Forgotten General of the Week: Matthew B. Ridgway
No country can remember all of its greatest heroes off the top of their heads. It just isn't possible. Only the ones that stick out in history either for great victories, disastrous defeats or flamboyant attitude are recalled with a certain smile or cringe by the masses. Nobody really stops to look deeper at the less appreciated men and women who made their names not to the publics they served but to the soldiers they led. They deserve every bit the praise as the Napoleons, Alexanders, Lees and Pattons of history. Who better to lead it off than a 20th century veteran named Matthew B. Ridgway?
Missing out on the Great War
Military life began as somewhat of a disappointment for Ridgway. Born and bred by his father Thomas to become a soldier, Ridgway entered and later graduated from the prestigious U.S. military academy at West Point. This earned him a commission as a Second Lieutenant into the army in 1917. Not only did he feel his chance had come to join the fight over in Europe during World War I, or the "Great War," it was also the year he married girlfriend Julia Blount. However, despite several divisions shipping over to France in 1918 to stop the final German offensives, Ridgway was relegated to instructor duty at West Point, teaching Spanish to the cadets. It was the biggest disappoint of his life, saying "the soldier who had had no share in this last great victory of good over evil would be ruined."
Discouraged but not deterred, Ridgway spent the 1920s working his way up the peacetime ranks. In an amazing twist of irony that no one would recognize, he gained command of a company in the 15th Infantry regiment that was stationed in China. Each successful mission earned him another step up the ladder until Chief of Staff of the Army George C. Marshall assigned him to the War Plans Division when World War II broke out. While not the most celebrated unit in the army, it did get Ridgway familiar with the knowledge of overall strategic planning in the defense of his country in times of war. These lessons would serve him well.
Sicily and Normandy
Not until late 1942 did Matthew finally get his chance at commanding a unit in combat. His first assignment was none other than the newly formed 82nd Airborne division. The task ahead of him was to turn the troops not just into paratroopers but effective combat-ready soldiers. Not only did he accomplish this task, but he did it without any prior knowledge of paratroop tactics. When the division was ready by early 1943 Ridgway got his chance to put it to the test. In concert with the famed generals George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, Ridgway had a hand in helping plan the Allied invasion of Sicily. The success of that operation lent him not just valuable information in fighting against Germany, but also some latitude with his commanders.
This came up rather quickly when the Allied command considered dropping the 82nd on the outskirts of Rome during the invasion of Italy. The idea was to seize the capital and force the fascist government of Benito Mussolini to capitulate. Ridgway showed his willingness to question orders by arguing strongly against the operation, believing the German were much too reinforced in the area to permit it. In the end he got his way and as 1943 wound down, his division was moved north to the southern shores of Great Britain.
There he joined in the master planning for the famed D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. On the morning of June 6th, Ridgway stepped onto the plane with his men and jumped into Nazi-occupied territory. From there, for the next 33 days, he commanded the 82nd through fierce battles in the harsh bocage country of northern France. As fortunes began to favor the Allies, Ridgway earned another promotion to command of an Airborne corps comprised of the 82nd and 101st paratroop divisions. His next big jump came during Operation Market Garden, when the Allies attempted to punch a hole through Belgium and Holland to the RhineRiver and Germany. While his corps fulfilled their objectives, the operation was ultimately a failure as the Germans were able to counterattack to prevent an advance to the Rhine.
The Battle of the Bulge
By December of 1944 things appeared all but over. The Allies were closing in on the western German border while the Soviet Army was advancing through Poland towards the from the east. What nobody knew at that point was the always stubborn Wehrmacht army had a surprise in store. During a blinding blizzard and heavy cloud cover, a massive assault spearheaded by German tanks burst through the Ardennes forest in western France and Belgium with the intent to split the American and British forces apart. Ridgway was ordered straight into the action despite assurances his tired men would get some rest. He sent his trusted 82nd north where they played a critical role in stopping the German pincer closing from that direction. At the same time he sent the 101st into small crossroads town in Belgium called Bastogne where they were eventually surrounded. Ridgway made sure their order were clear. They could not surrender the town until they were all dead. Later historians would write the stand at Bastogne is what won the Battle of the Bulge and ended Germany's last hope for victory.
Amazingly the career soldier hadn't seen his brightest moment yet. Promoted to lieutenant general, he spent his post-war years in the sunny paradise of Caribbean command. As this went on hostilities boiled over in an unknown part of the world called Korea. There, Communist forces of the North Korean nation invaded the democratic South with heavy backing from both China and the Soviet Union. This aggression drew immediate response from the United Nations who sent forces into the region to prevent a Northern victory. Led by legendary U.S. general Douglass MacArthur, the U.N. troops overcame early struggles to turn back the North and drove them back across the original border of the 38th parallel.
Unfortunately a grave miscalculation by U.N. leaders saw their forces get hammered out of nowhere my massive Communist reinforcements from China after they crossed the paralell into the north. During the bitter retreat in the winter of 1950, commander of the 8th Army, General Walton Walker, was killed in a car accident. Ridgway, working in the Pentagon at the time, was summoned to the Far East to take over for him. The situation when he arrived was desperate. MacArthur met with him on Christmas in Japan before the command became official. He explained that Ridgway had full control of what his army could do, but he was expected to do what he could to establish a defensive perimeter around the South Korean capital of Seoul. Not one to miss an opportunity, Ridgway displayed his typical flair for action when he asked MacArthur if he was cleared to attack if he saw the chance. MacArthur did not object.
The 8th Army by that point was battered, frozen and dispirited from the retreat. Matthew understood he could do nothing until morale was restored first. During one of the first meeting with his staff, he asked what plans they had in place for attacking. The answer he got from the operations officer was there were no such plans. Ridgway, rather infamously, replaced him on the spot. He also began using his World War II experience to rotate exhausted troops and officers out of the front line to give them rest while fresher units took over. Commanders were also ordered to do their work at the front line instead of in headquarters behind it. These moves had an almost instant positive impact on the troops.
Perhaps his most critical change to the Korean theater was a simple one. Understanding how the massive formations of the Chinese operated, he began to use superior U.N. artillery to blanket every Communist advance against his lines. The casualties China absorbed were horrendous. This forced their advance south to halt. By spring of 1951 Ridgway fulfilled his original goal. The 8th Army went on the attack, pushing the Communists back into North Korea. For this he soon replaced MacArthur in overall command of U.N. forces. As the advances died down into localized fighting by 1952, Ridgway was given one last problem to fix. He took overall command of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in response to the dangerous buildup of Soviet military power in Eastern Europe. Ridgway showed his typical organizational ability, establishing an effective command structure and improving training of a growing collection of troops. Some might say this last active job overseas had a major impact on keeping the Soviets in check in Europe during the Cold War.
He was no mad dasher for glory but Matthew Ridgway embodied the success of the American military system. While not perfect, the one thing it does better than most is produce fighting men who know what their job is and how to accomplish it. This he did with the same bravery and brilliance as any great name in history.