The American war hero who also saved Korea

Ridgway (right) with his replacement as SACEUR at NATO, General Alfred Guenther. (Photo: NATO)
Ridgway (right) with his replacement as SACEUR at NATO, General Alfred Guenther. (Photo: NATO)

It's easy to forget when learning about military leaders that their careers often spanned multiple major conflicts. We often think about World War II generals without also considering their actions in previous or later wars, and this can cause us to miss the whole picture. One American commander whose importance simply cannot be constrained to his World War II record is General Matthew Ridgway (1895-1993).
 
Matthew Bunker Ridgway was born in Fort Monroe, Virginia. He applied to West Point to please his father, Colonel Thomas Ridgway, who was also a West Point graduate. He graduated in April, 1917, two weeks after America's entry into World War I, in the same class as future generals Norman Cota (Read our earlier article: The service of General Norman Cota) and J. Lawton Collins (Read our earlier article: General "Lightning" Joe Collins). Much to Ridgway's disappointment, he had to sit out the war, first at the Mexican border, then as a Spanish instructor at West Point. He complained about his lack of combat action, claiming that "the soldier who had had no share in this last great victory of good over evil would be ruined."

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Ridgway at West Point (Photo: U.S. Army)

History proved him wrong about having missed his chance. Ridgway spent the years between the two World Wars in a variety of routine positions, including a stint in Nicaragua, where he helped supervise free elections, and some time in the Philippines. He steadily climbed the ranks until being promoted to brigadier general in January 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II. He was assigned as Assistant Division Commander to the 82nd "All American" Division under Major General Omar Bradley. The 82nd had a proud history in World War I, and was in the process of being transformed into an airborne division. During the process, Bradley was appointed elsewhere, and Ridgway became the division commander.

The 82nd was an unprecedented experiment, as the United States had never converted an entire division to airborne service before. In fact, one of the reasons why the 82nd was picked for the job was that it was neither a Regular Army nor a National Guard unit, and traditionalist decision makers in those forces wanted to have nothing to do with the airborne experiment. Initially, Ridgway was not even a certified paratrooper, but he eventually earned the respect of his men by completing jump training.

Men from the 82nd Airborne Division checking their equipment before boarding their planes on the day before D-Day. (Photo: Signal Corps Archives)
Men from the 82nd Airborne Division checking their equipment before boarding their planes on the day before D-Day. (Photo: Signal Corps Archives)

Ridgway became known as a real "soldier's soldier," constantly fighting with bureaucrats for better supplies, jumping with his forces, leading from the front, lacing up the boots of a clumsy enlisted man, and just generally weathering all the hardships alongside his subordinates. He often repeated a deadly stunt to raise morale: he would stand in the middle of a road under heavy German artillery fire just to urinate in the open as a sign of his scorn of German accuracy.
 
The first true test of the 82nd under Ridgway was Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. It proved to be a sore test: due to factors outside Ridgway's control, including a catastrophic friendly fire incident when Allied ships opened fire on C-47s carrying paratroopers, the division suffered heavy casualties, and many of his men on the island lost contact. At one point, he had to report to General George S. Patton that out of the 5,300 people who have jumped into Sicily up to that point, he only had control over some 400.

Ridgway with members of his staff in Sicily (Photo: U.S. Army)
Ridgway with members of his staff in Sicily (Photo: U.S. Army)

Nevertheless, the 82nd proved itself a tough unit, and was given an important but ill-considered mission next. During the invasion of the Italian mainland, the division was to land on the outskirts of Rome and capture the Italian capital with a rapid and unexpected attack. Ridgway felt this was a suicide mission, as the landing zone was located between two German divisions. He argued against the mission and managed to get it cancelled a few hours before it was due to commence.
 
Ridgway and the 82nd next jumped in Normandy, during Operation Overlord. Jumping on the night before D-Day, the 82nd and the inexperienced 101st Airborne Division had to capture a variety of strategically important locations behind German lines in preparation of the landings in the morning (Read our earlier article – Jumping into chaos). Fighting in the bocage, the typical thick hedgerows of Normandy, the 82nd suffered 46 percent casualties over 33 days of advance.

