen were storming across both spans as the Marines, and tanks arrived. Ripley recalled an “absolute fire storm” of Communist artillery fire hitting Dong HA at this point. Enemy tanks appeared on the horizon sending up rooster tails of dust as they barreled down QL-1. Naval gunfire from America destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf had some effect on the enemy advance as oily black columns of smoke rose over the north bank of the river. But this was not enough to stop them. At 1200, the ARVN M48s began firing at the NVA tank column, knocking out six Communists vehicles.
At about 1215, as the first NVA tank nosed out onto the north side of the highway bridge, Vietnamese Marine Sergeant Huynh Van Luom, a veteran of many years fighting, took two M72 light anti-attack assault weapons (LAAW) and walked up to the south side of the bridge. Although he was a section leader, he moved forward alone. As he reached the bridge, he took two ammunitions boxes filled with dirt and a single roll of concertina wire and placed them in front of him. It was a ludicrous situation; the 90- pound Marine crouched in the firing position to battle a 40-ton behemoth bearing down on his meager fortification. Luom coolly extended both LAAWs as the NVA tank started across the bridge.
Picture of the diorama at the US Naval Academy depicting Capt. John W. Ripley hanging under the Dong Ha Bridge over the Cua Viet River, as he placed the explosives provided by Major James E. Smơck, US Army Advisor. This was accomplished 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.
The tank jerked to a halt, perhaps the tank commander could not believe his eyes; he stopped dead in his tracks as he watched the lone Marines take aim. Luom fired; the round went high and to the right. The tank started to ease forward. Luom picked up the second rocket, aimed and fired. The round ricocheted off the bow, detonating on the turret ring, jamming the turret. The enemy tank commander backed off the bridge, making the worst possible decision he could have. All at once, the Marines along the river saw that the enemy armor could be stopped.
The whole incident took only a few seconds. Sergeant Luom grinned and the whole front breathed easier. Captain Ripley gave Sergeant Luom credit for “single-handedly stopping the momentum of the entire attack.” At 1245, the ARVN division command post radioed Major James E. Smock, U.S. Army advisor with the 20 th ARVN Tank Battalion, authorization to blow the Dong Ha Bridge immediately. If necessary, additional demolitions would be sent up and that higher headquarters had been informed of the decision. When Ripley heard this, he replied “ He had always wanted to blow a bridge,” Although he was modest, almost shy, no man could have been better qualified to do the job, with demolition expertise from U.S. Army Ranger School and the Royal Marine's special boat squadron. As Ripley walked forward toward the bridge, Major Smock on an ARVN tank called “Hey Marine, climb aboard and let's go blow a bridge.” The two Americans with two M48 tanks moved forward to within 100 meters from of the bridge. Still in defilade, the tanks stopped at this point. Ripley and Smock dismounted, shielded from enemy view by an old bunker. From the bunker to the bridge was open space swept by enemy artillery and small arms fire. The sun was bright, the weather had cleared, but there were no aircraft overhead or naval gunfire coming in to provide covering fire. The Marines in forward positions fired at the north bank as the two advisors came forward.
The two men ran across the open space. They found ARVN engineers, sticking to 500 pounds of TNT and C-4 plastic explosives at the juncture of the bridge and the approach ramp. The ARVN engineers, however, had placed the explosives in such a position that upon detonation, the bridge would merely “flap” in place and not have dropped. Ripley, quickly surveying the situation, realized that the explosives would have to be placed along the girders under the bridge. A high chain-linked fence topped by barbed wire prevented access to the underpinnings of the bridge. After a quick conference with Smock, it was agreed that once Ripley cleared the fence, Smock would lift the TNT over the fence and Ripley, in turn, would place it underneath this spans.
Swinging his body up and over the fence, Ripley barely cleared the concertina, shredding his uniform. Clearing this obstacle, and with a satchel charge and some blasting caps, the Marine started hand-over-hand above the water along the first girder. About halfway out over the swiftly flowing water, he tried to swing himself up into the steal girders by hooking his heels on either side of the beam. It was then that he realized that he still had on his webbing and his rifle slung over his shoulder. All at once, the weight was oppressive. As he was hanging by his hands with explosives, web gear, weapon, watched by the NVA soldiers, Ripley made another effort to secure a foothold on the beam. His arms ached with pain, his finger grasp felt insecure, and he could not hand there indefinitely. After several attempts to swing his body he lodged his heels on the beam. Working his way up into the steal of the bridge, he discovered that the support girders were separated by practically the width of the ammunition crates in which the explosives had been packed.
