The Story of How One U.S. General Saved America from Defeat vs. North Korea

June 26, 2019 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Korean WarNorth KoreaSouth KoreaChinaGeneral Matthew B. Ridgway

The Story of How One U.S. General Saved America from Defeat vs. North Korea

Any guesses who?

Siren wailing, the jeep propelling Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker headed north from Walker’s tactical command post in Seoul. Since taking command of all U.S. ground forces in Korea on July 13 he had been on the go without a break. It was now two days before Christmas 1950. “The sight of him standing in his jeep, wearing his shiny steel helmet with the three stars on the front and holding the special grab bar, chest puffed out” had become commonplace, wrote historian Clay Blair.

With Walker in the jeep were his aide, Lt. Col. Layton C. Tynor, who sat next to him; plus his driver, Master Sgt. George Belton, and his bodyguard, Sergeant Francis S. Reenan, who were in front.

South Korea’s venerated Commonwealth Brigade had recently earned a Republic of Korea Presidential Citation and “Johnnie” Walker was in a hurry to reach the front at Uijongbu. Although he had turned 61 less than three weeks earlier, Patton’s blunt, hard-charging protégé displayed no signs of slowing down. The continued flood of Chinese troops into the Korean Peninsula from Manchuria troubled him but also steeled his resolve. Like Patton, Walker thrived on the battlefield. “My dad was a frontline leader,” said his son, Captain Sam Walker, a decorated company commander sent to Korea early in the war. “He didn’t command from the rear. The newspapers always reported that he drove too fast and he flew too low in a light observation plane. I think the people in Washington thought something was going to happen to him over there.”

“Ten Minutes After Leaving Us He was Dead.”

The morning of December 23 was typical of Korea in the winter: misty and miserably cold. About halfway into the trip Walker’s jeep stopped briefly at the 24th Division command post to confer with Maj. Gen. Bill Kean, the division commander, and the assistant division commander Brig. Gen. Garrison H. Davidson. Davidson remembered the short meeting with Walker the rest of his life, because “ten minutes after leaving us he was dead.”

Moments after resuming the journey northward, Walker’s jeep came upon a large convoy. As it pulled out to pass two vehicles stopped on the narrow road, a South Korean military truck suddenly veered onto the southbound lane and struck the jeep. It overturned, throwing its four occupants into a ditch. Mortally injured, Walker didn’t survive the brief trip to the 8055th MASH, a nearby army hospital. Within minutes his son, Sam, was summoned, but there was nothing he could do. “I went into a tent where his body was lying and saw that he’d been crushed.” Captain Sam Walker lost a father, and the army lost a talented general.

Word of Walker’s death quickly reached General Douglas MacArthur at his headquarters in Tokyo. He praised Walker’s “brilliant generalship” while noting that “it was a difficult time to change field commanders.” Indeed it was a trying moment. The weather was turning bad, the Chinese were pouring over the Manchurian border in droves and crossing the 38th parallel into South Korea, and the Eighth Army—already in disarray—was suddenly missing its commanding general. Who would want to take command at such an awkward and difficult moment?

MacArthur had the answer: Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway. A battle-hardened paratrooper, he commanded the elite 82nd Airborne on D-day and ended the war with three stars. At that moment he was serving on the army staff in Washington.

The next day MacArthur phoned General J. Lawton Collins, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, asking that Matt Ridgway be sent to Korea at once as Walker’s replacement. Collins concurred and phoned Ridgway at the home of a friend where he was having a Christmas Eve dinner. Ridgway shared the news with his wife and friends, finished the meal, packed his bags, and early the next morning—Christmas Day—he was on his way to Tokyo. His plane landed shortly before midnight.

A 55-year-old West Pointer, Matthew Ridgway was a resilient, highly regarded combat leader, an instinctive leader of men who learned the craft of command at an early age. A lifelong friend, Colonel Red Reeder, met Ridgway in 1913, the summer that Matt began his plebe year at the academy. Young Red was six years his junior. “He would say, today we will run races, or dig for clams, or fish for flounders, or go fire .22 rifles,” Reeder recalled. “He intrigued us and guided us. He set a tremendous example. He was really a natural leader and has been since boyhood.”

