Ridgeway commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II, became Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Army Chief of Staff, and played important roles in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Some time ago our contributing editor Robert C. Alberts asked General Matthew B. Ridgway if he would consent to be interviewed for the AMERICAN HERITAGE series “Before the Colors Fade.” The idea of the series is to record the impressions and comments of certain Americans whose careers have been so distinguished as to become a significant part of American history in their own lifetimes.
General Ridgway, formerly supreme commander in the Far East and Europe, chief of staff of the United States Army, and before that a famous hero of both World War n and the Korean War, seemed a likely figure for the series; but although he agreed to answer Mr. Alberts’ questions, he asked that the interview not be published as such. He feels, he says, that the questionand-answer format inevitably makes the interviewed person seem too self-centered. As a compromise we have in this instance departed from our usual policy of not running regular articles about still-living individuals. The following profile of General Ridgway is based on a number of conversations, plus a study by Mr. Alberts of the general’s published work, of other articles written about him over the years, and of letters, documents, and scrapbooks he has made available. —The Editors
General Matthew B. Ridgway marked his eightieth birthday on March 3, 1975. He has a remarkable physique, vitality, and range of interests and activities for a man who has turned fourscore. His health is excellent except for recurrent spasms from a sacroiliac injury he sustained (and concealed) when, as a cadet at West Point, he was thrown from a horse. He is active as a director of a nonprofit foundation, of the Carnegie Hero Commission, and of Colt Industries, Inc., whose stock, he points out, has remained steady and only 5 per cent of whose business is in sales of arms to the government. He carries on an extensive correspondence with old army friends (e.g., Generals Omar Bradley, J. Lawton Collins, James Gavin), associates in government (George Ball, Robert Lovett, Cyrus R. Vance, Clark Clifford, Averell Harriman), and historians (Forrest C. Pogue, the late Cornelius Ryan). He writes an occasional article ( Foreign Affairs , the New York Times Op-Ed page, the military journals). He declines all speaking engagements except an occasional appearance at the War Colleges, where he responds to questions. He and his wife live in Fox Chapel, a wooded suburb of Pittsburgh, where he was for five years chairman and chief executive officer of the country’s oldest industrial-research organization.
Despite a gentle and considerate manner not always found in four-star generals, Ridgway flushes with indignation when he speaks on three subjects. One is General Sir Douglas Haig’s pointless sacrifice of tens of thousands of British troops in the Passchendaele offensive in the summer and early fall of 1917. Another is General Eisenhower’s conduct in 1952 when he appeared without protest on a campaign platform with Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in a three-hour Senate speech had attacked General George C. Marshall with what Ridgway calls “scurrilous and indefensible remarks whose evil effects persist to this day.” The third is the studied rudeness to which he was sometimes subjected when, as army chief of staff, he dealt with Secretary of Defense Charles E. “Engine Charlie” Wilson.
Matthew Bunker Ridgway was born in 1895 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, the son of a regular army artillery colonel who had served with an international contingent in the Boxer Rebellion. He was graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1917, two of his classmates being Mark Wayne Clark and Joseph Lawton Collins. He was assigned to the infantry (“It never occurred to me to choose any other service”) and served his first tour of duty as a company commander at Camp Eagle Pass, Texas, on the Mexican border. Then followed two decades of typical up-the-ladder peacetime service, with its frequent shifting from place to place, its rotation among staff work, field command, schools, and diplomatic-military assignments, and its long waits for promotion (seventeen years to reach the permanent grade of major). After six years as an instructor at West Point, during which he taught Spanish and was in charge of athletics, he had fifteen assignments in seventeen years: Fort Benning; a troop command in North China with Marshall; troop service at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; Nicaragua; Bolivia; Fort Benning again; Nicaragua again; troop duty again in the Panama Canal Zone; the Philippines as military adviser to Governor Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.; the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth (two years); Sixth Corps Area and Second Army headquarters in Chicago; the Army War College in Washington (one year); the Presidio in San Francisco; Brazil with Marshall; the War Plans Division back in Washington. Americans customarily kick their military around between wars; it is part of the American system. In 1941-45 that system produced a remarkable body of army commanders, some of them now almost legendary figures, and they outfought, outthought, and outgeneraled the best career professionals put in the field by enemies in Europe and Asia.
