A Mournful Goodbye

Old soldiers might never die, and Marines certainly never fade away. On this Veterans’ Day, we remember two men: former Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert H. Barrow and retired Marine Col. John W. Ripley. They are legends to some, heroes to most.

They were beautiful and elegant and as large as their storied careers. Barrow was a three-war man, his roots in the Second World War. His Baton Rouge, La., drawl was as unmistakable as his presence, and one almost could  forgive his seeming secret desire to see all women in hoop skirts on porch swings. He retired in 1983 to his beloved Louisiana.

Ripley, a 1962 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., thought he’d die that day under the bridge at Dong Ha, Vietnam in 1972. His epic arm-over-arm advance, rigging hundreds of pounds of explosives and halting an enemy advance is immortalized in an odd, but heartfelt tribute — a diorama tucked away outside the gracious Memorial Hall at his alma mater. Countless hours have been spent staring at the tiny man beneath the tiny bridge and wondering what it really meant

Ripley lived to encounter a number of other challenges over the years. We remember a youthful colonel captured by the lens, resplendent in dress blues with belt and sword, (if we recall correctly), looking off to the side. The medal count says “hero,” but the photographer captured “humility.” Bathed in light, this is Ripley deified.

Years later the legend from the diorama looked nothing like the photo over which we obsessed. The Director of History and Museums for the Corps — history itself — was dying.

In 2002, Ripley lay in intensive care, in desperate need of a liver. One became available, but getting it from Philadelphia to Ripley who was clinging to life (this is not hyperbole) in Washington proved no small task. His sons called Gen. Jim Jones, USMC. The former commandant quickly cleared a Corps CH-46 to retrieve the organ and bring it back to Ripley. They succeeded.

And now he’s gone, as is Barrow, as are too many unnamed here, though, none fade from memory. Thank a vet. Hug a vet. Kiss a vet. They seem to leave too soon. 

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