COLONEL RIPLEY, USMC
John Ripley's worthless liver had left his skin a sickly yellow. Toxic fluids were
collecting in his system, causing his lean frame to bloat: Once 175 pounds,
he now weighed 425. His kidneys were failing. An incision glared from his
abdomen, closed with staples in case surgeons had to rip it open fast.
Eighteen IV lines fed into his unconscious body.
One of the Marine Corps' greatest living heroes was dying.
In the intensive care unit at Georgetown University Medical Center, a son of
the retired colonel, Tom Ripley, sat vigil. It was 7 A.M. when the phone rang:
A donor liver had been found, but his father might not live long enough to get
That's when the Ripleys understood that the delivery of the liver, from a
16-year-old gunshot victim in Philadelphia to the dying veteran in
Washington, would take too long if left in the hospital's hands. Their only
thought: Call in the Marines.
Over the next hours on that day last month, saving John Ripley's life became
a military mission. It would involve the leader of the Marine Corps and
helicopters from the president's fleet. Support teams would come from police
in two cities, a platoon of current and former Marines, the president of
Georgetown University and even a crew of construction workers.
"Sir, this is my dad's last chance," Tom Ripley said in a call to the Marine
commandant's office. "I'm measuring my father's life in hours, not days."
The extraordinary efforts to save the 63-year-old Ripley, recovering from
transplant surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington,
shows how far the Corps will go to protect one of its own.
Marines will say they'd do this for any fallen comrade. But Ripley is no
ordinary Marine. In a messy war with few widely recognized heroes, he is a
legend. And at his moment of need, the Corps treated him like one.
"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
A heroic effort
On Easter Sunday 1972, Col. John Walter Ripley - swinging arm over arm to
attach explosives to the span while dangling beneath it - almost
single-handedly destroyed a bridge near the South Vietnamese City of Dong
Ha. The action, which took place under heavy fire over several hours as he
ran back and forth to shore for materials, is thought to have thwarted the
onslaught of 20,000 enemy troops.
His tale is required reading for every Naval plebe. In Memorial Hall, Ripley, a
1962 academy graduate, is the only Marine featured from the Vietnam War: A
diorama shows him clinging to the grid work of the bridge at Dong Ha.
Ripley received the Navy Cross, the second-highest award a Marine can
receive for combat. That decoration is surpassed only by the Congressional
Medal of Honor, which, many in the Marine Corps vigorously argue, Ripley
But on this July morning, three decades after surviving combat wounds,
Ripley was facing death from a transportation problem. His doctors tried four
civilian organ transportation agencies and could not immediately be
guaranteed a helicopter by any of them. The Ripleys say they were told that a
civilian helicopter would not be available for at least six hours. Driving to
Philadelphia was not an option because doctors worried that any traffic
delays would ruin the organ.
Tom Ripley saw only one solution. From his father's hospital room, he called
the office of the Marine Corps commandant, James L. Jones, and secured the
use of a CH-46 helicopter, which is part of the presidential Marine One fleet.
The plan: The chopper would ferry the transplant team to the University of
Pennsylvania hospital to remove the donor liver and then transport the
doctors back to Washington.
Marine lawyers instantly approved the use of military materiel for Ripley,
including nearly three hours on a helicopter that costs up to $6,000 an hour
to operate. The commandant considered this an official lifesaving mission for
a retired Marine still valuable to the Corps as a living symbol of pride.
Action was swift. The doctors rushed to Anacostia Naval Air Station, where
the helicopter was waiting, rotors spinning. The chopper took off before the
surgeons were even strapped in. By about 10 A.M., just three hours after
learning that a new liver would be available in Philadelphia, the transplant
team was swooping into that city. On the landing pad, an ambulance and a
Philadelphia Highway Patrol car, both summoned by the Marines, were
waiting. The motorcade took off, sirens blaring.
"When you're in a situation like this, and an organ becomes available, you
use the fastest resource to get it," said Dr. Cal Matsumodo, a transplant
surgeon from Walter Reed who flew on the helicopter to retrieve the new liver.
"This turned out to be the swiftest and best-organized effort that I've ever
Ripley's original liver had been ruined by a rare genetic disease as well as by
a case of Hepatitis B that he believes he contracted in Vietnam. After a
year-and-a-half of hospitalizations and infections, Ripley had received a new
liver from a D.C. area donor July 22. But within hours of the surgery, that
donor liver began to fail.
Medical professionals say the organ donation process is safeguarded to keep
powerful people from skipping to the top of the waiting list. It was Ripley's
critical condition - caused by the failure of the first donor liver, his doctors say
- not his personal story, that put him first in line for another liver July 24. Still,
most new organs are never granted military escorts.