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,
How best to use the Sand Airborne Division was a matter of considerable study and planning at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algeria in July and August of 1943. The invasion of the Italian mainland was set for September 9. The Italians had secretly negotiated a surrender. General Eisenhower in Carthage and Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was now the Italian premier, were to make a joint announcement by radio of the Italian surrender on the night of September 8, and early the next morning General Mark Clark was to land at the Gulf of Salerno with the equivalent of four divisions. The Fifth Army would expand the beachhead, drive on to Naples, and then overrun Italy. The Sand Airborne would be used somewhere, somehow, in that operation.
After a remarkable series of orders, counterorders, plans, and cancellations that had the Sand in a state of hyperreadiness for combat, Ridgway was called to i5th Army Group headquarters at Siracusa, Sicily, on September i. He was told that he was now to parachute and airland the strongest possible task forces on or near three airfields immediately west and northwest of Rome on the nights of September 8 and 9. There his mission would be to defend that city in conjunction with Italian forces in the area. He was informed that the high importance of the mission outweighed any objections there might be as to lack of time to properly brief troops or any other serious defects that might arise. The name of the operation was Giant II.
Ridgway was appalled. He knew the difficult mountain terrain that would face ground troops moving north from Salerno to Rome. Everyone knew that the Germans had eighteen good divisions in Italy, six of them near Rome. That city was far beyond fighter-plane support from Sicily. He was convinced that the operation would fail and that his young men would be massacred.
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.”
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.”
The 82nd returned to the Midlands in England in July, where it received a hero’s welcome from the English. Ridgway, following the events in France through that summer, regretted that so much time had been devoted at command conferences to alternative plans in case of failure, while almost none had been spent on what courses to follow to exploit unexpected successes. “We were as unprepared to capitalize on the unexpected breakout at St. Lô,” he says, “as the Austrians and Germans had been at Caporetto in the fall of 1917.”
In August he turned over the Sand to General James M. Gavin and took command of the XVIII Airborne Corps. At one time or another during the remainder of the war in Europe twenty-two divisions were under his corps’ command. In September, Gavin’s 8znd and Taylor’s ioist were lent to the British for fifty-eight days in the line, in the airdrop around Eindhoven-Nijmegen. This, Operation Market Garden, was Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to trap a German army in Holland, with its back to the sea. Ridgway flew, drove, and walked (without command responsibility) to visit the command posts of his two American divisions. When he found he could walk a mile and a half up a road that an advance element of British armor was unwilling to try, he concluded that stronger leadership from the top command could have brought British ground forces into contact with the ist British Airborne Division, which had been dropped beyond the Rhine. He is pleased that, with the popularity of Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far , the world now recognizes the outstanding performance of the two American airborne divisions in Market Garden and no longer thinks of it as solely a British operation.
Eisenhower released the XVIII Corps from theater reserve on December 18, and Ridgway commanded it through the six weeks of the Battle of the Bulge. On Sunday, March 11, he, Gavin, and Taylor flew to Rheims for a conference with Eisenhower at SHAEF forward headquarters. (“They all looked superbly fit and keen in every way,” Captain Harry C. Butcher wrote in his diary that night.) During dinner Eisenhower took a telephone call from Omar Bradley, who informed him that one of Courtney Hodges’ units had captured an intact bridge across the Rhine, at the town of Remagen.