Ridgway (left) with General James Gavin during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: U.S. Army)
Ridgway (left) with General James Gavin during the Battle of the Bulge (Photo: U.S. Army)

In August 1944, Ridgway was given command of the XVIII Airborne Corps, a larger unit that comprised both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions along with other forces. The two divisions fought in Operation Market Garden, the doomed operation to cut across the Netherlands before the winter of 1944-45 could set in and freeze the frontlines. During this and other European operations, Ridgway served under British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Monty was infamously difficult to get along with, but Ridgway was one of the few American commanders who had a good working relationship with him. "He gave me the general outline of what he wanted and let me completely free" – he once praised the Field Marshal. On another occasion, he stated "I don't know anybody who could give me more complete support than Monty did when I was under British command twice."

Ridgway (right) with Field Marshal Montgomery (center) and General Collins (Photo: U.S. Army Center for Military History)
Ridgway (right) with Field Marshal Montgomery (center) and General Collins (Photo: U.S. Army Center for Military History)

Still in Europe, Ridgway's forces fought in the Battle of the Bulge – the 101st Airborne famously held the town of Bastogne, while other forces from the XVII Airborne Corps helped stop then push back the German advance elsewhere. In the spring of 1945, Ridgway led his corps into Germany during Operation Plunder, the crossing of the Rhine. After hostilities ended in Europe, Ridgway flew to the Pacific, but saw no action there, as the war ended with the nuclear bombing of Japan.
 
General Matthew Ridgway became one of the most famous American generals of World War II, but his finest moment was still yet to come. In December 1950, General Walton Walker, commander of the Eighth United States Army in Korea, died in a traffic accident, and Ridgway was sent as his replacement. (As an interesting note, a hotel for U.S. troops was named after General Walker in the German town of Berchtesgaden, located below Hitler's famous mountain retreat, the Eagle's Nest. The building was used to host parties for Nazi dignitaries in the 1930s, then served as a military hospital during World War II. The General Walker Hotel was demolished after the withdrawal of American forces in 2001.)

General Walton Walker (right), whose untimely death indirectly caused a reversal of fortune for the Eighth Army in Korea. (Photo: U.S. military)
General Walton Walker (right), whose untimely death indirectly caused a reversal of fortune for the Eighth Army in Korea. (Photo: U.S. military)

The Eighth Army was in dire straits at the time. Earlier in the Korean War, General of the Army and overall commander of the U.N. forces in Korea Douglas MacArthur sent the army into North Korea, then left it in an exposed position. In October 1950, China entered the war with an unexpected and overwhelmingly powerful advance which sent the Eighth Army retreating.
 
Ridgway arrived in Tokyo on Christmas Day. MacArthur gave him free reign of the Eighth Army, but encouraged him to retreat to a series of defensive positions, then to hold Seoul as long as he could before pulling out. Ridgway asked if he could attack if the combat situation was to his liking. "Eighth Army is yours, Matt. Do what you think best" – MacArthur replied.
 
Always aggressive, Ridgway immediately began to turn the situation around. During one of his first briefings at I Corps, the corps operations officer presented him with various defensive plans. When asked about offensive plans, the man said there weren't any. Ridgway replaced him within a few days.

General Ridgway (in back of jeep) with Generals Doyle Hickey and Douglas MacArthur (in front) in Korea, some 15 miles north of the 38th parallel. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
General Ridgway (in back of jeep) with Generals Doyle Hickey and Douglas MacArthur (in front) in Korea, some 15 miles north of the 38th parallel. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Ridgway also started replacing officers who did not send out patrols to find the enemy. He went over the maps and removed any marked enemy locations that haven't actually been contacted recently, and where the enemy might not have been present anymore. Worn-out division commanders were rotated out and replaced by fresh ones. He instructed commanders to spend less time at their command posts in the rear and more time with the troops in the front lines. He also considered the needs of the rank-and-file: he made sure that hot food and winter clothing was available to everyone. Lost gloves would be replaced, no questions asked. He even had stationary and envelopes flown in by helicopter so soldiers could write to their families.

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General Ridgway (left) with other officers on a pontoon bridge in Korea (Photo: U.S. Army)

Ridgway's intervention and activity managed to rejuvenate the Eighth Army, putting it back in the fight. The Communist advance was stopped, and a counteroffensive pushed the frontline back to the 38th parallel, where the border between South and North Korea stands to this day. The United Nations war effort in Korea was saved.
 
