People & Events
General Matthew B. Ridgway (1895-1993)
"Secretary Pace came over, took the phone call," recalls retired Army colonel Harry Maihafer of the day he witnessed a moment in history. "Then, he and General Ridgway went outside...as I recall, it was raining cats and dogs and a hail storm was going on. And they came back in and General Ridgway looked as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders." Maihafer's description is surely accurate: Ridgway had just been informed that President Truman had relieved General MacArthur, and that he was now in charge of the war in Korea.
As difficult as the situation in Korea was, it's hard to imagine a commander better suited to handling it than Matthew Bunker Ridgway. Like MacArthur, he had literally spent his entire life in the U.S. Army. The son of an artillery colonel, Ridgway graduated from West Point in 1917, where the yearbook described him as, "Beyond doubt, the busiest man in the place." Having just missed the fighting in France, Ridgway worked his way through a series of peacetime assignments, including stints in China, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. But in 1942 he was named commander of the 82nd Division, just before it was turned into one of the army's new elite airborne divisions. He made the most of it, leading the 82nd into Normandy on D-Day before moving on to a corps command. "A kick-ass man," one subordinate said of Ridgway, who became known as "Tin-tits" among his men for the hand grenades prominently strapped to his chest at all times.
MacArthur had known and thought highly of Ridgway since the early 1920s, when he placed the young captain in charge of physical education at West Point. With his keen intelligence, aggressive instincts, and reputation as a fighter, Ridgway was the logical choice to take over the 8th Army when General Walker was killed in a jeep accident in December of 1951. Even though his forces were losing badly -- they were in the midst of the longest retreat in U.S. military history -- MacArthur exhibited complete trust in his new commander. "The Eighth Army is yours, Matt. Do what you think best."
Ridgway did not let him down. While MacArthur railed against Washington, telling the Joint Chiefs that his forces faced annihilation if he could not expand the war into China, Ridgway managed to stop the retreat roughly seventy mile south of Seoul. Then in mid-January he started north, and he did it all within the parameters set by Washington. "Ridgway took hold of the Eighth Army, grabbed it by the throat, gave it a good shake, and straightened it out," says retired Marine commander Edwin Simmons. "If you had looked at a situation map at the end of December, 1950, you would have seen little blue dots all over the peninsula, little isolated U.N. positions -- no sign of coherence or integrity. He shook all that out. He reformed a line across the peninsula from one coast to the other, and then he began a deliberate, buttoned-up offensive a step at a time: good artillery support, good air support, identify your objectives and take them." Ridgway's offensive, known as the "meatgrinder" because of the heavy casualties it inflicted on the Chinese and North Koreans, moved slowly north until the U.N. had recaptured Seoul and reached the 38th parallel.
Ironically, MacArthur pushed Truman too far just when Ridgway had stabilized the situation in Korea. In fact, after Ridgway assumed overall command, the military situation changed very little. For the next two years, the armies traded casualties along defensive lines near the 38th parallel, the border between the two countries when the war began. Despite Ridgway's able leadership, cease-fire negotiations begun in mid-1951 dragged on until Ridgway left the following spring. Far from being punished, Ridgway left to replace General Eisenhower -- who was busy getting himself elected president -- as NATO commander in Europe. Ridgway took over the Army's top job, Chief of Staff, a year later. He retired in 1955.