Matthew B. Ridgway

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Matthew B. Ridgway

Born March 3, 1895
Fortress Monroe, Virginia
Died July 1993
Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania

American military leader and business executive

When Matthew B. Ridgway became the commanding general of the Eighth Army in Korea in December 1950, the morale of the United Nations (UN) soldiers was very low. With the entry of the powerful Chinese forces into the Korean War, panic and withdrawal in the face of enemy attack had become the norm among the discouraged army troops. Through some of the most effective leadership seen in the war, Ridgway transformed the UN forces. His presence on the battlefront encouraged the troops and stopped the "bug-outs" that had characterized the war. His strategy of counterattacking blocked the advances of what had seemed an unstoppable enemy. Ridgway's intelligent and level-headed response to the explosive political turmoil that arose between his commander, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry), and the Truman administration kept the UN command on a steady course when MacArthur was relieved of command.

Growing up on army posts

Matthew Bunker Ridgway was born into a well-to-do family on March 3, 1895, at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. His father, Thomas, was a West Point military academy graduate and full colonel in World War I (1914–18), and his mother, Ruth, was a concert pianist from Long Island, New York. Ridgway was a happy and charming youngster, who spent his childhood at various army posts. Even at an early age, he knew he wanted to be an army general, and after high school he went straight to West Point. He graduated in the class of 1917, two weeks after the United States entered World War I (1914–18). Ridgway itched to join his classmates in the trenches of France, but was forced to spend World War I on the Mexican border. After the war, in 1918, he returned to West Point to teach Romance languages. During the 1920s, as one of six officers in the regular army fluent in Spanish, he was awarded several high-level assignments in Latin America. During the 1930s, he was selected for the best military graduate schools, the Infantry School, the Command and General Staff School, and the Army War College.

In the years prior to World War II (1939–45), Ridgway rarely commanded troops. But when he did, he proved to be a master motivator. Commanding from the front, Ridgway exhorted his troops with his deep-pitched bellows. His perfectionist attitude and short temper led his men to joke: "There is a right way, a wrong way, and a Ridgway."

A mentor in George C. Marshall

Ridgway's peacetime ascendance was greatly assisted by the acclaimed general and statesman George C. Marshall (1880–1959), under whom he served on four separate occasions. Marshall became Ridgway's greatest supporter and after the start of World War II promoted him to brigadier general, assisting in command of General Omar N. Bradley 's (1893–1981; see entry) Eighty-second Infantry Division. In early 1942, Bradley was promoted and Ridgway was named commander of the Eighty-second. He transformed the division into one of the army's first airborne units, a unit trained to be transported to combat by air and by parachute.

In World War II, Ridgway and his command participated in the invasion of Sicily in 1943, and subsequent operations in Salerno, Normandy, Holland, and Germany, and in the Battle of the Bulge. Ridgway's paratroopers fought magnificently, and their exploits became legendary. After the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Ridgway was named to head the Eighteenth Airborne Corps. He commanded it through Germany, pushing across the Elbe before meeting advancing Soviet forces on May 3, 1945.

Ridgway came out of World War II much decorated and much admired. One commander called the now three-star general "undoubtedly the best combat corps commander in the American Army in WWII." His troops found his presence inspiring. In commanding his forces from the front, he often exposed himself to heavy fire that resulted in numerous close calls. Once, after being wounded by a German grenade, Ridgway refused treatment and thereafter carried a fragment in his shoulder.


When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Ridgway was in Washington, D.C., serving as the army's deputy chief of staff for administration. Lieutenant General Walton H. "Johnnie" Walker (1899–1950; see entry) had led the Eighth Army in Korea through the terrible first six months of war. On December 23, Walker was killed in a jeep accident near Seoul. That evening back in the United States, Ridgway was having a cocktail with some friends when he received a call from the Army Chief of Staff telling him that Walker was dead and that he had been preselected to replace him as commander of the Eighth Army in Korea. He was to get there at once.