Ridgway participated in the last major airdrop of the war thirteen days later, when an American and a British division under his command were put down across the Rhine at Wesel in support of the xn Corps of the British Army. He crossed the river in an Alligator, an amphibious tracked vehicle, and in a fire fight with a German patrol that night received a nonincapacitating wound from a grenade splinter that he still carries in his right shoulder. In April he led four divisions in an eight-day drive that cleaned out the Ruhr pocket. When he was two miles from Field Marshal Walther von Model’s headquarters, he sent one of his aides, Captain Frank Brandstetter, with a flag of truce to say that in order to save lives he would accept the Germans’ surrender. The aide came back with a German staff officer who conveyed Model’s refusal on the ground of personal honor. Ridgway wrote a second letter, in which he invoked the name of Robert E. Lee, who was a man of honor and had surrendered his armies eighty years ago that month (“I remembered the date from a lecture I had heard by Douglas Freeman”). Model sent back another refusal, this time by his chief of staff, Colonel Fritz Schultz-Madler, who had advised Model to surrender and who accepted Ridgway’s invitation to become a prisoner of war. Model had publicly criticized Field Marshal von Paulus for surrendering at Stalingrad; now he chose to walk into the forest near D’fcsseldorf and shoot himself. Ridgway offered the field marshal’s handsome MercedesBenz staff car to General Bradley, who politely declined it. The front moved forward, and Ridgway never knew who ended up with the car.
In the last weeks of the war in Europe he led four divisions—three American and one British—in support of the British Second Army’s drive to the Baltic to cut off the Danish peninsula and save it from Soviet occupation. In less than one week his corps moved by truck and jeep nearly three hundred miles, from the Ruhr to the Elbe, across that river on a pontoon bridge, and sixty miles eastward to meet the Russians. In setting up a thirty-mile buffer zone with the Russians he found them at the first meeting to be somewhat stubborn and suspicious, though they made no real difficulties. General Andrei Smirnov, his opposite number, a corps commander and a hero of the Soviet Union, he found to be much more agreeable on a second meeting, and with him he achieved a cautious but pleasant relationship. (Almost a year later Ridgway was on his way from Caserta, his headquarters as commander of the Mediterranean Theater, to a new post in London as representative of General Eisenhower, the army chief of staff, to the Military Staff Committee of the United Nations. Going by way of Berlin, he decided to call on General Smirnov, who was then Russian military commander in the city, and found him an entirely different person: stiff, unreceptive, cold as ice. Twenty-eight years later, in the fall of 1973, Ridgway received a telephone call at his Pittsburgh home from a c;-a officer in Washington. General Smirnov, the officer said, had visited the American embassy in Moscow and wished to send his warm greetings and best wishes for good health to General Ridgway. Did General Ridgway wish to answer the communication? He responded with cordial wishes for General Smirnov’s good health and happiness in his retirement. “I would be happy to meet him again,” he says today.)
In August, 1945, Rideway started for the Far East, where he was to assume command of all airborne operations in the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. He was over San Francisco Bay when the pilot informed his passengers that news of the Japanese surrender had just been received.
When Ridgway returned from Japan early in 1946, he found that his earlier marriage could no longer survive the long period of separation and that divorce was the only solution. While serving as chairman of the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, he met Mary “Penny” Anthony, secretary to the United States Navy delegate on the board. She was still in her twenties; a correspondent for Collier’s described her as “a strikingly beautiful woman who makes other women reach uneasily for their mirrors.” They were married in December, 1947 son, Matthew B. Ridgway, Jr. (“Matty”), was born in 1949 while Ridgway was commander in chief of the Caribbean command.
“Penny has played an indispensable role in my career,” Ridgway says. “It was not an easy assignment for a young wife, especially at first, before people came to know her. I was a three-star general and the senior officer, or commander, or both, at the posts where I was stationed. This meant that she was the General’s Lady, the ‘First Lady’ on the post. Human nature being what it is, she naturally was subject to the envy of those loyal army wives who felt that their husbands should be in the top position. Penny ignored the petty annoyances. Her common sense, tact, and thoughtfulness for others won over everyone with whom she came in contact.” Other witnesses have agreed, including General Marshall, who said, “She amazes me. Her poise in a job like this is truly remarkable.”
