Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

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Ridgway left Washington again to take a field officer’s refresher course in Fort Benning, arriving there on a notable Sunday morning—December 7, 1941. A few months later, with the nation at war, he succeeded Omar Bradley as a two-star general in command of the reactivated Sand Infantry Division. When a special messenger from Washington asked Ridgway: “How would you like to turn this division into an airborne outfit?” he replied: “I’ve never heard of one, but I would be happy to do it.” He hied himself to Fort Benning and—at age forty-seven—made his first parachute jump to see what it was like. To his dubious infantrymen he said: “It was the most glorious feeling in the world. You feel like the lord of creation floating way up above the earth.” He did not dwell on his first landing, which he says was like jumping off the top of a moving freight car onto a hard clay roadbed. On May 10, 1943, he and his division, now the Sand Airborne, disembarked at Casablanca and resumed their training operations in fields around Oujda in Morocco.

The Germans had made the first large-scale parachute and glider assault in taking Crete from the British in May, 1941, with casualties so heavy that they never again tried such an operation. The second large assault, and the first large night drop in history, was made by part of the Sand Airborne Division in the Sicily campaign on July 10, 1943, three hours before the beach assault. Ridgway went ashore from General Patton’s command ship and proceeded inland on foot with a sergeant and an aide to find his troopers, set up a command post, and get on with the business of helping to clean up the western end of the island. The and Armored Division was assigned to take Palermo, but when its tank patrols roared into the town square, they were applauded derisively by Sand Division paratroopers who had been there for some time.

The airdrop in Sicily had serious defects: the twentyeight hundred troopers had been too widely dispersed, and there were other errors that cost lives. But the drop served its purpose by disrupting and delaying German reinforcements that might have dislodged the beachhead. “From that time forward,” Ridgway says,