Editor’s note: The following commentary is the conclusion to yesterday’s column, King Kong lives!
At midday on March 30, 1972, almost by complete surprise, the North Vietnamese Army launched its single biggest assault of the Vietnam War. Larger in size and scale than the very costly but politically effective 1968 Tet Offensive, the NVA this time were fighting an almost conventional battle.
Generously supplied with seemingly unlimited artillery, Soviet armor and the latest air-defense weapons, reports of the NVA strength and battlefield successes were, for the first few days, not believed by the South Vietnamese general staff and their senior American advisers way down yonder in Saigon.
The first three and a half days of what came to be known as the Easter Offensive of 1972 were a near rout. The shock value of the new conventional NVA juggernaut was wreaking havoc with friendly forces. Indiscriminate artillery barrages, as intense as any experienced by the old hands, were especially deleterious for the uncounted masses of peasants turned refugees in Quang Tri Province. The poor weather and low visibility temporarily neutered the South’s advantage in air power. It was hard to believe things could turn so negative in such a short time.
It was clear early on that the town of Dong Ha was a strategic target for the NVA. Offering the only bridge over the Cam Lo-Cua Viet River capable of supporting the heavy T-54 tanks now being used with such tremendous effect, the enemy needed to take it intact. Control of that one bridge would open the South for further exploitation. At a minimum, the turnover of Dong Ha would assure the loss of the northern provinces.
The allied unit closest to the gathering storm at Dong Ha was the Vietnamese Third Marine Battalion. As fate would have it, Capt. John Ripley was the covan (the Vietnamese name “co-van” for U.S. Marine Corps advisers means “trusted friend”) that day about to enter the arena.
By 1971, John Ripley had done almost everything a Marine captain could accomplish commensurate with his rank. Having already successfully served in Vietnam as an infantry company commander in 1967, during which time Ripley was decorated and wounded, he had had subsequent tours with Marine Force Recon and as an exchange officer with the British Royal Marines. (Postings with the Royal Marines are extremely competitive and go only to the most promising officers.) Happily married and the father of three very young children, Ripley did not really need to be back in Vietnam. But he was.
The ferocity of the NVA offensive caused all manner of problems with allied command and control. Due to the extreme emergency, Lt. Col. Gerry Turley, who had recently arrived to serve as the senior covan in the northern region, was ordered to also assume control of the Third ARVN Division Forward. Recognizing the need to destroy the bridge, even though higher headquarters (who were unaware of the deteriorating tactical situation) ordered him not to, Turley gave the order. He was certain he was sending Capt. Ripley to his death.
With some cover fire provided by the men of the Third Marine Battalion and aided by U.S. Army Maj. John Smock, Capt. John Ripley accomplished what was not possible: He went out and blew up the bridge.
There is no sports analogy for what Ripley did. It was not like running a three minute mile, bench pressing 700 pounds, or pulling out a come-from-behind Super Bowl upset victory. There were no adoring crowds. What Ripley did was simply impossible. Had he failed while attempting to do it, his peers would have only thought him noble and brave for trying.
The significance of the timely destruction of the bridge at Dong Ha cannot be overstated – both in terms of Ripley’s personal heroism and the impact it had on the entire communist offensive. Those who ponder alternative history could easily argue that had the NVA been able to secure the bridge and the town at that time, the unfortunate end of the Republic of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, might have been markedly speeded up.
Built by U.S. Navy Seabees in 1967, the bridge was a 200-meter concrete and steel leviathan. Its destruction required deliberate planning, intellect and guts. Mostly guts. Ripley would provide all three as he needed to distribute 500 pounds of dynamite on the structure’s underside.
Making a dozen-odd trips between the southern bank of the river and the belly of the bridge, each time he shuttled roughly 40 pounds of explosives as he swung, hand-over-hand, out to the various spans and stringers, all the while exposed to enemy fire from the northern side. Placement of the dynamite and requisite wiring took more than two hours.
With the rigging complete, and without fanfare, Smock and Ripley blew the bridge. (For a superbly chronicled read of the entire action, see “The Bridge at Dong Ha” by Ripley friend and fellow covan U.S. Marine Corps Col. John Miller. For the view from the senior adviser who effectively ran the entire show during this period of the war, pick up Col. Gerry Turley’s compellingly honest and painstakingly fair “The Easter Offensive.” Both available at the U.S. Naval Institute or the Marine Corps Association.)
Ripley’s performance that day continues to fascinate. These were not the deeds of a regular man. His bravery was not some gut reaction or counterpunch to a blow struck by an enemy. His actions in that three-hour window – with the world collapsing around him – were deliberate, willful, premeditated. Every ounce of his spiritual and physical fiber was focused on mission accomplishment. Anything less and he surely would have failed. Exhausted prior to the start, when he was finished he was way past empty.
With the bridge’s destruction, the communist offensive was blunted but the fighting continued. Always seeming to draw tough assignments, the Third Marine Battalion – known as the Soi Bien or “Wolves of the Sea” – was a storied unit within the Vietnamese Marine Corps. While John Ripley’s actions on Easter Sunday of 1972 would make him a legend among his brother covans and professional contemporaries, he was at least evenly matched with the man who led the Soi Bien.
Major Le Ba Binh was a Marine’s Marine. He was to the Vietnamese Marine Corps, in its by-then 18-year history, what Chesty Puller, Dan Daly and Pappy Boyington combined were to the by then 196-year history of the U.S. Marine Corps. About the same age as his trusted friend John Ripley, Binh had even served as a student at The Basic School in Quantico where all American Marine lieutenants are schooled in the warrior arts. Wounded at least a dozen times, he had already been decorated for valor on seven separate occasions when the Easter Offensive began.
