John Ripley was a Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran who singlehandedly slowed down North Vietnam's entire Easter Offensive in 1972. And he did it by dangling under a bridge for three hours while an entire armored column tried to kill him. They were unsuccessful. Ripley's next brush with death would come in 2002, when his liver began to fail him.
And all anyone could do was sit and watch. That's when the Marines came.
It's good to have friends.
Everyone in the Corps wanted to save John Ripley. At just 63, the colonel still had a lot of life left in him, save for what his liver was trying to take away. But his life was no longer measured in years, months, or even days. John Ripley had hours to live and, unless a donor liver could be found, he would be headed to Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1972, Ripley earned the Navy Cross for moving hand over hand under the Dong Ha Bridge. The North Vietnamese Army would soon be traversing the bridge to complete its three-pronged Easter Offensive, one that would overwhelm and kill many of his fellow Marines and South Vietnamese allies. Waiting to cross it was 20,000 Communist troops and more armored tanks and vehicles than Ripley had men under his command.
Ripley spent three hours rigging the bridge to blow while the entire Communist Army tried to kill him. He should probably have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
He should 100 percent have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
His life was about to be tragically cut short, but a faint glimmer of hope shone through the gloom of his condition. A teenager in Philadelphia was a perfect match for Ripley – but the liver might not make it in time. There were no helicopters available to get the liver from the hospital in Philadelphia to Ripley's hospital at Walter Reed in Washington. That is, until the Marine Corps stepped in. The office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, James Jones secured the use of one of the Corps' elite CH-46 helicopters.
In case you're not in the know, the Marine Corps' CH-46 Fleet in Washington, DC is more than a little famous. You might have seen one of them before.
A Marine Corps CH-46 in the DC area is sometimes designated 'Marine One.'
Ripley's new liver was about to hitch a ride on a Presidential helicopter because that's how Marines take care of their heroes. A CH-46 would ferry the transplant team to the University of Pennsylvania hospital to remove the donor's liver and then take the doctors back to Washington for Ripley.
"Colonel Ripley's story is part of our folklore - everybody is moved by it," said Lt. Col. Ward Scott, who helped organize the organ delivery from his post at the Marine Corps Historical Center in Washington, which Ripley has directed for the past three years. "It mattered that it was Colonel Ripley who was in trouble."
Col. John Ripley after his recovery.
The surgical team landed in Pennsylvania and was given a police escort by the state's highway patrol. When the donor liver was acquired, they were escorted back to the helicopter, where the Marine pilots were waiting. They knew who the liver was for and they were ready to take off. They landed at Anacostia and boarded a smaller helicopter – also flown by a Marine – which took the doctors to Georgetown University Hospital. Friends of the university's president secured the permission for the helicopter to land on the school's football field.
This was a Marine Corps mission, smartly executed by a team of Marines who were given the tools needed to succeed. Ripley always said the effort never surprised him.
"Does it surprise me that the Marine Corps would do this?" Ripley told the Baltimore Sun from his hospital bed. "The answer is absolutely flat no! If any Marine is out there, no matter who he is, and he's in trouble, then the Marines will say, 'We've got to do what it takes to help him.'"