The Korean War had at its heart an arrangement put into place at the end of World War II. In August 1945, when the Japanese, who were occupying Korea, were defeated, the general order for the Japanese surrender included a provision for Korea in which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea) and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, would receive the surrender north of it. Soon the United States requested that the United Nations sponsor elections in Korea, with the idea that Korea would become independent after a leader was elected. (The UN was founded in 1945 to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.) The Soviet Union and the northern Koreans, on the other hand, did not believe that the UN had the authority to decide the future of Korea, and they refused to take part in the elections. The vote was held in southern Korea anyway, without the northern Koreans, and a new government was formed to rule a united Republic of Korea (ROK). Not accepting that government, the Koreans in the north held their own elections and established the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the summer of 1950, as North Korea invaded South Korea—both countries hoped to reunify Korea under their leadership—the United Nations, with the strong backing of the United States, entered the war to aid the South Koreans. After the North Koreans suffered massive losses in counterattacks by the South Koreans and their allies, the Chinese came to the aid of the North Koreans.

Ridgway's task in Korea was difficult. Chinese General Peng Dehuai 's (P'eng Teh-huai; 1898–1974; see entry) massive Chinese forces had crushed the UN troops that had advanced up toward the North Korea-China border at the Yalu River, forcing them into a massive retreat south below the 38th parallel. On their sweep from the north, the Chinese had mauled the First Cavalry Division, the Second Infantry Division, and the South Korean forces. The Eighth Army's morale had been drained. Some military experts doubted if the United States could maintain a foothold on the Korean peninsula.

It was the perfect job for Ridgway, who was noted for his motivational skills. On New Year's morning 1951, Ridgway was out at the front and, to his dismay, found many of his troops in retreat. Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers "were streaming south, without order, without arms, without leaders,

in full retreat…. They had just one aim—to get as far awayfrom the Chinese as possible." Some of the U.S. troops, too, were fleeing. Ridgway recalled in his book The Korean War interviewing the men, finding them "thoroughly dispirited, without the eagerness to rejoin the unit that American fighting men, when not too severely wounded, usually show. We were obviously a long way from building the will to fight that we needed."

Ridgway withdrew his troops south of Seoul, evacuating the capital city for the second time, and then proceeded with virtually rebuilding the Eighth Army. Finally attentive to the desperate need for troops and supplies in Korea, the U.S. military establishment was sending reinforcements in well-trained troops, weapons and ammunition, food rations, medical services, and high quality officers. Ridgway knew his task: "Before going on the offensive, we had work to do, weaknesses to shore up, mistakes to learn from, faulty procedures to correct, and a sense of pride to restore," he wrote in The KoreanWar. This last task of restoring pride was perhaps the most fundamental and the one among many that Ridgway is best remembered for, because it was apparent to all concerned that he transformed his troops into courageous and loyal fighting men. Ridgway strapped a hand grenade into his vest as a symbol of the fight and toured the troops, shaking hands and learning people's names and what was bothering them. He built up the defense line and promised that no unit would be abandoned if the Chinese attacked. Ridgway then wrote a letter to all the troops, explaining why the UN forces were fighting in Korea in his view. His efforts were successful. Within a month the Chinese and North Koreans were facing a new enemy, one with the spirit to stand and fight when battles grew tough.

Operation Killer

Established south of Seoul, Ridgway began to suspect that the enemy was not always there. Although army intelligence systems reported that 178,000 Chinese troops faced the Eighth Army, Ridgway began to take low-flying scouting trips over enemy territory in an airplane, and could see no sign of them. He knew from recent history that the Chinese tended to attack very hard and then suddenly disappear, presumably to resupply. He decided to advance. With his troops in top form, organized by interlinked supporting units, he proceeded with his famous offensives.

