Korea, suffering from a brutal and inhumane Japanese occupation since 1905, was divided into spheres of influence after World War II; the North being guided by the USSR and China, the South by America. Kim Il Sung, obsessed with reunification, would on June 25, 1950, “Touch the South with the point of the bayonet.”
With seven divisions and one armoured brigade, the in min gun sliced through the totally useless ROK formations, capturing Seoul in two days. From Tokyo MacArthur ordered the 24 Infantry Division, the least capable amongst those stationed in Japan, to South Korea. It was after the loss of three thousand GIs in ten days that a terrible realisation dawned: It was going to be no easy task to stop the rampaging North Korean Army.
Hastily dispatched on a fact-finding mission, the best soldier available to the Joint Chiefs, General Ridgeway identified the lack of tactical leadership ability in Korea and the militarily absurd orders emanating from the Dai Ichi: MacArthur’s headquarters, as the main reasons for the disaster. Under the then prevailing circumstances stabilising the defences on the Pusan perimeter was a magnificent achievement. General Walton (Johnnie) Walker, commanding 8 Army, would however be given no thanks; primarily due to the last piece of military good fortune to come MacArthur’s way.
Haphazardly planned, with zero security surrounding its intention; Operation Chromite — Incheon, was successful primarily due to Kim ignoring numerous intelligence warnings. Though the landings were a walk-over, soon enough it’s basic flaws came to the fore. Ned Almond, MacArthur’s COS, against every rational military principle, had been given command of the landings. More idiotically, he still retained his old job. Once Seoul was liberated, on September 28, MacArthur in a deliberate snub to the Joint Chiefs, allowed Almond to retain command of 10 Corps, now tasking him to land at Wonsan, on the East coast of North Korea.
He was then to advance up to the Yalu on the right of Walker’s 8 Army. It was a structure and organisation begging a massive Chinese response, an attack which would inflict terrible losses on UN forces and the longest retreat in the history of American arms. It was at this stage that Matthew Ridgeway was sent to command 8 Army, consequent to Walker’s death in a road accident. Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had, finally, decided to limit MacArthur’s malignant influence, which had directly contributed to the disaster on the Chongchon. So this paratrooper, the best general of the US Army, set out to turn back the disaster.
MacArthur, the ‘American Caesar’
Matthew Bunker Ridgway was earmarked for military greatness very early in his career; he was the unanimous choice of all concerned, in fact would have been the choice of the administration when hostilities commenced, had they such an option. Ridgway was the best. The standard against which all other leaders in the American Army were measured, at that time. He was fierce, purposeful even ruthless. To him everything in service was serious and deadly business. No time was ever to be wasted during operations and he would never ‘varnish’ reports. The American soldiers admired him even if they did not love him, knowing that he did not play ‘games’ and was the ‘genuine article.’
He was a flinty man, rather humourless, fiercely aggressive and unsparing of himself and others. He was not very tall — five feet ten — but imposing, forceful and trim; by sheer force of personality seeming much taller. Ridgway was an instinctive leader, bristling with purpose. Within a short period of taking over the shattered Eighth Army, he would invigorate it and turn it around, inflicting disastrous defeats on the Chinese. All this was, of course expected by those who knew him. During the Italian campaign in 1944, known even then as the ‘Great Ridgway’, he had placed his career on the line, to oppose an ill planned airdrop over Rome.
Finding the planning staff unresponsive, he deputed his deputy, Maxwell Taylor, for the last moment reconnaissance, behind enemy lines. Taylor confirmed that the expected help by the Italian forces, which was essential for success, was non-existent. Ridgway got the airdrop cancelled at the moment troops of his Airborne Corps were already emplaned.
He had the mark of an uncommonly successful soldier, brave on the battlefield and equally so off it. With a constant code of honour and no false modesty he knew he was good at the business of war. This was not a happenstance. He had no false façade of humility. He would be, “Humble before my own God, not before anyone else.” He was a man of the basics — infantry patrols, selects good fields of fire, is always aggressive and takes the battle to the enemy with maximum firepower and violence. He did not threaten subordinates; those who proved incompetent were relieved immediately.
Almost all of MacArthur’s efforts had been focused on building his image as a strategic genius, almost unequalled: A veritable ‘American Caesar.’ It was as if those under so magnificent a soldier would themselves achieve some of his pseudo ability.
Ridgway was very aware of his charge of the most precious National resource — the lives of young soldiers. “All lives are equal on the battlefield. Every dead rifleman is as great a loss, in the eyes of God, as a dead General.” He fought the enemy with great ferocity, perhaps even taking a certain amount of pride from a battlefield littered with enemy dead. The alternative, he knew, was a battlefield full of dead Americans. Matt Ridgway was the greatest of fighting men. A past master in the business of killing the enemy.
Almost all of MacArthur’s efforts had been focused on building his image as a strategic genius, almost unequalled: A veritable ‘American Caesar.’ It was as if those under so magnificent a soldier would themselves achieve some of his pseudo ability. Quite the converse, Ridgway allowed his commanders to develop themselves, gain confidence and become known in their own right. He always wore, pinned to his combat harness, a hand grenade and a first aid kit, which earned him the sobriquet “Iron tits.” His military model was General George Catlet Marshall. Even MacArthur was aware that Ridgway would brook no-nonsense. “The Eighth Army is yours. Do what you think is best,” were MacArthur’s only instructions.
