MATTHEW RIDGWAY was arguably the United States' finest combat leader of the Second World War and one of its foremost military figures in this century. Ridgway commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, the first unit to land in occupied France on D-Day, and rose to corps command by the end of the war. He commanded the Eighth US Army against Communist forces in Korea, in 1950-51; succeeded General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Allied Commander in the Far East, 1951-52; returned to Europe as Supreme Allied Commander, 1952-53; and was Chief of Staff of the US Army until he retired in June 1955.
Ridgway's contribution to the defeat of Germany in the Second World War is less well-known than his later accomplishments in Korea, when he was often shown in the media wearing his trademark hand grenade taped to the right suspender of his combat gear. Less noted outside the professional army were his feats of courage, strength of character, and leadership in the European campaigns.
Matthew Ridgway was born into an army family at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1895. His father, Thomas Ridgway, was an army colonel, an artilleryman in the West Point Class of 1883. Ridgway grew up on military posts across the US. He failed the entrance examination for the United States Military Academy at West Point on his first trial but passed the next year, graduating in the class of 1917. He served in Central America and Asia before being marked out as an elite officer with a two-year course at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavensworth, Kansas, completed in 1937. In 1939 he went to the war plans division of the War Department in Washington.
Promoted to general in January 1942 as the assistant division commander to Omar Bradley of the newly activated 82nd Infantry Division, Ridgway became the commanding general of the division in June when Bradley was transferred. Deeply shaken by the German airborne's capture of Crete and the US Army's lack of a similar capability, the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, chose the 82nd to be trained as the first US airborne division. Ridgway was promoted to major-general and ordered to train and test in battle this new concept of warfare which employed parachutes and gliders to envelop the enemy vertically.
Having little knowledge of parachuting, Ridgway immediately arranged to jump from an aeroplane. He later recalled this as 'an unnecessary risk' since it had already been decided that the division staff would land in combat by glider and he had a 'trick back' from falling from a horse during West Point cadet days, which still gave him some pain and could give at any moment. Still he needed to do what he had to do. He recalled the feeling of leaping into space for the first time and being jerked by the slipstream of the C-47 as the chute opened: 'It was like the blow of a club over the shoulders, the landing was like jumping off the top of a freight car travelling at 35 miles an hour on to a hard clay roadbed.' From this beginning Ridgway went on to set the high standards of courage, leadership, physical training and ingenuity for which paratroopers became famous.
In April 1943 he deployed the All-American division, as the 82nd was nicknamed, to North Africa, where he was responsible for planning and executing the first large-scale airborne attack in the history of the US Army - the invasion of Sicily. Ridgway led his paratroopers in a rapid conquest of the northern portion of the island, stirring the imagination of the Allied high command and the public in favour of parachute operations. Ridgway was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor, the highest of all US Army medals) for 'extraordinary heroism' in the Sicily operations. The citation reads: 'As commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, Maj-Gen Ridgway displayed an uncanny ability for appearing during crucial moments in the advance and by his compelling leadership and inspiring presence helped his command to hurdle their obstacles.'
With the outcome of the Italian invasion in doubt at Salerno, the 82nd was shifted to General Mark Clark's Fifth Army and parachuted in on the night of 14 to 15 September 1943. After leading the advance up the boot to Naples, the division deployed to the United Kingdom in November in preparation for the Normandy invasion. Initially located in Northern Ireland, the division moved to Leicestershire in February 1944. There the intensive jump training planned by Ridgway and his assistant division commander, James M. Gavin, was limited by the short daylight hours, foggy weather and a shortage of carrier aircraft and gliders.
By D-Day Ridgway was technically not a qualified parachutist as he had not made the required five jumps; no matter, he jumped with his 505th Regiment in the early morning hours of 6 June. He landed alone in the dark in a pasture guarded by hedgerows, but exactly on the spot planned, one of the few sticks to do so. Wearing the grenade taped to the right suspender of his harness and a first aid packet to the left and armed with a . pistol and his trusty Springfield rifle, Ridgway began the fight for occupied France. The division's mission was to drop behind Utah Beach, seize exits through the marshes for the amphibious assault, and block German reinforcements from attacking the beachhead. The 82nd's prime objectives were Ste Mere Eglise and bridges over the Merderet river.
