Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

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He sat throughout the night of September 3 discussing the operation with General W. Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, and with Italian military representatives. The Italian officers promised to deliver seven hundred trucks and thousands of gallons of fuel to the fields, to have telephones, picks, shovels, wire, and civilian laborers on hand, to clear the Tiber River so that an amphibious task force could land, and to silence the coastal antiaircraft guns over which the transport planes would have to fly. Ridgway read in their faces that they could not fulfill those commitments. In a private talk with Smith he poured out his misgivings; Smith listened sympathetically and arranged for him to meet with Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, supreme commander in the Mediterranean.

“I stated my case as earnestly and persuasively as I could,” Ridgway says. “I admired General Alexander. He was the last man off the beach at Dunkirk. When I was NATO commander eight years later, we became friends, and once, with a grin, he actually offered to fire my deputy if I wished, the deputy being Field Marshal Montgomery and the offer being one I appreciated but of course declined. But on this occasion Alexander gave me a fast brush-off. He did it in a casual way, scarcely seeming to listen to what I had to say. When he dismissed me, he said: ‘Don’t give it another thought, Ridgway. Contact will be made with your division in three days. Five days at the most.’”

Ridgway was now in one of the crudest dilemmas a commander can face. He could conclude that he had done his best and should now obey orders, even though he felt they represented an unreasonable risk and would pointlessly destroy his division as a fighting unit. Or he could persist in his objections, run the risk of censure, and perhaps see his men leave on the suicidal mission without him, under another commander. He discussed the situation with his division artillery commander, Brigadier General Maxwell D. Taylor, who had been with him at the September i briefing at Siracusa and at the conference with the Italian officers. They both agreed that more intelligence was essential, and together they went to Bedell Smith with the proposal that a reliable officer be sent secretly into Rome to meet with Premier Badoglio and learn from him whether he could give the essential help that was being promised in his name. Alexander rejected the idea as too risky.

Ridgway ordered his division to prepare for the Rome drop, now only a few days away, but he and Taylor once again went to Smith with a renewed request that some way be found to reconsider the operation. Taylor volunteered to make the secret trip to Rome. Smith went back to Alexander again—this time, Ridgway believes, with some added arguments of his own. Alexander finally agreed to submit the matter to Eisenhower, the supreme commander. Eisenhower decided to send Taylor to Rome on the mission. (“The risks he ran,” Eisenhower said later, “were greater than I asked any other agent or emissary to undertake during the war.”) With Taylor went William T. Gardiner, a colonel in the Troop Carrier Command, a well-known New England lawyer and a former governor of Maine, who had become interested in flying at age forty-five. If Taylor and Gardiner learned that the airdrop was feasible, they were to stay and arrange for safe delivery of the airfields to the incoming paratroopers. If not, they were to radio back a message in the clear containing the word innocuous .

In uniform, carrying musette bags and a radio, they boarded a British PT boat and were taken to the island of Ustica, where they were transferred to an Italian corvette that landed them at Gaeta. In the guise of captured airmen they travelled in a military ambulance some seventy-five miles to Rome. They were shocked at what they learned from Badoglio, General Carboni, and other officers. The Italians had expected a full-scale landing by sea, followed by a massive airdrop. The Germans knew of the planned operation, were reinforcing their units around Rome, and had cut back on supplies of gasoline and ammunition to their Italian allies. The Italian forces could hold back the Germans for no more than twelve hours, after which Rome would be overrun. A landing of an American paratroop force appeared to be suicidal. And Badoglio had now decided not to announce that Italy was signing an armistice.

On various departure fields in Sicily and Tunis the Troop Carrier Wing had its c-47’s in formation, and six thousand paratroopers were loading their equipment containers and making a last check on orders, plans, rations, ammunition, and weapons. Ridgway had written his last letters, said his last good-byes, and talked with the division chaplain. He was waiting, playing cribbage with Colonel Ralph P. Eaton, his chief of staff, when, twenty minutes before the first planes were to take off, General Lyman Lemnitzer appeared on the field. Taylor’s message had been received; it contained the word innocuous ; and Lemnitzer, fearing a delay or miscarriage in his radio message, had boarded a plane at Eisenhower’s headquarters and brought the information personally. The wing commander was ordered to stand by. Giant II was postponed and then cancelled. The invasion of Salerno, however, took place the next morning as scheduled.

Ridgway has written in his memoirs: “When the time comes that I must meet my Maker, the source of most humble pride to me will [be] … the fact that I was guided to make the decision to oppose this thing, at the risk of my career, right up to the top. I deeply and sincerely believe that by taking the stand I took we saved the lives of thousands of brave men.”