So MacArthur would soon fade away from the greatest fiasco he had ever created; now just an old man, dreaming his self-glorifying dreams. With Ridgeway’s presence in Korea, the almost mortal fear of MacArthur, harboured in the timid minds in Washington melted away. Ridgway was in command and he feared no MacArthur, or anyone else.
General Omar Bradley, generally very dour and taciturn, wrote the following years later, “It is not often in war time that a single battlefield commander can make a decisive difference. But in Korea, Ridgway would prove to be the exception. His brilliant, driving and uncompromising leadership would turn the battle, like no other General in our military history.” During his visits to the formations, Ridgway was sickened to observe the rock bottom morale, defeatist attitudes of commanders and the total lack of intelligence.
The Army was broken in spirit, “Not in retreat, but in flight.” To remove the dependency on roads and transport his immediate remedy was foot patrolling — The very essence of a good infantryman, which, at the first instance would expose them to the harsh environment. He was extremely tough on the formation commanders, “You must be ruthless with your General officers. Be ruthless with them because everything depends on their leadership.” During the early days he was everywhere, flying in his light aircraft, visiting even battalions and companies. He wanted the troops to find the enemy by patrolling, patrolling and more patrolling. His mantra was, “Find the enemy and fix him. Find them, fix them, fight them and finish them.”
Ridgway shows the way
The first action taken by Ridgway was to get ten additional Artillery battalions into Korea. Given the enormous potential of artillery as a battle winner, he was shocked at the oversight of not providing sufficient artillery. To his great surprise he discovered that, though the troops had taken heavy casualties, the physical damage was much less than what he has expected.
The real loss was in morale. More than anything else this was what he rebuilt and so brought out the full potential of the American fighting man. The change was visible almost immediately. To the obvious relief of General ‘Lightening’ Joe Collins, and General Hoyt Vandenburg, the Chiefs of the Army and Air Force, the dramatic improvements on the ground were startlingly obvious. Ridgway was leading from the front, always at the cutting edge, hard as flint, full of intensity, metaphorically grinding and gnashing his teeth, to get the job done. He was itching to give a bloody defeat to the Chinese that they would long remember, in the process making his Command a fighting force again.
The big question in his mind was what to do about Ned Almond, MacArthur’s blue-eyed boy. Many, especially OP Smith, who had rescued his Marines by superb leadership during the withdrawal from the Chosin reservoir, felt that Almond should be summarily dismissed. This was, however, not to be, he was aggressive, which was the need of the hour. The weakness amongst the Corps commander had shocked Ridgway.
He, however, did not desire an immediate “General’s Bloodbath.” John Coulter (Nervous John) of 9 Corps was promoted and kicked upstairs, to Tokyo. It was the Army’s code to protect its own, even when they failed. “Shrimp” Milburn, commanding corps, also bore responsibility for the fiasco at Unsan. In his case Ridgway placed his own headquarters alongside Milburn’s, he would attend every briefing, keeping a watchful eye, he was a friend who, however, would not be allowed any leeway.
With Ridgeway’s presence in Korea, the almost mortal fear of MacArthur, harboured in the timid minds in Washington melted away.
In contrast to MacArthur, who had never spent a night in Korea, Ridgway was there all the time. His personal requirements were basic to the extreme. Two tents, one as his map room, the other with a space heater and a camp cot, was the sum total of his personal administration. With the fighting men in now shared all their hardships. The field commanders knew that he could not be fooled, they were henceforth on a constant test of excellence. In a very short time Ridgeway turned America’s military fortunes around, exorcising the ghosts of the traumatic withdrawals from the Chongchon.
Against the Chinese
With Ridgway now in command, there was, at Eighth Army Headquarters and the formations below it, a healthy new respect for the enemy. The Chinese had identifiable characteristics. Some units were clearly better than the others, some commanders substantially better at handling their command. Now, Ridgway intended to study them. How many miles can they move on a given night? How fixed are their orders once a battle began? How long can they sustain in a given battle? All this would give the answer to the one question uppermost in his mind. How exactly can the battlefield be used to the advantage of the Americans?
In the first instance, Ridgway intended to be the one to select the battlefield. He would fly over the ground in his light aircraft throughout the day. That he could see Chinese did not create a lack of respect. It, on the contrary, made him appreciate their superb camouflage and concealment and their use of ground. He began to put together a portrait of the Chinese and how they fought — and so how he intended to fight them.
The Chinese were good no doubt, but their resources were very limited and they had logistical and communication weaknesses. The bugles and flutes announcing their attacks could be terrifying in the night, but the reality was that with only musical instruments as a means of communication, they could not react to sudden changes on the battlefield. They often lacked the capacity to exploit a breakthrough immediately and whatever food and ammunition could be carried on the soldier was his only sustenance.
To Ridgway gaining terrain as an end in itself was meaningless. It would now be used to attain advantageous positions, making a stand and bleeding the enemy forces. He was to make the war into a meat-grinder. The first thing Ridgway realised was that it was a disaster to retreat, once the Chinese hit. The key to their offensive tactics was to attack a unit, create panic and then, from advantageous positions in the rear, maul them when they retreat.
All armies are the most vulnerable in a retreat, but an American unit, because of all its hardware and the poor narrow Korean roads, was exceptionally so. What the Chinese had done at Kunuri, during the retreat was exactly how they had fought the Nationalists in the civil war. No one, in Tokyo Command, had paid much attention to this. Ridgway’s long training as an airborne man was also critical to his strategy. He meant to create strong islands of his own troops, sustain unit integrity, employ artillery and air extensively and then let the enemy attack.
— The author is an Armoured Corps Officer (Retd).