"It was clearly extraordinary, what they did," said Roger Brown, manager of
the Organ Center at the United Network for Organ Sharing, a clearinghouse
for organ procurement and allocation. Sometimes, Brown said, patients will
die because available organs cannot be transported to them in time.
"There's a lot of work that goes into matching a donor with a patient," he said.
"If you can't find that one piece of the puzzle, it's just devastating."
In Ripley's mind, the mission that day reflects the strength of the Marine
Corps fraternity. As he convalesces at Walter Reed, where he went after his
operation and is listed in stable condition, he summons his booming voice
long enough to insist that Marines would do the same for even an unknown
grunt. "Does it surprise me that the Marine Corps would do this?" Ripley said
from his hospital bed, his dog tags still hanging around his neck. "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
In Philadelphia, though, the Marine pilots knew exactly whom they were
helping, and they called it an honor. On the helipad, the flight crew stood
ready as the transplant team rushed back with a box marked "HUMAN
Moments later, Tom Ripley, traveling with the doctors, got an update from his
oldest brother, Stephen, at his father's bedside. Their dad's condition was
worsening. The organ had to get to Washington, fast.
Tom and Stephen, both former Marine captains, debated the quickest "rtb" -
return to base, which in this case meant the Georgetown hospital. In pager
messages fired off like battlefield dispatches, the chopper became "the bird"
and the doctors the "pax," slang for passengers. As the day wore on, the
brothers drew from their military roots, comforting each other with the Marine
motto, Semper Fidelis.
Their father, meanwhile, lay still. His dog tags, fastened with the same tape
he'd used to keep them from clanking on secret missions in Vietnam, had
been removed. Twice, the family had summoned a Catholic priest to deliver
last rites. Now, the Ripleys wondered whether a third might be needed.
The hours ticked away, and the family learned that the Marine helicopter was
too big to land on the Georgetown hospital helipad. But the doctors feared
getting stuck in traffic on the drive from the
Anacostia helipad to the hospital.
A well-connected Marine buddy of Ripley's called the president of
Georgetown University and got permission to land on the school's football
field. A construction crew standing nearby was soon ripping down fencing to
make room. But the Marines rejected that makeshift helipad after sending
another helicopter to survey it. The area was deemed too crowded for a
landing. At one point, the Ripleys suggested landing at the Marine Corps War
Memorial, across the river from Georgetown, by the statue that depicts
Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. But that fanciful notion went nowhere.
The answer finally came in the form of a D.C. police helicopter pilot - Sgt.
Thomas Hardy, a former Marine. A Corps official found him and asked
whether he would take the team from Anacostia to Georgetown on his smaller
"This was a Marine Corps mission," said Hardy, a Vietnam veteran who
agreed to fly without hesitation. "Once a Marine," he explained, "always a
Marine." The organ delivered, the surgery could finally start. The next day,
Ripley's recovery began.
Slowly, he is gaining strength and returning to a normal weight. Despite the
surgery's success, risks of infection or other problems remain. His family
expects him to be in the hospital for up to three
more weeks. Ripley rests quietly, unable to accept visitors. His wife of 37
years, Moline, sits with him amid pictures of their four children and their
The sons who orchestrated this rescue operation call it a culminating moment
in their father's military life. John Ripley was shot in the side by a North Viet
Nam sniper and during his tour on duty was pierced with so much shrapnel
that doctors found metal fragment in his body as recently as last year. After
Vietnam, Ripley continued to serve, losing most of the pigment in his face
from severe sunburns while stationed above the Arctic Circle.
The Marines, his family believes, repaid a longtime debt. "Dad gave 32 years
of his life to the Marine Corps," said Stephen Ripley. "When he really, really
needed the Marine Corps, they were there for him."
Even from the quiet of his hospital room, the Marine Corps still defines Ripley.
His family has packed a cabinet by his bed with copies of a book that John
Grider Miller wrote about Ripley's heroics; Ripley says he will give
complimentary copies of The Bridge at Dong Ha to the medical staff.
Not long ago, a military color guard held a bedside ceremony for him, placing
in the room the Marine Corps colors that normally hang in Commandant
Jones' office. Ripley was urged to keep the flags in his room until he leaves
the hospital. On a recent afternoon, Ripley looked past his IV machine, past
the uneaten hospital lunch, past the plastic cup of pills, to the flags. He was,
at that moment, John Ripley, grateful warrior, awed by what his sons, and the
Marines, had done. "They reached over the side," he said, "and they pulled
me back in the boat."
Ellen Gamerman, Sun National Staff
Colonel Ripley, USMC