Through five postwar years on his various military and diplomatic assignments Ridgway was horrified to watch the headlong rush of the American people and Congress to cut back their armed forces and dismantle their arms industry—a development, he feels, that General Elsenhower, as army chief of staff, seemed to endorse or at least to accept without noticeable public protest. In October, 1949, he became General J. Lawton Collins’ deputy chief of staff for administration and training, and he took up residence at Quarters Seven at Fort Myer. He personally pushed development of the new 3-5-inch bazooka, the airdrop of heavier weapons and vehicles, and the io5-mm recoilless cannon, a light, highly mobile artillery piece. And he wrestled with curtailed programs and reduced budgets imposed under Secretary of War Louis Johnson’s policy of “trimming off the fat.” His forebodings were realized in June, 1950, when the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel in a massive invasion of South Korea. Throughout the summer he studied the daily reports of poorly equipped, undertrained skeleton army regiments sent to fight in Korea, where they were mauled, decimated, and driven back, first by the North Koreans and then by Chinese troops in overwhelmingly superior numbers. “If we had had properly armed and trained units in 1950,” Ridgway says, “properly deployed, we could have choked off that aggression in a relatively short time with much less loss of life.” Ridgway became, in effect, the Army’s operations officer for Korea, and though he did not know it, he had been tapped by the chiefs of staff to assume command of the Eighth Army in the event of an emergency.
In early August, President Truman sent Averell Harriman to the Far East to meet with General MacArthur and convey to him the President’s policies. Generals Ridgway and Lauris Norstad were directed to accompany Harriman. Ridgway had known MacArthur since the early igao’s, when he was a faculty member and MacArthur was superintendent at West Point. He respected the general’s personal courage, quick mind, and tactical brilliance, his qualities of leadership, and his record as a soldierstatesman in the occupation of Japan. But he was profoundly disturbed by his conduct of operations in the Korean War. “He was trying to command General Walton Walker and the Eighth Army from Tokyo,” Ridgway says,
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.
Ridgway ordered commanders to set their men off the roads and onto the high ground (“They were roadbound”) and to increase their patrolling. He asked that exhausted field commanders be returned to the United States without prejudice and be replaced with fresh officers. He moved up the army forward-command post. After listening to the gripes of the men in the field he ordered the kitchens to move closer to the front lines and to provide large amounts of hot food, with hot meat served at least seven times out of every ten days. He had helicopters carry in writing paper, envelopes that did not stick together, warm clothing, and great bundles of gloves (“I knew from personal experience how easy it is to leave a glove behind or to drop it to fire a weapon and then not see it again”). He stopped the indoctrination talks on the noble aims and righteous cause of the United Nations and replaced them with sterner stuff (“I treated them as disciplined, trained men who would take professional pride in their toughness and skill as fighters and who wanted to win”).
He flew everywhere in a light liaison plane or a helicopter and day after day appeared in forward positions, always in an open jeep. A Turkish commander told a New York Times correspondent: “Ridgway is here almost every day. He makes our morale boost.” He was everywhere recognizable for his dress: pile cap with the bill tied back, blue and white Airborne patch on his shoulder, jump boots, and a parachutist’s web harness. To the harness were taped the parachutist’s first-aid kit and a live hand grenade. He has insisted for twenty-five years, sincerely but without much success, that in carrying the grenade he had no intention of emulating the showmanship of Patton with his pearl-handled pistols, MacArthur with his battered braided hat and underslung corncob pipe, Montgomery with his beret, Wingate with his beard and pith helmet. “I wore it solely for self-preservation,” he says. “It might have been very useful if my plane had gone down in enemy territory.” Whatever the intent, he achieved instant identification and a reputation for audacity, and his men gave him the ultimate compliment of an admiring nickname, “Old Iron Tit.”
The Communists began their assault on schedule on New Year’s Eve. The Eighth Army gave up Seoul for the second time in the war. Still fighting and in close contact with the enemy, it withdrew some seventy-five miles and then stood firm. On January 25, 1951, one month after his arrival in the Far East, Ridgway ordered a general counterattack with two army corps, about 365,000 men. By February 9 his troops were back to the H an River, driving before them a force about three times their size. James Michener, writing a profile on Ridgway for Life magazine early in 1952, said: “Within a few electrifying weeks Matt Ridgway had all his officers working on plans for attack, in a change of spirit and purpose so swift that none would have believed it possible. … In Korea the man has become enveloped in a great legend—a legend vastly complimentary and almost wholly true.”
