The Catholic Men's Podcast

#109 Remastered Battlefield Recording of Col. John Ripley

1 month ago

Transcription of recording (click to read along):

Episode #52 which gives some background on Col. Ripley’s Story:

Read “An American Knight: The Life of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC” by Norman Fulkerson:

If the link for the transcript does not work, then I have included it in plain text here below:


An unofficial transcription of an oral history tape relating to combat action in the Republic of South Vietnam.

By Major Regan Wright, USMC and Major John Ripley, USMC. This tape was made immediately following the destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge in April 1972.

(Transcription begins)

Capt. John W. Ripley, United States Marine Corps. I am the Senior Advisor of the 3rd Marine Infantry Battalion. My order of attention took place in the defense of Dong Ha village. On the morning of 2 April 1972 I will discuss that part of the action and explain my part throughout the action on the second of April.

On the morning of 2 April the 3rd Marine Infantry Battalion was located at Dong Ha Combat Base when the enemy began an intensive artillery attack firing over 500 rounds of 130 MM artillery into the positions occupied by the battalion. The battalion then received word to move into blocking positions along Route 9 (QL-9) west of Dong Ha to be prepared to prevent any attempt by the enemy to bypass Dong Ha in its attacks from the south. While we were moving into these positions the Battalion Commander received a report that the enemy was attacking south along Route 1 (QL-1) in an estimated strength of their reinforced division. The enemy was reported moving radically in a mechanized column toward Dong Ha consisting of a minimum of 20 tanks. At this point perhaps an analysis should be made of the tactical and strategic points made on this small village of Dong Ha in the enemy's attack.

At Dong Ha the two major road networks of the entire province, indeed of the entire corps, intersects Route 9 leading west out of Dong Ha offers the only tractable access to western Viet Nam and eventually into Laos and the entire northern half of the country. Route 1 runs generally north-south through Dong Ha and is intersected here by the Cam Lo River. The intersection of Routes 1 and 9 are on the south bank of the river, perhaps just about a 100 meters before the bridge. The importance of Route 1 doesn't need to be emphasized as the main thrust of the enemy's attack was south along this Route. Route 1 is a class ''A" road with all bridges 60 plus tons capacity. This Route would support any vehicle known to exist in the enemy force and we realized that of course. Two bridges across the Cam Lo River there, the first was a steel and timber heavy duty bridge suitable for all classes of traffic. The second bridge was partially destroyed steel and concrete construction. Still suitable for light traffic, it was concrete and steel. It can be seen that the possession of Dong Ha, its road junction, and its bridges, was a critical necessity to the success of the enemy attack. There were no friendly forces north of Dong Ha having evacuated the northern fire bases under heavy enemy attack the previous day. Those were our bases Alpha 2, 3 4, Alpha 1, Charlie l and Charlie 2. There were no friendly forces on our flanks. Half of the battalion was in position west of Dong Ha with the tank force, but these were part of the overall Dong Ha defense. The only fire bases that remained west of Dong Ha, and perhaps good for Camp Carroll which has already been reported as just prior to being overrun, ind the Marine Force at Mai Loe which was under very heavy attack, both artillery and ground attack, proved literally no support.

The nearest friendly forces were located south of Dong Ha at Quang Tri Combat Base or AI TU Combat Base. They had been instructed to withdraw south of Quang Tri River to form a defensive line, the 3rd ARVN Division Headquarters reestablished south of the river. They were in the process of moving south at the time. It became quite apparent to the 3rd Marine Infantry Battalion and the support tank battalion, 2nd of 20 ARVN tanks, stood alone at Dong Ha without the remotest possibility of reinforcements. The critical defense at Dong Ha would be made with the Marine battalion and with the Tank battalion against an enemy reinforced division supported by tank regiment, 4 artillery regiments which were identified then, a rocket regiment, and an anti-tank air regiment and anti-aircraft regiment that included SAM missiles. They were to later use these missiles that day to knock down two A-1 VNAF aircraft. At this time it was quite apparent, both to the commander and to all of us hearing of the readily advancing enemy armor force, the ALFA Commander ordered a rifle company into immediate defensive position along the bridge. The time that he made this decision, of course, was about 0900 and the' company arrived there at this time. His second company was assigned to the end along the western end of the village just along Route 9 where the old railroad burned or embankment led to the south bank of the river and to the damaged ruins of the rail road bridge which was a likely crossing point. The BRAVO Command Group consisting of two companies remained with the tank force approximately 3 or 4 miles west of Dong Ha.

At that time the tank might have had only 2 companies in Dong Ha proper. He sent for this BRAVO Command Group. He sent for them immediately, requesting that they return to Dong Ha. He then assured the correct displacement of the defense force and then moved to a point just west of the village to 3 command group which was

(Recording Break).