It became clear very soon that the drop had been grievously poor. Loaded down with 125 to 150lb of equipment, some men landed in the Channel and drowned; others suffered a similar fate in the marshes; others still were shot by Germans as they came down. The division might be in grave danger of destruction, but men came together in hodgepodge groups and moved toward their assigned objectives. Gavin organised a pick-up force and seized the bridges at Chef-du-Pont and La Fiere, others seized Ste Mere Eglise, where the division command post was established. But the situation remained precarious as reports of German armour moving on Ste Mere Eglise came into the command post, and the follow-up glider missions to bring in artillery and anti- tank guns were a fiasco. A savage and bloody defence prevented the town from being overrun until elements of the US 8th Infantry Division pushed up from Utah Beach. A co-ordinated counter-attack led by Ridgway pushed the Germans back, and the arrival of heavy artillery and armour ended the threat to Ste Mere Eglise, the anchor of the left flank of the invasion force.
The standard doctrine of pulling out the light airborne forces shortly after their drops and letting heavier units conduct power operations was not followed in Normandy, and the 82nd was asked to assault the La Fiere causeway frontally and secure a bridgehead across the Merderet, thereby cutting the Cotentin Peninsula and blocking German reinforcements going to Cherbourg. As the Germans fought back viciously, American wounded filled the ditches on the sides of the causeway, the attack bogged down. Then in the midst of this bloody firefight, Matt Ridgway appeared, carrying his Springfield rifle. He, Gavin and others grabbed men and reversed the flow to the rear. For this action and those on D-Day, Ridgway received a second Distinguished Service Cross.
As the senior US airborne officer, Ridgway assumed command of the XVIII Airborne Corps in August 1944 and led it in Operation Market Garden in Holland and then in the destruction of Hitler's last offensive, the Battle of the Bulge. He led the Corps across the Rhine and northward through the Ruhr to the Baltic where they linked up with the Russians on 2 May 1945.
Ridgway returned with his corps to the US in August 1945 for redeployment to the Pacific. However, with the dropping of the atomic bomb and the cancellation of these plans, Lt- Gen Ridgway, as he had become, was assigned a double job as US Theater Commander and Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean. Two additional assignments followed closely. In January 1946 he served on the military staff committee of the United Nations and as senior delegate to the Inter-American Defense Board. He was instrumental in drafting the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Pact). Another diplomatic-type assignment followed with the command of the Caribbean, but this pleasant tour was short-lived as he returned to the Pentagon as Deputy Chief of Staff for operations and administration.
Ridgway was placed in command of the US Eighth Army in Korea on the death of General Walton H. Walker in a jeep accident and at a time when the US forces had been routed by the Chinese Communist intervention. Another Dunkirk seemed possible, opening up the Far East to Chinese conquest. Ridgway arrived wearing his grenade on his parachute harness and revitalised the US forces, turning them into an aggressive fighting machine. They shifted to the offensive and in a short time forced the Communists to negotiate a truce.
Receiving his fourth star as a general, Ridgway was appointed Supreme Commander in the Far East when MacArthur was fired by President Truman. A year later he replaced General Dwight Eisenhower in Europe, where he worked to build a command structure for Nato. Ridgway returned to Washington as Chief of Staff in August 1953. He held that post until June 1955 when he retired after disagreements with the Eisenhower administration over the army budget and what he believed to be an over-reliance on nuclear weapons.
After leaving active service, General Ridgway published articles in the Saturday Evening Post, continuing his criticism of Eisenhower for making military decisions based on politics. In later years he worked as Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Mellon Institute, a military and industry research organisation.
Ridgway received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986. The citation read in part: 'Heroes come when they are needed; great men step forward when courage is in short supply, World War II was such a time, and there was Ridgway.'