The enemy twice renewed its attack, using massed forces for the first time in the war, suffered heavy losses, and was halted. Ridgway organized a February offensive. The Eighth Army retook Seoul, drove across the 38th parallel with relatively low losses, and halted. General Collins wrote in his book on the Korean War: ”… no longer was there much talk of evacuation. General Ridgway … was responsible for this dramatic change.” The military historian S. L. A. Marshall calls it “the most dramatic American command achievement of this century.” Ridgway gave the credit to his men. “The American flag never flew over a prouder, tougher, more spirited and more competent fighting force,” he said in 1967.
On March 24 General MacArthur precipitated a showdown between himself and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with whom he had been feuding, and between himself and President Truman. On April 11 Truman relieved him of his command and appointed Ridgway his successor. Ridgway heard the news in a hail and snow storm on the line in Korea. He flew to Tokyo the next day. General Collins has recorded that one of Ridgway’s first acts as supreme commander in the Far East was to have his chief of staff catalogue all orders, directives, and restrictions received by MacArthur since the start of the war.
Ridgway now carried on four jobs from his office in the Dai Ichi Building. He was deputy for the seventeen members of the United Nations furnishing troops for the continuing war in Korea. He was commander of all the United States forces in the Far East. He represented the eleven Allied Powers of World War n as military governor of Japan. And he was director of United Nations negotiations for a truce in Korea.
In June, 1951, the Chinese dropped their talk about the “inevitability” of Communist victory and let it be known that they were disposed to begin negotiations for a truce; discreet inquiries in Moscow confirmed that the offer was genuine. Ridgway (now wearing a fourth star), on authorization from Washington, broadcast an invitation to the Communists to meet with U.M. delegates, and a few days later the first meeting of two years of painful, crisis-filled negotiations began at Kaesong (briefly) and then continued at Panmunjom.
Mrs. Ridgway and Matty joined him in Tokyo in May, 1951, after a separation of five months—a time she describes as the unhappiest of her life. Ridgway, frequently absent on trips to Korea, relied heavily on his wife to fulfill social obligations that were a part of his work, and he declared near the end of his stay in the Far East: “If I have had any success with the Japanese, it is due to my wife.” She represented him at the funeral of the dowager empress, and she accompanied him to a precedent-breaking luncheon in the Japanese Imperial Palace as guests of Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako. It was the first visit of a supreme commander to the Imperial Palace.
Ridgway returned to the United States in May, 1952, on his way to a new assignment in Europe. A private talk with Commander in Chief Harry Truman began a whirlwind week. He, Mrs. Ridgway, and three-year-old Matty then rode on the President’s private train to attend a 15oth anniversary ceremony at West Point, where Ridgway received a second oak leaf cluster for his Distinguished Service Medal, pinned on his tunic by President Truman for “magnificent personal leadership” in the Korean War. Back in Washington he testified at length on the Far East behind closed doors before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He went to Fort McNair for a special review and reception. He addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and a joint session of Washington’s three top press clubs. And for his new job he bought a tailor-made full-dress military-diplomatic uniform. The swallowtail black suit had epaulets, gold braid around the sleeves, and gold braid down the seams of the trousers.
The new job was that of supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, succeeding General Eisenhower. There were problems. The time had come for the NATO commander to divest himself of political activities and get about the business of procuring weapons and organizing a military force. And, as one columnist put it, Eisenhower had distributed the pledges at a giant bond rally; now it was up to Ridgway to collect on them—in a declining market.
The Ridgways lived in Villa St. Pierre near Paris, in the town of Marne-la-coquette. The general was away much of the time on visits to one or another of the fourteen NATO nations; when she did not accompany him, Mrs. Ridgway visited art galleries, attended the opera, painted landscapes (one of her hobbies), and organized American army wives in Paris for duty in military hospitals in and around the city. During the thirteen-month stay in Europe young Matty, by all accounts and appearances a delightful child, was one of the world’s most photographed persons: standing at salute beside his father, mowing down honor guards with his toy gun, entering or leaving airplanes with his doting parents. When the Ridgways were presented to the British royal family at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth asked Mrs. Ridgway: “How is little Matty? I’ve seen so many pictures of him that I feel as if I know him.”