During this brief Dong Ha underwent an artillery attack of such an intensity that it absolutely defies description. For approximately 45 minutes, perhaps a bit longer, the enemy firing does stating merge barrage of artillery into the village concentrating the fires probably three separate 130 ~~1 batteries. The effect was to isolate the village and prevent the arrival of the remaining two companies and tank force. We attempted to reach the companies in position task, but the devastating firing made it out of the question. However, we did remain in contact with the units, and the battalion commander through his encourgement and leadership made them even more determined in their task to hold the bridge in the village.

Finally, at approximately 1015 an enemy tank appeared on the north bank of the river directly across the bridge and was immediately undertaken by racketeers on the south bank and on the bridge itself. We had gone into a hasty defense. These racketeers fired between 5 to 8 rockets at the enemy tanks, but because of the tank they had detonated at the northern edge of the bridge did not have a clear shot, the tank was missed, unfortuately. In another words he got the picture and moved backwards into cover on the north bank of the river. We didn't see this particular tank anymore. The defenders remained in position on the bridge and on the flanks of the bridge, and began to consolidate their defense there.

The importance of the bridge itself is quite obvious, and the battalion commander had requested demolitions and permission to destroy the bridge forth wit. The Marine Commander of Brigade 258 of course understood this, and already assembled demolitions, and had the forces moving at that time from Quang Tri up to Dong Ha where we were to attempt to destroy the bridge. During this period Lt. Commander had moved with the tank force around Dong Ha Combat Base and into position on Route 1, just south of the Dong Ha Bridge where he could support the bridge with the tank force, and of course better control his battalion.

Just after the racketeers had fired on the one enemy tank, almost simultaneously the remaining of M4883 ARVN tanks arrived at the triangle or the intersection of Route 9 and Route 1 just after the bridge, and when into blocking positions there. They arrived only moments too late to undertake the enemy T-54 tank, however, they did get in position and formed a very effective block on the south bank and no more enemy tanks attempted to cross the bridge at that point.

With a situation as it was then we were able to get two more companies into position and to back up the forces already there which were scant to say the least, and to support them as I've already pointed out with heavy armor, our 48's and the remaining two companies of the battalions. This is probably interesting to point out that this tank battalion was the only, the only M48 battalion in the country at the time who had 1 day prior to the beginning of this defensive finished a very large tank exercise and were at that point departing back to their units, back to their bases when they received the word that the situation required them to move north to Dong Ha and to points in the northern part of the province. They had just finished and this was the first time that this unit appeared before combat. It was the first time that they had ever seen any combat mission whatsoever. So here they were, and doing a beautiful job in support of the Marines.

(Recording Break) moved into position on the north bank of the Cam Lo River, and moved automatic weapons of course, all the usual weapons into position there. The tanks didn't expose themselves, they were partially exposed along the north shore of Route 1 as it angled back to the west a bit. It was pointed out that two positions on the north bank were opposite our positions on the south bank at the Cam Lo Bridge. Also were into positions that occupied these and remained obstructions on the railroad bridge a mile or so west of the Highway bridge. In fact they placed a very large flank to the structure of the bridge and we took them on what we call tank rounds and didn't have any more problems from that area. However, we did not control the south bank of the river there. Our forces were just along Route 9 itself and not in control of the south bank.

So that has some significance later. Getting back to the bridge itself. Up to this point we were at sort of a stand off, although the enemy didn't try to get its tanks back across, we knew that there was only time before we massed them again with appropriate forces and perhaps under another artillery barrage we would attempt to get those tanks over. It was imperative that the bridge be destroyed. Someone has been detached to destroy the bridge and we had in fact had two reports that parts of the bridge were destroyed. It became obvious both to myself and to an Army Advisor who was with the tank force, that this was not the case that the bridge was in fact not destroyed. So I admit the toll personally on my command there.

Lt. Col. Turley who was in total charge of the AO, I had been told personally to destroy the bridge, to make sure that the bridge was destroyed, and if necessary to attempt to shoot the struts out from beneath the bridge, which would have been next to impossible because of the very solid construction of the bridge. Therefore, I felt because of his instructions, that I should move forward to insure that the bridge was destroyed. I did this, and at the same time this Army Advisor requested from his counterpart two tanks to assist us in getting forward to the bridge under the enemy fire and to assist us while we were there. We moved forward on the tanks and arrived just at the triangle there where Route 9 intersects with 1. I left the tanks there and moved forward myself to the base of the bridge and moved quickly underneath the bridge to find quite a few demolitions there which had been stowed up under the bridge itself almost to the point where the structure of the bridge met the embankment.