On February 21, 1951, Ridgway launched Operation Killer (Killer and its extension Operation Ripper were later renamed Operation Courageous to connote a more benign [gentle] image, although Ridgway thought they should be named in accord with their objective, which was by no means benign). Operation Killer was enormous. Eight infantry divisions comprising more than one hundred thousand troops were backed by twenty-two artillery battalions, five tank battalions, and the Far East Air Force. Killer counterattacked the Chinese on the central front with the fresh First Marine Division as the focal point. The rejuvenated U.S. forces fought superbly, retaking Seoul and forcing the Chinese above the 38th parallel. "The Eighth Army soon proved itself to be what I knew already it could become: as fine a fighting field army as our country had yet produced," Ridgway described the troops in his memoirs. "They were fighting for themselves, with pride rekindled, and with a determination that they would never again take the sort of licking they had accepted a month before."

Taking over for MacArthur

After MacArthur was relieved of command for insubordination on April 11, 1951, Ridgway was appointed to serve simultaneously as commander in chief of the Far East command; commander in chief of the UN command; commander in chief of the U.S. Army forces Far East; and supreme commander of Allied forces occupying Japan. Ridgway relocated to Tokyo, where he would oversee the war for the remainder of the year. He was one of the central players in the early days of the peace talks at Panmunjom; it was Ridgway, for example, who insisted that the UN forces continue armed conflict during the truce negotiations because he did not trust the Chinese and North Koreans. The decision to fight while negotiating meant two years of high casualties and destruction for both sides.

Ridgway was by now an American hero. His charm made him a darling with the press, who described him in glowing terms. Ridgway's flowery articulation of his thoughts made him highly quotable for reporters, but evoked ridicule from some of the other officers, who saw him as artificial and humorless.

In May 1952, Ridgway replaced Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; see entry) as the supreme commander of Allied powers in Europe and as head of NATO. (NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of nations in Europe and North America formed in 1949 primarily to counter the threat of Soviet and communist expansion.) He left that position in October 1953 to become the army chief of staff. In that position he would play a major role in keeping the U.S. military from intervening in the French-Indochina (Vietnam) conflict. Ridgway retired from active duty to become director of Colt Industries in June 1955 after constant battles with the Eisenhower administration over relying too much on nuclear weapons (widely devastating atomic bombs) for America's defense.


During the 1960s, Ridgway advocated limiting U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He put forward a middle-ground approach between unilateral (one-sided) withdrawal and allout war. He resisted air force general Curtis LeMay's suggestion that the United States bomb North Vietnam "back to the stone age." In March 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) invited Ridgway and several prominent former government officials and military men to form the Senior Advisory Group, which would help the president on his Vietnam strategy. The panel recommended the United States seek a negotiated settlement. Johnson concurred, announcing in March 1968 that the United States would deescalate and seek a peaceful resolution to the war.

Ridgway was married three times. His first two marriages, to Caroline Blount and Margaret Wilson, ended in divorce. In 1947, he married Marjory "Penny" Anthony Long and the marriage endured. He had two daughters, Constance and Shirley, and a son, Matthew B. Ridgway Jr., who died in train accident in 1971.

Ridgeway died at his home in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania, in July 1993.

Where to Learn More

Clay, Blair. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Clay, Blair. Ridgway's Paratroopers. New York: Dial Press, 1985.

Fleming, Thomas. "A Right Way, a Wrong Way, and a Ridgway." Boys' Life. November 2000, p. 40.

Ridgway, Matthew B. The Korean War: How We Met the Challenge, How All-Out Asian War Was Averted, Why MacArthur Was Dismissed, Why Today's War Objectives Must Be Limited. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Ridgway, Matthew B. Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway. New York: Harper, 1956.

Words to Know

airborne unit: a military unit that moves the troops into a combat area by aircraft, often using parachutes.

bug-out: to panic and run away from a battle in confusion; a disorderly retreat without permission.

morale: the way that a person or a group of people feels about the job they are doing or the mission they are working on.

motivate: to give someone a desire or need to do something; to make a person or a group want to excel at something.

NATO: the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of nations in Europe and North America with shores on the Atlantic Ocean, formed in 1949 primarily to counter the threat of Soviet and communist expansion.

unilateral: acting alone, on one's own part and in one's own interests, without reference to others.

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