A Bloody Vietnam Battle, B-52s & One Notorious Marine
Tugging at the threads of a 1967 firefight
It was March 1, 1967 in Da Nang, South Vietnam and the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment was in trouble. With elements of 2/3 cut off and surrounded by North Vietnamese troops, a soon-to-be famous–and controversial–Marine named John Ripley rushed to help.
And Ripley had backup … in the form of U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers dropping high-explosives practically right on top of American positions.
What’s the point of this story? None, really. It’s just one bunch of historical, technological and political threads weaving together in equally interesting, inspiring and disappointing ways.
The U.S. military’s Operation Prairie II kicked off in February 1967. The goal–to seek out and destroy North Vietnamese Army forces in Quang Tri province. Three Marine battalions plus supporting recon units comprised the main American force.
On Feb. 28, NVA troops ambushed one of the Marine companies, killing four Americans. Lt. Col. Victor Ohanesian led 2nd Battalion’s small command group, including operations officer Maj. Robert Sheridan, to reinforce the embattled company. “In my year in Vietnam, I had never seen this many NVA troops in the open,” Sheridan said later.
With the battle in flux, the communist troops shifted their attention to a different U.S. company, killing seven men. 2/3 commander Col. John Lanigan ordered Ohanesian to switch up and help the second company. The command group and two platoons raced to the rescue, leaving behind a force of tanks that could not handle the terrain. “We were ordered to proceed … knowing full well we were walking into a hornet’s nest,” Sheridan said.
“The terrain that the Marines traversed was covered with thick brush, confining them to a narrow trail,” Edward Murphy wrote in his book Semper Fi: Vietnam: From Da Nang to the DMZ, Marine Corps Campaigns, 1965-1975. The NVA ambushed the rescuers, lobbing mortars and grenades. When one grenade fell among a tightly packed group of Marines, Pvt. 1st Class John Anderson hugged the munition. The blast killed Anderson but spared his comrades.
Ohanesian pulled his Marines back to their previous position with the tanks. The NVA kept up the pressure. “All radios had been hit and casualties continued to mount,” Sheridan recalled. “Moving the dead and wounded out of the killing zone required feats of bravery beyond comprehension. The NVA were everywhere. Lt. Col. Ohanesian was carrying the last of the wounded Marines towards the perimeter when an explosion mortally wounded him.”
Sheridan, badly wounded in the same blast that killed his commander, called in helicopters to evacuate the most seriously injured, but gunfire made it impossible for them to land. So the American survivors hunkered down to await rescue. Sheridan took shelter under a tank as night fell.
Ripley–eventually to become a Marine Corps legend–led the rescue force. The jarheads marched toward Sheridan’s position as B-52s stacked up high overhead. “We had B-52’s all the time and the danger close for a B-52’s course in those days was three grand [3,000 yards],” Ripley later told the U.S. Marine Corps History Division. “So if you had friendlies inside three grand, supposedly the mission would abort.”
“Well of course they fudged the Hell out of it,” Ripley continued. “They’d still bring it in. All you’d have to say was, ‘yeah, it’s about three grand.’ I’ll never forget the first one I saw. We were rushing north in the middle of the night to try to rescue 2/3, which had been overrun, literally overrun. Everybody in the whole [command post] group, except one guy, Bob Sheridan, had been killed. …
“As we were going up the old French road, here comes a B-52 strike. We could hear the aircraft but we couldn’t see them and all of a sudden you see the most incredible sight in the world–these huge flames like the big storms you see on the rim of the sun, big, curling flames, just roaring up in the air. I’d never seen anything like this in my life.”
“Constant artillery, night air strikes within 50 meters of our position and the courage of the Marines on the ground finally took their toll and the NVA withdrew,” Sheridan said later. Ripley and his Marines arrived in time to save Sheridan. Ninety-three Marines died in Operation Prairie II.
Five years later, Ripley performed an even more daring feat. The New York Times described it best:
Col. Ripley, who at the time was a captain and a military adviser to a South Vietnamese Marine unit, blew up the southern end of the Dong Ha Bridge over the Cua Viet River on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972. On the north side of the bridge, which was several miles south of the demilitarized zone, some 20,000 North Vietnamese troops and 200 tanks were poised to sweep into Quang Tri province, which was sparsely defended.
Going back and forth for three hours while under fire, Capt. Ripley swung hand over hand along the steel I-beams beneath the bridge, securing himself between girders and placing crates holding a total of 500 pounds of TNT in a diagonal line from one side of the structure to the other. The I-beam wings were just wide enough to form pathways along which he could slide the boxes.
When the boxes were in place on the bridge, Capt. Ripley attached blasting caps to detonate the TNT, then connected them with a timed-fuse cord that eventually extended hundreds of feet.
‘He had to bite down on the blasting caps to attach them to the fuses,” John Grider Miller, author of The Bridge at Dong Ha, said … . ‘If he bit too low on the blasting cap, it could come loose; if he bit too high, it could blow his head apart.’
Capt. Ripley bit safely, and the timed-fuse cord gave him about half an hour to clamber off the bridge. Moments later, his work paid off with a shock wave that tossed him into the air but otherwise left him unharmed.
Today the Navy and Marines still hold up Ripley’s one-man bridge-demolition as one of the finest examples of courage under fire. But in retirement in the 1990s, Ripley gained a different kind of notoriety–as a bitter critic of women and gays in the military.
In 1992 and 1993, Ripley addressed the U.S. Congress, urging legislators to keep homosexuals out of the military and women out of combat. “All Marines understand that to win in combat, and to keep focused on the mission, you have to subordinate, to subjugate individual instinct for self-preservation—and for personal protection or comfort—to the needs of the unit,” Ripley said. “The unit prevails.”
Gays, he added, “constantly focus on themselves: their so-called needs, what they want, their entitlements, their rights; they never talk about the good of the unit.”
By the same token, women do not belong in frontline units, Ripley claimed. “Can women fight? Yes, they can. Can they fight in the conditions of the battlefield of which I am familiar, and the cohesiveness of the unit, and can they add to that cohesiveness? I don’t think so. Should they do this? Hell, no! Never. What is the purpose of it? Why should they? For the self-aggrandizement of a few?”
Some things change. More than 20 years after Ripley’s testimonies, gays serve openly even in elite combat units … and two female U.S. Army soldiers are on the verge of becoming the first women ever to complete the Army’s grueling Ranger course.
Other things don’t change. Upgraded Air Force B-52s still fly close air support missions for embattled U.S. ground troops.
Ripley died in 2008.