Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

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The 82nd landed at and dropped into the Salerno area on eight hours’ notice and, fighting as a light-infantry division, received much of the credit for saving that beachhead. When Naples fell on October 6, Ridgway entered the city with General Clark, standing with him in the turret of an antitank vehicle. Allied ground troops reached Rome, not in five days, but nine months after the cancellation of Giant II.

In England in the spring of 1944, while planning and training for the invasion of Normandy, Ridgway fought as hard to have his division used as he had earlier fought against its misuse. (His 504th Parachute Regiment had been held in Italy to fight at Anzio, which caused no little confusion in the German intelligence offices.) Plans called for sending in seventeen thousand airborne troops on D-day—the ioist under Taylor to drop near Carentan, the Sand under Ridgway to drop near Ste. Mère-Église, eight miles inland from Utah Beach. The British Air Chief Marshal, Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, opposed the American drop as too dangerous. He told Montgomery, Bradley, and Eisenhower that the c-47’s, flying in at six hundred feet, would be shot down by German ground fire. Loss in paratrooper strength, he believed, would be not less than 50 per cent before the gliders came in at dawn, and some 70 per cent of the gliders would be shot out of the air or would crash on the Normandy hedgerows. Ridgway, speaking as the senior American Airborne general, insisted that the losses, though certain to be heavy, would be acceptable in relation to the importance of the mission and to the chance of success. Eisenhower ordered that the plan hold firm.

Ridgway and his staff had rewritten their manuals after the Sicily and Italian mainland operations. Everything possible, including most “comfort” items, should be eliminated in favor of a heavier man-load of ammunition, grenades, and bazookas. A drop of “pathfinders” should precede the main drop to mark landing zones with lights and radar beams.

The 82nd’s six thousand paratroopers took off in a great sky train beginning at 10 P.M. on June 5, Ridgway going in with the and Battalion of his 505th Parachute Regiment. His division was to land in and around an area containing Neuville-au-Plain, Ste. Mère-Église, Chef du Pont, Étienville, and Amfreville. It was to capture and hold the causeways—the elevated roadways—running inland across the flooded areas behind Utah Beach, thus permitting expansion of the beachhead to the south and west. It was to destroy the crossings of the Douve River. It was then to be prepared to advance to the west as ordered by corps headquarters.

“I landed in a field,” Ridgway says, “and worked my way out of my chute. In doing that I dropped my automatic pistol. I groped around in the high grass, found it, and began crawling toward the nearest hedge. I saw a dark standing figure, but before I could challenge it, I saw it move and realized it was a cow. That gave my spirits a lift, because I knew the field wasn’t mined or there wouldn’t be a cow wandering around in it. On the other side of the hedge I gave a challenge and got back the proper response. It was Captain Willard Follmer, the first man I had met when I went inland in Sicily. He was sitting then against a tree, with a broken ankle. Now he was sitting against a tree, with a back sprain that rendered him immobile.”

By daybreak Ridgway had rounded up a few of his command group and established a division headquarters in an orchard just west of Ste. Mère-Église. Some 50 gliders came in at first light with headquarters elements, jeeps, and 57-mm antitank guns, each carrying about 3,750 pounds and landing at about 60 miles per hour. Colonel Eaton was injured in a crash and was out of action. Some 375 more gliders came in the next day with two airborne artillery battalions, io5-mm short-barrel howitzers, and 4,000 more airborne infantrymen.

The division took Ste. Mère-Église, the first French town to be liberated; Lieutenant Colonel Edward Krause raised over it an American flag that had flown over Naples. At dawn on the third day contact was made with a patrol of the 4th Division, which had landed on Utah Beach and fought its way inland. Ridgway later learned that his division had landed on top of and destroyed the gist German Division, which had moved into the area two weeks earlier. Most of his men had dropped or landed in an area five by seven miles in size. Some fifty planeloads had been widely dispersed, but the troopers cut all enemy communications lines as they worked their way back across country to assemble. Acting now as ground troops, the division captured St.-Sauveur-le-Vicomte and then fought to the edge of La Haye-du-Puits, where it was relieved on July 8. It had been engaged for thirty-three days without relief or replacements and had carried out all its D-day missions except that of crossing the Merderet River, one bank of which it had seized on D-plus-3. Losses were high but far below those feared by Leigh-Mallory (who apologized handsomely to Elsenhower for having burdened him with a wrong prediction). Twelve hundred and eighty-two men were killed, 2,373 seriously wounded—46 out of every 100 men. The toll was higher among unit leaders. “We lost and had to replace fourteen infantry battalion commanders from within their units,” Ridgway says. “Considering we went into battle with twelve, that was a tremendous loss.”