Profile Of A Soldier: Matthew B. Ridgway

PrintPrintEmailEmail seven hundred miles from the battlefields. He dispersed his forces recklessly in his headlong dash north to the border of Manchuria and the Soviet Union, and he misread his intelligence reports when he asserted in the fall of 1950 that the war would be “over in two weeks” and that “the Chinese are not coming into this war.” He persisted for some days in refusing to believe that China had entered the war, even after it was painfully evident that they had entered it in massive numbers. He deliberately disobeyed a specific directive from the Joint Chiefs when he placed non-Korean troops in northern provinces bordering Manchuria and the Soviet Union. His reports to the Joint Chiefs, which came across my desk, began to swing from one extreme to the other: things were good, things were bad, the war would be won, the positions in Korea could not be held. Any military commander is human and may make mistakes. When he does, it’s part of his job as a soldier to accept responsibility for what he has done and to find out why it went wrong. MacArthur refused to do this in Korea, and when his blunders resulted in smashing reversals, he called for a broadening of the war—an air attack to demolish the air bases and industry of Manchuria, a blockade of the seacoast of China and destruction of its industrial centers, and use of Nationalist Chinese troops in Formosa to fight in Korea. At that time we had only two battleready divisions in the Continental United States, one Army, one Marine. In effect, MacArthur was attempting to change and guide the stated policies of the government. In doing this he was challenging civilian control of the military arm as established by law and tradition, and in my opinion he came perilously close to insubordination.

Ridgway and his wife were spending the evening of December 22, 1950, at the home of a next-door neighbor in Fort Myer when, shortly before midnight, he received a telephone call from General Collins, army chief of staff. Collins said: “Matt, I’m sorry to have to tell you that Johnny Walker has been killed in a jeep accident. You have been designated to take over. I want you to get your things together and get out there just as soon as you can.” Next morning, over coffee in their secondfloor study, Ridgway said as gently as he could: “Penny, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m going to Korea to replace Johnny Walker, who’s been killed in an accident.”

At his briefing Collins asked him what officers he wished to take with him on the trip. He replied: “I’ll go this one alone. It’s Christmas, and even a bachelor will have made plans.” He remade his will, bought some heavy underwear, and had a short, premature Christmas party with his wife and son. He arrived in Tokyo, alone, just before midnight on Christmas Day. He discussed the situation with MacArthur, who gave him a free hand, and flew to Korea the next day.

He found, as he expected, that he was in command of a shattered army. It had conducted itself bravely in withdrawing before an attack by superior numbers, and it had lost little of its heavy weapons and equipment; but now it had only three of its seven U.S. divisions in the battle zone, and these were badly depleted. The men were tired and dispirited, they lacked confidence in themselves and their leaders, and they were subject to what had become known as “bugout fever.” The Joint Chiefs had drawn up contingency plans for evacuating the peninsula. Some observers, indeed, assumed that Ridgway had been appointed receiver in bankruptcy.

Instead he undertook measures to give the army new life, purpose, and fighting spirit before the next Chinese attack, which was expected on New Year’s Eve, five days away. He visited the command posts of the three American divisions, of the two American corps, and of South Korean divisions and corps, assessing the morale of men and officers. He told his commanders to ignore previous orders to hold their positions “at all costs”: they were to give ground where absolutely necessary but to withdraw fighting, in a coordinated and orderly manner, on predetermined phase lines, inflicting maximum damage on the enemy. No unit was to be left to be overwhelmed and destroyed, and units that were cut off were to be fought for and brought back unless a major commander, after personal appraisal on the spot, decided that their relief would result in the loss of equal or greater numbers (“I knew it was vital, in restoring the fighting spirit of the troops, to make clear to all of them that their leaders were concerned for their safety and would not expend their lives needlessly”). At his request South Korean President Syngman Rhee put tens of thousands of laborers to digging trenches and gun emplacements in rearward lines.