Just a quick look at the display of explosions and the method in which they were employed indicated that however, many that they had there perhaps would have detonated the bridge - the explosives, but it was very clear that they probably would not have destroyed the bridge, fact, they may have dropped a span, but only enough so that it would have contacted the embankment, and the tanks still could have come across the bridge down the remaining span on to the embankment and still gotten a shore under the south shore. There was a chain link anchor fence there protecting the access to the underside of the bridge, obviously put there to prevent any sappers from getting under the bridge, and in order to get the explosives properly inplaced, I had to reach up to the eye beams, to the stringer running longitudinally under the bridge. I had to pull myself up on to this stringer and over this chain link...

[end of side 1]

[Side 2]

...fence and then hand walk hanging under the bridge. I had to walk out to a point over the river where I could properly put these explosives where they would do the job. I got out there and swung myself up under the beams itself. I had a little difficulty because in my haste I forgot to take my webbing (FLAC Jacket) ·off and it was pulling me down somewhat. But I finally did get .my heel hooked and got into the beams, into the stringers, and then the other advisor began to push explosives out to me, and I placed them between these beams, between the stringers. I think there were six very large stringers under the bridge. Once I had them in place I blocked my access to the rear of the bridge. Also, I had to begin rolling myself up into the next one and go back and get more explosives. I think we had probably 500 lbs. perhaps more of combination C-4 and TNT. The TNT was in boxes weighing probably 75 lbs., something like this. It made it rather difficult to get it out into those high beams because of the weight of the boxes, it was rather cumbersome, but the explosives were inplaced, and they were inplaced down on the bridge diagonally. They were inplaced in such a manner beginning from the eastern stringer on the bridge. They moved in a diagonal line back to the western stringer, which is the proper way to blow a bridge. If they had been placed as we found them directly across under the bridge, then they would have not done the job at all.

Simply, we would cut the bridge and the remaining structure would have fallen onto the south bank, and as I've pointed out quite likely the tanks still could have crossed and gotten on the bank and into Dong Ha. It took about an hour to properly get these explosives inplaced. It was then necessary to go back out with time fuses and fuse all the explosives. On this we located some electric caps which were much more efficient, so I went back out and replaced the, that is I supplemented the time fuse with electric caps, and then ran these back and tied them off onto electric wire there. With the explosives in position on the bridge we then had to take some more explosives onto the small, lightly tracked bridge along side, and inplaced so that it could be destroyed also. While that was done we moved back to destroy the bridge. We got a battery, exposed the battery, attempted to, we had our wires for both bridges laid back in the vicinity of the jeep. Then we attempted to destroy the bridge. But for some reason the doggone thing didn't work. It appeared that there was a break in the wire.

Considering this I had before leaving the bridge itself, I had set two time fuses on the outboard stingers, and with a quick estimate of how long it would take. It would have taken longer than 45 minutes so I felt that that was a safe enough time to make sure that everyone was out of the area. I went ahead and let these two time pieces and then backed off.

Just after we attempted the destruction by the electric caps, word came down via the Division channel not to destroy the bridge. Of course we were in a very hazardous situation, what had me completely through this whole affair was directing direct fire on the south bank and on to our efforts in placing the explosives and getting the bridge destroyed. The explosives of course were in position, and of course the time and electric caps were in place in the explosives, and the greatest danger of course was that the electric caps, highly unstable, were in position in all the explosives, and almost anything could have detonated them. So that having been given the order to not to destroy the bridge, it would have been necessary to get out right away, get the electric caps out. I requested permission to do so and I was told to stay away from the bridge and to just wait for further instructions.

We moved back and my counterpart, the Lt. Commander was told by his senior officer, the Marine Brigade Commander to destroy the bridge. That of course countered our last word and we went forward to destroy at this time, and were met by a newly appointed ARVN Ground Commander who hastily organized Brigade Commander for the whole area. He had just arrived. He said, "that he had been given orders by the Division Commander not to destroy the bridge." I informed him that I had been given instructions twice from two different Commanders to destroy the bridge and that I intended to do so. It would be prudent if we all moved back from the bridge as the bridge and its present stance was getting ready to go up at any minute, particularly since those electric caps inplaced.

We moved back from the bridge and he was awaiting instructions from his Division Commander when almost simultaneously there arrived a flight of Vietnamese Air Force A-ls to conduct a flying mission on the north side of the river. While these A-ls were bombing, the bridge detonated, and it was of course destroyed. It dropped the entire span from the south bank all the way to the first connection and completely devasted the bridge - made it totally unusuable for any sort of traffic. The bridge alongside dedonated at the same time and destroyed it, at the same time of course.