Ridgway had twelve battle-worthy divisions when he took over the NATO command in June, 1952. At the end of his tour of duty he had some eighty divisions, active and reserve, in varying stages of strength and readiness—still far fewer than he felt were necessary to protect western Europe on a four-thousand-mile frontier against a possible enemy that had a hundred and twenty-five divisions, exclusive of satellite forces. On leaving Europe, Ridgway was expected to write farewell letters to appropriate personages in each NATO country, to be sent in diplomatic pouches or delivered by proxy by his aides. Instead he made a round of personal courtesy calls in each of the fourteen capitals.
He returned to the United States to become army chief of staff and on October 1, 1953, moved into that mecca of ambitious army officers, Quarters One at Fort Myer. The neighbors soon became accustomed to two sights: the general walking the two-odd miles to and from the Pentagon and the general standing on the front porch each evening with Matty, both saluting the lowering of the flag at retreat. He and Mrs. Ridgway asked General and Mrs. Marshall to accept a key to their old home and to use a second-floor suite whenever they wished to spend time in Washington; they did stay there several times.
Ridgway had now reached the highest post in his profession, but his two-year term was to be one of frustration and anguish of spirit. This was the period when Senator Joseph McCarthy was running rampant and Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens was being brutalized by attacks on himself and some of his officers. Of those attacks Theodore H. White wrote on March 30, 1954:
Another of his problems was an unpleasant relationship with Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson. He admired and got along well both with Wilson’s predecessor, Robert A. Lovett, and with Wilson’s deputy, Robert Anderson. As army representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff he respected his fellow professionals, Admiral Carney, Air Force General Twining, and Admiral Radford, chairman, though he was sometimes inclined to agree with the navy man who remarked that Radford acted as if he were still commander of the Pacific Fleet instead of first among equals on a strategic planning staff. But with Mr. Wilson he found no basis for liking and little for respect beyond that officially owed to the civilian head of the military services. Ridgway feels that Wilson came from General Motors to Elsenhower’s Cabinet with a firm preconception that something was terribly wrong with the armed forces, particularly the Army, and that, whatever it might be, he would have to take steps to straighten it out. His attitude was reflected in his treatment of those under his authority, including the four service chiefs, whom he often addressed as “you men” and dismissed at meetings with the command to carry out orders as instructed. Wilson was given to long, rambling discussions that had little or nothing to do with the subject of the meeting and was disinclined to inform his military subordinates of the subject in advance, which could mean a series of questions for which no hard, up-to-date information had been gathered. In discussions and briefings he was, Ridgway says, often rudely inattentive, drumming his fingers on the table, gazing out the window at the Washington prospect, and ignoring the views a speaker was presenting.
The relationship was exacerbated by the fact that Wilson was under instruction to cut the military budget and that more than three fourths of the cuts were directed at the Army. Ridgway was asked to reduce his troop strength from 1,500,000 to 1,000,000 by the summer of 1956 and to cut army expenditures from $16.2 billion to $8.9 billion. “Wilson’s facile slogan, ‘More bang for a buck,’ ” he says, “sounded very much the same to me as Louis Johnson’s ‘trimming off the fat.’ In Secretary of State Dulles’ policy of containment we were offering military aid, alliances, and territorial guarantees to some forty nations ringing the globe. Our foreign commitments were going up, and our Army was going down. The country was beginning to be dangerously overextended.”
The cuts were ordered, and the commitments were made under what was called a New Look in military preparedness. Dulles described it in a famous sentence in January, 1954. The United States, he said, intended “to depend principally upon a great capacity to retaliate instantly by means and at places of our own choosing.” It was understood that he was referring to the use of atomic weapons.
Ridgway challenged that policy. He believed that to place primary reliance on atomic weapons was to put foreign policy in a strait jacket. It was quite possible, he said, that in any future war there would be a “common refusal” to use atomic weapons, including battlefield tactical bombs and shells. To depend on nuclear weapons would leave the United States incapable of dealing with emergency situations by more conventional means.
