General Matthew B. Ridgway’s experiences as an airborne commander in Word War 2 provided the mindset and experience he needed to be successful when he assumed command of 8th Army during the Korean War. He took command at a time when the American forces were demoralized and retreating and he infused new life and fighting spirit into the troops, resulting in what is arguably the greatest American combat achievement of the 20th Century. Ridgway possessed the aggressive and offensive mindset necessary for airborne warfare: bold, willing to accept operate in an uncertain environment, emphasizing that senior leaders lead from the front. He applied these same principles upon assuming command in Korea. Although Matthew B. Ridgway continued to rise throughout the remainder of his career culminating during his time as the Chief of Staff of the Army, his moment of greatest impact remains his time as the Commanding General, 8th Army.
World War 2
Matthew B. Ridgway had a unique opportunity in World War 2 to imprint his leadership style and philosophy on a unique combat formation, the airborne division. He emphasized the following when he assumed command:
- Being forward with the troops at the point of decision
- Leaders acting decisively to impose their will on the enemy and take control of the initiative
- Maintaining a high degree of personal fitness
Ridgway demonstrated these traits while preparing the 82nd Airborne Division for war in the United States, maintaining a demanding physical pace while visiting troops conducting training in field under all conditions. This emphasis paid off during combat operations in Sicily, Italy and Northwest Europe once the Division deployed overseas.
Ridgway manifested his insistence on being at the place where he could best influence the fight by parachuting into Normandy during Operation Neptune on the start of D-Day in June of 1944, and subsequently during the fight to control the La Fiere Causeway to prevent German forces from crossing the Merderet River in order to attack American forces landing at Utah Beach as part of Operation Overlord. Ridgway’s aggressive combat style held him in good stead as the Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division, whose troops developed a reputation for ensuring “Every mission accomplished. No ground gained was ever relinquished.”
Ridgway retained his aggressive style upon being promoted to command of the XVIII Airborne Corps, leading in through tough combat in the Ardennes Campaign, during which he personally engaged German forces with direct fire during the fluid and confused phases of the German counter-offensive and received wounds from the fragments of an enemy grenade. Ridgway commanded the XVIII Airborne Corps through the end of the war in Europe in May of 1945.
Ridgway in Korea
Matthew B. Ridgway’s next opportunity to command in combat came during the Korean War. North Korean Forces, trained, equipped and mentored by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950 and rapidly overran lightly equipped South Korean troops, penetrating far south along the Korean peninsula. The United States, acting under the mandate of the United Nations, deployed to halt the North Korean invasion but initially experienced little success in combat. Throughout the summer and into the fall of 1950, the United States waged a defensive battle, ultimately switching over the offense in September of 1950, with a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon. This assault placed a large hostile force in the North Korean rear, forcing them to retreat to prevent being encircled. American forces drove north, driving the enemy out of South Korea ultimately reaching the Yalu River, which runs along the border between North Korea and China. Chinese Communist forces surprised the American combat units that had reached the Yalu, attacking in support of North Korea in November of 1950. The Chinese brought a tremendous number of troops to bear and their numbers, combined with the element of surprise, sent American and South Korean troops reeling southward in retreat.
At this time of confusion, the 8th United States Army, a major combat command fighting in Korea, lost its commanding general, Walton Walker, to an automobile accident in December of 1950. Ridgway received the assignment to replace the fallen Walker. Ridgway encountered an atmosphere of timidity and caution upon arriving in Korea. Commanders and their staffs focused on defensive actions and plans for withdrawal in the face of the advancing Chinese. Ridgway informed his immediate superior, Supreme Allied Commander, Far East General Douglas MacArthur, that he intended to focus his operations on attacking, harkening back to the aggressive posture he displayed as an airborne commander in World War 2. MacArthur endorsed Ridgway doing “as you see best” with 8th Army.
Upon arriving in Korea, Ridgway made a point of going forward and seeing the battlespace for himself with his subordinate commanders, insisting on aggressive patrolling to blunt the Chinese advance and prevent United States troops being surprised. Ridgway further pressed leaders and staff officers to begin thinking in terms of offensive maneuvers and regaining the initiative. He went so far as removing commanders and senior staff officers who continued to develop plans for holding their ground or retreating rather than drafting plans to transition to the attack at the earliest opportunity. Within sixty days of his assuming command, Ridgway’s emphasis on being forward and seizing the initiative began to pay off for the 8th Army. United States forces, supported by a contingent from France fighting under the auspices of the UN, held their ground at the battles of Chipyong-ni and Wonju in February of 1951, bringing the Chinese offensive to an abrupt halt. Soon after, 8th Army transitioned over to the offensive, driving enemy forces back across the 38th parallel in April. By July of 1951, the Chinese and North Koreans determined it might be best to begin negotiating with representatives of the United Nations to end hostilities. Although truce talks, and the war, continued for two more years, never again would Chinese or North Korean forces mount such relentless offensives. That the enemy no longer occupied South Korean territory and made overtures towards an armistice are outcomes directly attributable to Ridgway’s tenacious and aggressive brand of leadership.
Matthew B. Ridgway subsequently assumed command of all United Nations Forces in Korea, followed by assignments as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and ultimately as the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. He continued to display the leadership skills he had perfected earlier in Korea; however, his crowning achievement remains his transformation of the 8th Army during the uncertain Korean winter of 1950/1951. Ridgway turned around a defeated fighting force on the run, stood against a confident and aggressive enemy and succeeded in forcing that enemy to retreat and then begin to negotiate for peace terms. He did this without a large influx of fresh troops or introducing any new weapon systems to the battle to gain an advantage. Rather, he achieved success by adhering to his principles of being fit to fight, demonstrating that a commander must be forward at the point of decision, and assuming the offensive when at all possible. Ridgway’s leadership, honed as an airborne commander in World War 2, is directly responsible for the success achieved by American forces in Korea.