Always prepared for combat, Ridgway earned the nickname "Tin Tits" for his habit of attaching a hand grenade and a first aid kit to his shoulder straps at chest level. Once MacArthur was relieved of command in April 1951, Ridgway replaced him at the head of all United Nations forces in the country. As head of the Far East Command of the U.S. Department of Defense, he oversaw the racial desegregation and integration of U.S. Army units in the Far East, which in turn helped the process along in the rest of the military. As the military governor of Japan, another position he inherited from MacArthur, Ridgway also oversaw the restoration of Japan's independence and sovereignty in 1952.

Photo of "Tin Tits" with his grenade and first aid kit (Photo: NATO)
Photo of "Tin Tits" with his grenade and first aid kit (Photo: NATO)

His next task was to help create NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) in NATO was Dwight Eisenhower, but he left the position to pursue his Presidential campaign in 1952. His place in NATO was filled by Ridgway. Ridgway worked hard to turn the nascent organization into a serious fighting force against the Soviet Union. In his 400 days as SACEUR, he managed to lay the groundwork for NATO's military might, even though he had to sail against the wind: in this highly diplomatic position, his blunt honesty rubbed many people the wrong way, and many Europeans considered him a warmonger. Even his own deputy and old wartime friend, Field Marshal Montgomery, criticized him for surrounding himself with too many American staff members in what was supposed to be an international undertaking.

SACEUR Ridgway and his deputy, DSACEUR Montgomery (Photo: NATO)
SACEUR Ridgway and his deputy, DSACEUR Montgomery (Photo: NATO)

Ridgway did much to bring West Germany into NATO, and to pardon many former World War II German officers convicted for war crimes on the Eastern Front. He once noted that he gave orders in Korea of the same kind that German generals were in prison for.
 
In 1953, Ridgway succeeded his old West Point classmate J. Lawton Collins as the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. Just like in NATO, he came to butt heads in America as well – with then-President Eisenhower among others. Ridgway disagreed with Ike's policy of reducing conventional forces and argued that air power and a nuclear arsenal would not be enough to deter Soviet aggression.

General Ridgway receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge from Colin Powell. (Photo: National Military Archives)
General Ridgway receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge from Colin Powell. (Photo: National Military Archives)

In 1954, when Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese forces besieged the French military base at Dien Bien Phu, some elements within the military and in the cabinet (including Vice President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) tried to persuade Eisenhower to intervene on the French side by dropping tactical nuclear bombs. Ridgway argued hard against the idea. Eventually, the plan was dropped, though not solely because of Ridgway's argument: Winston Churchill, who became British Prime Minister in the 50s once more after having been ousted from power at the end of World War II, refused to join the operation, and Congress in turn did not want to approve a unilateral American nuclear attack.

French soldiers in a trench during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Photo: public domain)
French soldiers in a trench during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Photo: public domain)

Later, in the late 1960s, Ridgway became one of the "Wise Men," an informal group that advised President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Vietnam War. In this status, Ridgway was one of the men who eventually convinced Johnson to seek a diplomatic solution, as a purely military victory was growing more and more out of reach.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (with back to camera) meeting the Wise Men, his informal advisors on Vietnam. Ridgway is not on the photo, but was a member of the group. (Photo: look.substack.com)
President Lyndon B. Johnson (with back to camera) meeting the Wise Men, his informal advisors on Vietnam. Ridgway is not on the photo, but was a member of the group. (Photo: look.substack.com)

In 1991, two years before his death, Ridgway was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge. This decoration is not normally awardable to general officers, as it is restricted to colonels and ranks below. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, however, decided to make an exception and award him the badge. On being presented with the badge, Ridgeway said: "This is the only decoration that I have ever coveted or ever wanted."
 
Matthew Ridgway died of a cardiac arrest at the age of 98, in 1993. He rests at Arlington National Cemetery. During his funeral, General Colin Powell said: "No soldier ever performed his duty better than this man. No soldier ever upheld his honor better than this man. No soldier ever loved his country more than this man did. Every American soldier owes a debt to this great man."

General Ridgway's grave at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: Arlington National Cemetery)
General Ridgway's grave at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: Arlington National Cemetery)

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