He was convinced, moreover, that massive retaliation by means and at places of our own choosing was morally as well as militarily wrong. “It is repugnant to the ideals of a Christian nation,” he said. “It is not compatible with what should be the basic aim of the United States in war, which is to win a just and durable peace.”
Ridgway opposed the new U.S. defense policy when he was called upon to testify before the Senate Military Appropriations Committee, which did not put him in the odor of sanctity with Secretary Wilson or President Eisenhower. Nor was it any recommendation that Adlai Stevenson and Senator Wayne Morse upheld his views. The President did not like “split papers” from his Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Ridgway’s “responsibility for national defense,” he said in pure Eisenhowerese, “is, you might say, a special one, or, in a sense, parochial.” This evidently was meant to explain Ridgway’s recalcitrance, and Wilson remarked to the press in the same vein that he was “a sincere and dedicated general who believes very strongly in the Army.” Ridgway was thus astonished at last to hear over the radio the President’s statement that the !955 military program had been “unanimously recommended” by the Joint Chiefs.
A problem arose in the spring of 1954 that was more serious than the conflicts with Senator McCarthy and Secretary Wilson and cuts in army manpower. It was a growing movement, led by important persons in and out of government, to send U.S. military forces to the aid of the French in Indochina. France had suffered more than 170,000 casualties there in its professional army (it sent no conscripts); it had spent nearly $7.5 billion, plus another $4 billion in U.S. aid; and now it had an army trapped at Dien Bien Phu. It asked for U.S. military help, and it indicated that in return it would end its opposition to a main plank in U.S. foreign policy: bringing West Germany into NATO. Secretary Dulles and Admiral Radford, proponents of intervention, held that air and naval action alone would save Indochina, with a massive air strike if necessary, using not more than two atomic bombs. Ground troops would not be needed.
To Ridgway this was the ig44 Rome airdrop all over again, but now multiplied thousands of times in its consequences. He opposed intervention on both military and moral grounds. He saw the French war as predominantly a military action to solve a political situation. He believed that Dulles and Radford were committing the cardinal sin of underestimating the enemy. He felt certain that the war could not be won on the cheap, by naval and air power alone, and that intervention would lead inevitably to a demand for his depleted ground troops, to be used in a jungle war under conditions far worse than those in Korea.
Without waiting to see whether his opposition would deter the advocates of intervention, Ridgway sent an army team of experts—engineers, medical officers, signal and communication specialists, officers experienced in combat—to Indochina to study and report on what logistic requirements a large-scale military operation there would entail. It showed that intervention would eventually demand more ground troops than had fought in Korea. A war would have to be fought from bases one to six thousand miles away, with great complexes constructed in the country at enormous cost: roads, harbors, docks, communication facilities, staging areas, warehouses. Neither France nor the natives could be counted on for real support. Jungle warfare would nullify the U.S. advantage in mechanized, mobile equipment. Draft calls would quadruple, to a hundred thousand a month. Defense costs would go up to perhaps $4o billion a year.
“I gave the report to Secretary Stevens,” Ridgway says.
It was one episode in Ridgway’s term as army chief that had a successful and happy ending. The President sided with Ridgway, and though he directed him to send a relatively small number of men to train the South Vietnamese, he overruled the proposal to use U.S. combat troops. General Collins wrote that intervention “was scotched on the recommendation of Matthew B. Ridgway,” and he added that while he had no part in the decision, he agreed with it completely.
Ridgway retired, as he had intended to do, on June 3o, 1955. He was not asked to serve a second term, and he was not offered, as was customary, another post. He was succeeded by his old friend and colleague Maxwell Taylor, who was cross-examined at length by Secretary Wilson on his readiness to carry out civilian orders even when they were contrary to his own views. Ridgway wrote a twelvepage farewell message to Secretary Wilson in which, in moderate language, he criticized the new defense policy and set forth his own beliefs and recommendations in a perilous world. Wilson classified his letter as confidential, but a young officer, without Ridgway’s knowledge, gave it to the New York Times , where it appeared on July 14 and caused something of a sensation. When questioned by reporters, Wilson said that the document was “not very important.”