“I Knew Probably 900 of Them Altogether. I Could Call Them by Name”

Ridgway’s leadership style was direct and personal. He once said his entire ambition was to prepare himself to successfully lead troops in combat from the day he had his first company in Texas in 1917. “My concern was for my men,” he said. “Up to 300 men in that company, but in the course of a couple weeks or so I could [call] every man in the ranks by his name.”

Years later, during World War II, this personal style of leadership had been finely honed. Early on he commanded three infantry regiments in the 82nd Infantry Division. “I knew every second lieutenant, every infantry officer in those three regiments by name,” he insisted. “I knew probably 900 of them altogether. I could call them by name, and the reason was I spent every single daylight hour with them in their training. By the time we got into combat I had such a close personal relationship with my regimental and battalion commanders that I concurred in every single one of their selections. Not in one single case was there any disagreement.”

A common-sense disciplinarian, Matt Ridgway relied on his ability to lead by unpretentious example. He strongly disliked what he termed the “showmanship element” that some generals employed to advantage. “I recognized that a man like Patton, like MacArthur, was a showman,” he once told me. “If that’s your nature, that’s fine, but it’s not part of my nature. I never was a showman and never intended to be.”

Beginning at 9:30 am on the day after Christmas, Ridgway met for several hours with General MacArthur at the Dai-ichi Building in downtown Tokyo. They reviewed plans for a staged withdrawal to the Pusan area in southern Korea and discussed the need for a military victory in order to buttress the UN Command’s efforts at diplomacy. Ridgway described his conversation that morning as “detailed, specific, frank, and far-ranging.” He was given “full tactical control” of the war in Korea and “all the authority a military commander could ask for,” but above all MacArthur urged Ridgway not to underestimate the Chinese. When their talk was completed, MacArthur shook hands firmly and said, “The Eighth is yours, Matt. Do what you think best.”

By noon Ridgway was headed for Haneda Airport and four hours later his plane touched down in Taegu, Korea. Early the next morning he struck out to visit his division and corps commanders, most of whom he knew or had served with before. In less than 48 hours he had met with all but one of his senior generals. “After I’d got the measure of these commanders in their own fields, up in their own terrain, I informed the Army Department that I needed top-flight regimental and battalion commanders,” he said.

There was no Escape From Ridgway’s Watchful Eye

For Ridgway, it wasn’t difficult to see where the weak links were. He believed that by the time leaders had 15 years of service their competence was as prominent as the noses on their faces. “By that time the weaknesses of any will have shown up, weaknesses of character, lack of force, lack of the power of decision, the fact that they don’t know their people, aren’t close to their men. These are the things I can tell when I walk into a combat area.”

There was no shrinking from Ridgway’s watchful eye. He was everywhere. Although replacing questionable officers could solve some of the leadership problems—and Ridgway’s judgment was swift—there was a deeper cancer within Eighth Army that became an overriding concern: morale. As he drove along the roads visiting command posts, Ridgway would often stop and talk to GIs, but he quickly discovered something was not there. That something was lack of esprit de corps, and it was pervasive throughout the Eighth Army. Ridgway saw it in the faces of privates, sergeants, and even some lieutenants. “That extra snap to the salute, that quick aggressive tone and gesture, that confident grin that had always seemed to me the marks of the battle-seasoned American GI, all were missing,” he said.

As he had his entire career, Ridgway set about improving the morale of his troops by getting down to basics. “The very first task I set myself was restoring the fighting spirit of the forces under my command,” he said. Soldiers have fundamental needs that so often can be met by a commander who takes the time to observe and act. Ridgway saw that his troops had clothing unsuited to the harsh weather, and winter garments soon began to arrive. The problem of no stationery and envelopes to write home was solved by having them delivered throughout the front lines by helicopter. Hot food was soon available everywhere. A simple thing like gloves, which are easy to drop on the battlefield, became available to those who lost them—no questions asked.