By the Spring of 1972, nearly all American combat troops had left Vietnam. U.S. Navy ships still patrolled the coast and U.S. aircraft still flew overhead, but the only Americans who remained in ground combat were Marine forward observers, a dwindling number of advisors to South Vietnamese combat units, and a few Air Cavalry units.
Because of President Nixonâ€™s Vietnamization program, it was unlikely that any American ground units were likely to be reintroduced. This gave the North Vietnamese free reign to step up military activity and deal with the South in their own way.
By the Spring of 1972, the NVA buildup was complete. Nearly 30,000 soldiers and 200 tanks, part of a multi-pronged attack on the South, were poised at the DMZ.
Facing them was the Third ARVN Division and two brigades of South Vietnamese Marines. The ARVN units were newly formed, with untested leaders, uncertain staff officers, and men whose fighting spirit was flagging. The VNMC brigades, in sharp contrast, were battle hardened, and constituted part of South Vietnamâ€™s elite national reserve, along with Vietnamese Ranger and Airborne Divisions.
On March 30, 1972 the NVA launched their 1972 Easter Offensive, and the Third Vietnamese Marine Corps Battalion was ordered to Dong Ha to plug the critical artery over the Cua Viet River. If the South Vietnamese were going to have any chance, the 700 men of the Third Battalion would have to stop the NVA at Dong Ha.
Leading the Third Battalion was Major Le Ba Bihn, whose personal combat record was remarkable by anyoneâ€™s standards. Heâ€™d been wounded 12 times, decorated with seven Crosses of Gallantry, and had been awarded the National Order, Knightâ€™s Cross. Bihn wasnâ€™t sweating out a one year tour. He was in it until the end. For him and the other Vietnamese Marines, the only honorable way out was feet first.
His U.S. Marine Advisor, co-van (trusted friend), was Naval Academy graduate Captain John Ripley. In 1967, Ripley led a rifle company through almost a year of intensive combat along the DMZ. He later commanded a company of Great Britain Royal Marines, during an exchange tour of duty, had completed special training at the U.S. Army Ranger and Airborne Schools, and had trained with Navy Seal underwater demolition teams. Ripley also served with a Marine Corps Force Recon Company.
Three-Finger Jack was Major Bihnâ€™s senior bodyguard. He attained his nickname and title after facing down Binhâ€™s at the time senior bodyguard, months earlier. The senior bodyguard was heaping a stream of abuse on Jack, saying he was undeserving, had no courage, and his loyalty was not pure. Jack approached the senior bodyguard, and pulled his fighting knife. Without changing expression or looking away, Jack wrapped the forefinger of his left hand around the blade. As he smiled arrogantly and triumphantly Jack, with one quick motion, severed his finger, sending it flying. Keeping his eyes fixed on his antagonist Jack held his mutilated hand in the other manâ€™s face and said, â€śToday, I cut off my finger for Thieu-ta Binh. Someday, I die for him.â€ť Two days later, they found the corpse of the senior bodyguard. His throat had been slit, and his own knife had been plunged into his chest. Jack became senior bodyguard.
Nha, Ripleyâ€™s radio man, was never far away. For months, he and Ripley had shared the same fighting hole, the same rice bowl, and the same poncho. Not knowing each others languages very well, they relied on facial expressions and body language. Nha could almost read Ripleyâ€™s mind, and was his anh nho, his little brother. Nha served as Ripleyâ€™s sole link with the outside world. Nha and his radio were the only way Ripley could stay in contact with those who could save them, with artillery, naval gunfire, air strikes, or reinforcements. The bind between the two was extremely close.
My long-term (and getting longer by the day) plan was/is to recount the entire story of how Captain John Riley and Army Major James Smock, Advisor to the Vietnamese 20th Tank Battalion, destroyed the Bridge at Dong Ha, a feat that won them both a Navy Cross.
Ripleyâ€™s bridge destroying mission was considered â€śone of the most extraordinary acts of individual heroism of the Vietnam War, or of any warâ€ť. Ripleyâ€™s heroic action at Dong Ha was selected as the single act to memorialize the actions of all Naval Academy graduates during the entire Vietnam War.
Major Smock wonâ€™t be a hard figure to bash as, when he showed up with the tanks of the 20th Tank Battalion, all he was wearing was his utilities and jungle boots. No helmet, weapon, body armor, or web gear.
In order to â€śfinishâ€ť my series, I figure itâ€™ll take at least 14 episodes, 75 pictures, a steel and girder bridge (before and after), sections of the destroyed town of Dong Ha, a good-sized river, at least one more Vietnam Marine (Bihnâ€™s RTO), a couple refugees, and a small NVA unit. Vietnamese and NVA tanks are probably out of the question.
Four days after Ripley had cut the highway structure, a vehicle with five journalists and two cameramen jumped out, converging on Ripley with microphones, and started peppering him with questions.
Ripley strongly advised the journalists to leave now but, instead, they remained, pressing closer.
The silence was shattered by a series of sharp cracks, and the ground erupting in geysers as NVA mortar rounds started hitting.
Less than 50 yards away, Major Smock was crumpled in a heap, seriously wounded and Nha was dead.
Three-Finger Jack died after the breakout at Dong Ha. After taking up defensive positions at the Ai Tu combat base, Major Bihn and Ripley had led reinforcements into no-manâ€™s land, directing fire support from Brigade, while two rifle companies were withdrawing under heavy NVA pressure.
A white flare, signaling a final NVA assault, revealed Bihnâ€™s command group. As an NVA platoon advanced on their position, Jack and two other Vietnamese Marines rushed to meet the enemy head-on, while others pulled Bihn and Ripley to safety inside the tactical wire.
No one could see the hand-to-hand combat between the Marines and the NVA, but they could hear it. The next morning, they recovered the bodies of the three Marines, with three dozen enemy soldiers heaped around them. Jack held his carbine in one hand, his fighting knife in the other.
The NVAâ€™s failure to cross the bridge at Dong Ha led to a bloody stalemate. It would take three years for North Vietnam to regroup and prepare for their final invasion and conquest of South Vietnam.
Major Bihn and his Marines fought the communists right up until and past April 30, 1975. Bihn was captured, and sentenced to a â€śre-education campâ€ť Bihn labored in the camp for a time period six times longer than Americaâ€™s involvement in WW II. He labored through the terms of five American Presidents. From 1975 until his release and subsequent movement to the U.S. in 1998, Bihn labored, ever defiant, never broken.
During the 49 year anniversary celebration of the creation of the VNMC, Bihn was presented a Silver Star by James Ripley, from President Bush, for his actions at Dong Ha. Today, Bihn is a U.S citizen living with his family in Texas.
Besides maintaining his close ties to members of the Vietnamese Marine Corps and his fellow Covans, Ripley served as the Director of Marine Corps History and Museums, and as Director of the Marine Corps Historical Center. In 2002, Col. Ripley became the first Marine officer to receive the â€śDistinguished Graduate Award,â€ť the highest and most prestigious award given by the Naval Academy. Ripley has lectured widely on combat leadership, performance in adversity and the value of humanities, classics and liberal arts.