Now that the bridge was destroyed we were in much better position to defend Dong Ha. The Tank Force Commander deployed troops from each of the companies, the tank troops. We went into positions, defensive positions all around the city. We had no reinforcements as of yet. The enemy was continuing its artillery attack and also heavy small arms and direct fire weapons from the north bank. He had not as yet attempted any infiltration. The Vietnamese Air Force A-ls which were conducting flying missions immediately on the north bank of the river, just on the other side. Certainly (Recording Break). We were receiving very heavy ground fire and apparently enemy aircraft fire, probably 37 MM guns. It was quite obvious enemy aircraft fire and not just artillery fire. Suddenly while we were standing on a tank and observing, a SAM missile left the deck and in very short order inpacted into one of the A-ls, turning it into a ball of fire immediately. Miraculously the pilot managed to get out and floated very close to the bridge, and unfortunately onto the north bank. We requested permission to pick him up, and we were denied. We were not to cross the river and attempt any rescue. This situation probably stablized at this point, and for the rest of the day it was defense from both sides. We returned fire to the north bank of the river, and the enemy did not attempt to cross the river during daylight hours. We continued to receive indirect fire from enemy artillery and quite a bit of small arms along the river itself.

That evening the enemy did attempt to cross the river, and managed to get a number of it's forces across. However, they were intercepted right at the foot of the bridge, along the LST ramp to the right of the bridge some couple of hundred meters. They attempted to get through Dong Ha village which is to the left (west) of the bridge and they were stopped there. No enemy got past Route 9, nor did they get south of the village itself. They were all stopped there by the Marines in postion and by tank fire. The village was held that evening, and throughout that evening we had heavy resistance in the village, heavy incoming.

We also had reports of tanks attempting to move, that is we had visual sights of tanks moving west along a secondary road leading from Route 1 toward the village of Cam Lo. We saw some 20 tanks moving at night along that road.

Going back to that day, the air credited themselves with four tank kills on the road itself. They reported to us they had killed four tanks there. We had managed to engage one tank on Route 1 north of the bridge from a position west of Dong Ha where Route 1 was visible. We could actually see Route 1, and we could see the flanks of the tanks and the tankers undertook it and destroyed it, the tank there. They feel that they probably damaged a second tank, but they were not sure. However, they reported to us the next day that there were seven tanks destroyed just north of the bridge.

The defense at Dong Ha was continuous throughout the day and evening, and during the evening we received reports of more tanks proceeding toward, not necessarily toward Dong Ha, but along Route 9 in the vicinity of Vandergrift Valley. We had reports of tanks moving through the valley. We also had reports of tanks attempting to get to Cam Lo to cross the remaining bridge there. We used very heavy air and naval gun fire assets to intercept them plus the artillery which was established at the time. And the nex~ day things stablized and we got more artillery batteries in place, gained much more support and that as necessary.

We never did receive a serious tank threat from the west during those first two or three days. But the enemy did manage to get a number of infantry forces across at Cam Lo. On two occasions the tank and heavy force, the perimeter which we had established around the Dong Ha base. On one particular evening, I think it was the 5th, they attacked our Bravo Command Group which had a company of Marines and a company of tanks, and estimated battalion strength where they were beatened back during the evening with the assistance of a Spooky Gun Ship (AC-130 Aircraft) and very heavy artillery support. The next morning we found 72 dead and uncovered a number of weapons.

Throughout this week, for the period of one week, the 3rd Marine Infantry Battalion Vietnamese and the supporting Tank Battalion, by themselves these two battalions, defended Dong Ha without losing a square inch, or as much as a grain of sand. The enemy infiltrated into the southern bank of the river and in the vicinity of the railroad bridge. The Marines pushed them back out of that area and back across the river accumulating some 150-200 firmed kills.

The enemy also managed to get into positions south of Route 9 at one point along the backroad exit of Dong Ha Combat Base. They were surrounded there, and we killed 33 enemy there, killed a company XO, captured four radios, and lost only three (Vietnamese) Marines killed in that action. We lost two tanks damaged. No tanks destroyed, only two tanks damaged throughout this defense. The Marine Battalion was relieved of the defense of Dong Ha, and moved into reaction supporting rolls in the vicinity of Dong Ha Combat Base when an Army Battalion moved forward.

However, the Army Battalion had a good bit of difficulty in holding Dong Ha itself and the adjoining defenses that we had established. It was necessary two days later to again put the Marines back into the defense and try to put an area defense. This was not successfully completed, when only one day later on Saturday, the last day of our week long defense, we were relieved of the defense of Dong Ha by a Ranger Group consisting of 300 men. We moved back into the defense of Quang Tri Combat Base where we now are.

[End: Major Ripley's Comments]

[Comments by: Lt. Col. G. H. Turley]

On 23 April Col. Joshua Dorsey III, who was at that time the Senior Marine Advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Corps here in country, felt that this tape was of such immediate interest that it should be mailed to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. On 26 April 1972 the tape was then mailed to the Chief of Staff, the Commandant of Headquarters Marine Corps.

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