Crawling back and forth between the beams, Ripley placed the demolitions in a staggered alignment between the six girders. Major Smock, remaining at the fence, muscled the 50-pound boxes near the five channels created by the six beams by climbing the fence each time and placing them within Ripley's reach. As each channel was mined, it was necessary for Ripley to drop down from one beam and swing over the next, very similar to a high wire act in a circus.
As the Marine laboriously dragged each crate of TNT down the chute formed by the legs of each of the beams, Major Smock became impatient with Ripley's meticulous manner and concerned about the small-arms fire from the north bank, 50 meters away. He called, “Hey, you dumb jarhead, that isn't necessary… What are you waiting for?” “You tankers don't know anything,” Ripley assured Smock. The charges had to be placed diagonally in order to torque the span from its abutment. Smock insisted that there was enough power to blow that bridge and “three more like it.” Nevertheless, despite the inner-service rivalry, the bridge had to be destroyed on the first try. There would be no time for a second attempt.
After lifting all the boxes of explosives to Ripley, Smock sat down and lit a cigarette while Ripley relaxed amidst the steel girders. Finally, the explosives in place, Ripley took the electric blasting caps from his pocket and crimped them to the communications wire being used to detonate the charge. Clearing the fence, he ran for the wire to the burning wreckage of a nearby “Jeep.” As a precaution, he had cut 30 minutes of time fuse before attempting an electrical detonation using the vehicle's battery. Ripley touched the wire to either terminal, but the bridge did no blow. Now it seemed the fate of South Vietnam 's Northern provinces rested on a burning fuse sputtering its way towards 500-pounds of high explosive.
Captain John Ripley ( left ) Advisor to the 3th Vietnamese Marine Battalion and Major Le Ba Binh-
next right-battalion commander, take a break during the battle for Dong Ha, April 1972- four days
after the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge which halted attacking NVA. Photo by David Burnett,
courtesy of Col. John Ripley, USMC
After what seemed like an eternity, the time fuse neared its end. The telltale smoke trail was now out of view. Smock and Ripley “waited and hoped.” Suddenly, the bridge blew! The span, curling in the predicted twisting manner, was severed from the berm “and settled into the river.” The smoking open space between the north and south banks was a beautiful sight for the two Americans. At 1630, Ripley reported to division headquarters that the bridge had been destroyed, and that Major Smock demolished the railroad bridge upstream.
Air strikes by South Vietnamese A-1 Skyraiders hit the armored column backed up north of the bridge. All firing stopped, there was calm for a few moments, then, on the north side, noise was evident once more as NVA tanks shifted their positions to make room for PT-76 amphibious tanks to come forward to the river's edge. The enemy was determined to cross. Ripley saw four of them ready to cross and immediately called a naval gunfire mission. The gunfire support ship sailed within the five-fathom curve and let go with a salvo. All four tanks were destroyed on the riverbank; Ripley recalling that this destroyer probably was one of the few ships in the Navy that rated four enemy tanks painted on her stacks. Subsequently, a B-52 bombing strike, which had been scheduled for that area, silenced that remaining tank activity to the north and east of Dong Ha, for the time being.
With their armored thrusts thwarted at the Dong Ha and Cua Viet areas, the determined Communists exerted pressure elsewhere. The Cam Lo Bridge to the west was the only available crossing point and the NVA effort shifted in that direction. More naval gunfire was called for and the fire from the guns of the destroyers again squelched enemy movement at all night long, hundreds of naval projectiles were called in upon the enemy. The battle for Dong Ha was still in doubt, but there was no question the Communist armored-assault had been halted by the effort of “a few good men” on Easter Sunday. For their actions that day, Captain Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross–America's second highest award for valor-and Major Smock, the Silver Star Medal-the third highest award for valor. But John Ripley recalled VNMC Sergeant Luom's action in stopping the first tank at the bridge as the “…bravest single act of heroism I've ever heard of, witnessed and experienced.”
Dong Ha Bridge burning four days after destruction, 6 April 1972. At the far right are enemy armored vehicles exposed to air attacks and unable to advance.