Binh was the consummate combat leader. Always out front where the action was heaviest, he was revered by his men and would endure any burden to defeat the hated communists. With the world crumbling around his Marines and the generally poor showing being put forth by most ARVN units in Military Region 1, he intended to follow the orders he received – to hold at all costs.
The battles in and around Dong Ha were only part of the much larger communist offensive. While many other ARVN units initially collapsed under NVA pressure, the various battalions of the Vietnamese Marine Corps, along with their covans, fought with tenacity and gave ground grudgingly.
Facing an entire 20,000 man division with an estimated 200 tanks, the 700-plus men of the Third Marine Battalion held Dong Ha for four days, until they too were completely surrounded and were forced to make a fighting withdrawal from the area. Less than a month later, as those who remained stood in formation to be addressed by their commandant at the regional headquarters in Hue, Maj. Binh would muster only 52 survivors. The two companies which had provided Ripley with cover fire while he and Major Smock destroyed the bridge, and then remained in place to battle the NVA armor and infantry, had been wiped out to the last man.
The Easter Offensive ended in failure for the NVA, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Vietnamese Marine Corps and their faithful advisers. The unfortunate demise of freedom in Southeast Asia would come nearly three years later. In the meantime, covans Gerry Turley, John Ripley, George Philip and all the others headed home to be reabsorbed back into the regular Marine Corps and American society in general.
There was no going home – no rotation date – for Major Binh or his Marines. They fought the communists right up until and past April 30, 1975. Le Ba Binh was not among the fortunate few able to secure spots on the extraction helicopters that last day of April. Captured, he was sentenced to the “re-education camps.”
In a time period six times longer than America’s involvement in World War II, Binh labored in the camps. Through the terms of five American presidents, Binh labored. When the Great Bull Market lifted off in 1982, Binh labored. While most who served in Vietnam moved on and pressed ahead, Binh was stuck in the bamboo gulag. Through the stock market crash of 1987, Tiananmen Square, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, the ups, the downs – through it all, Binh labored. From 1975 up until the time of his release in 1998 and subsequent movement to the United States, Binh labored. Ever defiant, never broken, his slave masters toiled in vain.
Whenever I am with Marines, whether long-time friends or new acquaintances, there is a peculiar level of comfort and happiness unique always to those times. I am not quite able to reduce those feelings to words. It is different than the pleasure that comes from being a father, and exceeds the delight and youthful exuberance I recall as a little boy awaiting Santa’s arrival. I would describe it simply as joy. When I am with brother Marines, I feel joy … joyful … joyous. That’s it. That’s all.
For three days I was allowed to hang with, to bask in the reflected glory of several dozens of heroes whose names and deeds the many millions of Americans and Vietnamese they served will never know. The youngest covans are now in their late 50s. Most are older, and except for a touch of graying hair they all – to a man – have that same comportment, the ramrod-straight bearing, the fire in their eyes that identifies them still as – only as – U.S. Marines.
Recruiters for the Corps have left one of their greatest, unquantifiable marketing tools completely off the table. Each time I am with Marine friends, the evidence overwhelms me yet again – that is how well Leathernecks do with and by the women they marry. More impressive even than the array of valor and Purple Heart medals among the covan warriors were the wives who kept it all together. These were not just women who look good. They do. These are women equal to or greater than their men in terms of grit and pluck and spirit. Women of character who kept the faith in their men and the cause they served when few others did.
What a group to be around. And then there were the Vietnamese.
I doubt I am unique in my viewing of history always from the solipsism of the “American experience” – the American experience in World War II, the American experience in Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War … wherever. Rarely is my consideration for allies, especially allies from a country and government which no longer officially exists. Yet, here they were with us, or we with them. All these Vietnamese Marines, their wives and children, looking proud, prosperous, accomplished. Like their covan brothers, the Vietnamese Marines, clad in their signature tiger-striped uniforms, still formidable, retain that eager-for-action, lock-and-load aura.
When I was told what so many of these now-American families had been through to get here, their speeches, their testimonies of comradeship and bravery and sacrifice, in English far more perfect than my Vietnamese, became heavy with meaning.
In the entire American population there are, at most, a million men living who have actually really fought the up-close and personal, fixed bayonets, give no quarter fight for freedom. Of the entire native born, except maybe for those who have been prisoners of war, there are none who have had their freedom taken from them. Even among our own warriors, most have never had to risk more than their own lives in our nation’s defense. For Americans, freedom is a given. It is assumed.
I wonder how sweet freedom must seem and how much someone who came from Hungary in 1957, Cuba in 1962, Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia after 1975 must love our country and truly know the blessings we enjoy. Le Ba Binh knows.
Spending time alone together, Ripley and Binh toured the hallowed halls of The Basic School where they had common memories from different times. So many friends gone. So much sacrifice. More familiar with one another than brothers, the communication was mostly non-verbal. Referring to each other as they did in 1972, not because of rigid formality but out of love and respect, Binh is still “Thieu Ta” – Vietnamese for “Major” – to Ripley.
Binh, who has done so much, seen so much, experienced it all, is a man of few words. John Ripley cannot describe their brief, final exchange without pausing to acknowledge his own emotions. Stopping to look back one last time before leaving, Binh reflected to his covan: “Ripp-lee. I am happy.”
“That is good Thieu Ta. I am happy too.”
“No, no, no Ripp-lee” – as if to tell John Ripley he did not quite get it all. Tapping his fingers over his own heart, he continued. “I am happy … in here. I am proud.”
Le Ba Binh, we are glad you are here.
Welcome home, Thieu Ta. Welcome home.
Richard Botkin, a member of the WorldNetDaily.com board of directors, was a Marine Corps infantry officer.