The real story rarely holds up to the legend. But in the case of John W. Ripley, the real story may be even better.
The Dong Ha Bridge
In 1972, Captain John Ripley was an advisor to the northern parts of South Vietnam, stationed at Camp Carroll. The camp was a firebase in the middle of Khe Sanh and Dong Ha.
Ripley spent his time advising the troops that were stationed there with him. This was Ripley’s second tour. For Vietnam, the tour was going pretty smoothly.
However, the NVA had been poking at the firebases in the area, testing out the U.S. defenses of each base. The NVA would not go too far, though, and would always back off.
In March 1972, the NVA tested a firebases defenses, but they did not give up this time. Instead, they went full throttle into their attack. They brought with them 14 divisions and 26 regiments, the Easter Offensive.
The ARVN garrison at Camp Carrol surrendered as the firebase was overtaken. Ripley and another American soldier took a CH-47 Chinook and escaped the camp.
However, they were forced to crash on a Highway near Dong Ha because they picked up too many ARVN men. Luckily, Ripley discovered quite a few South Vietnamese Marines who were not ready to surrender.
His other discovery was that 200 North Vietnamese tanks and artillery were lined up for about six miles just waiting to cross the Cam Lo River. American air support was limited due to the monsoon season, and the North Vietnamese had full control over one side of the bridge.
Blowing up the Bridge
Maj. James Smock took Ripley to the bridge via a tank to blow it up. Ripley climbed below with five ARVN engineers attempting the same task, but all 500 pounds of TNT needed to be reset.
A South Vietnamese Marine-Sergeant Huynh Van Luom took it upon himself to hun out onto the bridge, firing two M72 light antitank assault weapon rounds at the NVA tanks.. The first shot missed its target, but the second made contact, stopping the tank.
Three hours passed as Ripley set each of the timed explosives by hand and mouth, not knowing exactly when they would go off. Finally, Smock set charges on a railway bridge simultaneously, and the two blew together, preventing the NVA from going forward. Ripley’s actions that day likey prevented the North from taking Saigon.