Ridgway received a heavy volume of letters following his retirement and the publication of his message to Wilson. One letter, addressed to “Dear Matt,” was early-vintage Dean Rusk, who in 1950-51 had been Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. He wrote: “The historian will one day record how your personal leadership built a great army in Korea and saved your country from the humiliation of defeat through loss of morale in high places. Those few of us who know the full story will be forever grateful.” Walter Lippman wrote: “You are among the few of whom one can say that they were among the first in war and among also the first in peace.” The Washington Post said it felt “a twinge of sadness” at the retirement:
He took the position of chairman and chief executive officer of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in Pittsburgh. In 1956, in collaboration with the writer-editor Harold H. Martin, he produced Soldier , one of the best and most readable of the many volumes of memoirs by Allied generals. He retired again in 1960, at age sixty-five. He watched with dismay as President Kennedy, young and with new advisers, drifted aimlessly into deeper and deeper involvement in Vietnam, and then as President Johnson compounded that blunder. Robert Asprey, author of War in the Shadows: The History of Guerilla Warfare , wonders whether the Joint Chiefs and the President’s advisers were ignorant of the 1954 Ridgway Report or simply ignored it. Whichever the case, he says, Ridgway’s stubborn voice of caution and dissent was missing, and they did not use a study that might have saved them from what John Kenneth Galbraith has called “a massive miscalculation, perhaps the worst miscalculation in our history.”
Ridgway wrote a second book, The Korean War , in 1967, a soldier’s account of that action, and closed it with a sober expression of doubt that the country’s political objectives in Southeast Asia harmonized with its real national interests. In articles in Look magazine (1966) and Foreign Affairs (1971) he called for a phased withdrawal from Vietnam. He did the same as one of a group of “Wise Men” at a “Crisis of Conscience” conference in March, 1968, called —and so named—by President Johnson.
After his second retirement, in 1960, Ridgway was able to devote more time to his family, and especially to his son Matty—he who had been born in Panama, learned to walk in Japan, and learned to talk in France. The family spent weeks together camping in the national forests, and under his father’s fond tutelage Matty became a skilled woodsman. He was a handsome young man and did well in school, both as an athlete and in his studies.
Matty was graduated from Bucknell in June, 1971, and received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve the same month. Then he left for a canoe camp at Lake Timagami in Ontario, where he was to act as a guide nd counselor for teen-age boys on an eight-week canoe trip. During an early portage they were walking along a railroad track, Matt in the lead, a canoe over his head in Indian fashion, when a train came speeding down the track. The boys scrambled up an embankment to safety, but the train struck an end of Matty’s canoe, knocked it around, and broke his neck.
The stunned parents flew to Canada. After a time they boarded a private plane that took them over the Lake of the Woods. With them they had Chaplain Gordon Mercer of the Canadian Armed Forces. As they neared the northern end of the lake the flare chute was opened, and, kneeling on the lurching floor of the plane, they shared a two-minute prayer. Then they committed the ashes of their son to the beautiful Canadian lake and forest country he had loved so dearly.
There is no consolation for such a tragedy, but General Ridgway and his wife have endured their sorrow with not unexpected courage. They take at least one long trip each year: in 1972 a photographic safari among the big-game herds in Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda; in 1973 a summer exploration cruise to the edge of the ice pack a thousand miles above Spitsbergen; in 1974 a return to Holland as guests of the Netherlands government at the thirtieth anniversary of the Eindhoven-Arnhem airdrop.
The general has a large library and reads a great deal—usually for an hour each day before an early breakfast—mostly history, some biography, no fiction, often a book in Spanish, his second language. One volume on his shelves is that definitive work on the evolution of the Vietnam disaster, The Best and the Brightest (1974) by David HaIberstam. On the flyleaf the author, whom Ridgway has never met, has written: “For General Matthew Ridgway, the one hero of this book. …”