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?

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.

Right after taking over in Korea, Ridgway made his first visit to the 1st Marine Division. At the time the noted historian and war correspondent S.L.A. Marshall was serving on the front with Colonel Chesty Puller’s First Marines. They were sitting in Puller’s tent.

“Marshall, there’s a new Army general here who says he is going to turn this Army around and even show us Marines how to pull things together,” Puller growled. “Do you think any Army general can teach Marines anything about fighting?”

Marshall smiled. “If you are talking about Matt Ridgway, yes—he can do it.”

The Art of Generalship

After the war, Puller—a highly decorated lieutenant general—wrote his memoirs and reserved the highest praise for one lone army general: Matthew B. Ridgway. “Slam” Marshall also wrote a book about Korea and had abundant words of praise for Ridgway. “He is the most forceful and winning leader of American battle forces in my experience,” he said. “No other performance by an individual compares with his feat of taking over the beaten and demoralized Eighth Army, Korea, late 1950, and transforming it into a confident, hard-driving and unified force within less than one month. If a general cannot motivate others, he’s a sham. That’s his high road to accomplishment, the essence of the art of generalship.”

New Year 1951 began with a bang. North Korean and Communist Chinese forces launched a massive offensive. While driving north of Seoul, General Ridgway saw truckloads of South Korean troops “streaming south, without order, without arms, without leaders, in full retreat,” he noted. In the American media this was called the “Big Bugout.” Added Ridgway, “They had just one aim—to get as far away from the Chinese as possible.”

A defensive line was quickly set up at the 37th parallel, and on January 13 Ridgway called for a cease-fire, but four days later the word came back from the north: No cease-fire will be considered. Ridgway could afford to waste no time and he ordered UN forces to launch an offensive north. His level of confidence in the Eighth Army and its subordinate commanders was much higher than it was barely three weeks earlier. Thus was born Operation Thunderbolt. Unlike the lightning advance after the Inchon landing and breakout from Pusan, the entire front moved as a unit across the center of Korea. Although outnumbered about two to one, the UN forces possessed exceptional superiority in tanks and artillery. Ridgway ordered all artillery, even disabled tanks, moved to the front.

Since the middle of February Chinese forces had been pulling back from Chipyong-ni, southeast of Seoul, in the central section of the peninsula. Their withdrawal spread along the central front. Unwilling to give the retreating Chinese any time to reorganize or rest, General Ridgway ordered a new offensive named Operation Killer to launch in three days. He believed the Chinese withdrawal from Chipyong-ni reflected a turning point in the “revitalization of the Eighth Army.”

Operation Killer began on February 21 despite trepidation in Washington. General Collins said the name Killer “caused us sensitive souls in Washington to ask whether that term were really necessary,” but he and the JCS understood that the objective “was to destroy the Chinese and [North Korean] forces east of the upper reaches of the Han River.”


Three days later, on February 24, the IX Corps—ordered to spearhead the attack in Operation Killer—had advanced 10 miles above Chipyong-ni and the 1st Marine Division had taken high ground north of Hoengsong. Tragedy struck later in the day, however. Major General Bryant E. Moore, the commanding general of IX Corps, was killed when the helicopter he was riding in crashed into the frozen Han River. The 56-year-old Moore was a West Pointer who served as superintendent before coming to Korea. Ridgway put Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith—an exceptionally competent Marine leader—in temporary command of the U.S. Army corps until Maj. Gen. William M. Hoge could get to Korea early the following month.

231 Dead Without a Single South Korean Casualty


On the last day of February UN forces touched the Han River and began immediately to reach a position between the 37th and 38th parallels. UN troops were involved in multiple attacks in an attempt to establish a line at the 38th parallel. Then, on March 7, the Eighth Army recrossed the vital Han River as Operation Ripper. Action was swift and deadly. The 1st Battalion, Republic of Korea 2nd Regiment, launched a surprise attack against North Korean forces that left 231 enemy dead without a single South Korean casualty.

As spring began to warm on the Korean Peninsula and UN forces solidified their positions, General MacArthur suddenly emerged on the scene in a big way. Congressman Joseph W. Martin, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote to General MacArthur seeking his views on permitting Nationalist Chinese forces to augment the Eighth Army in Korea. Martin had earlier suggested in a speech that the “forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on Formosa might be employed in the opening of a second Asiatic front to relieve the pressure on our forces in Korea” and he would “deem it a great help if I could have your views on this point, either on a confidential basis or otherwise.”

On April 5, two days after the Eighth Army ceremoniously crossed the 38th parallel, Congressman Martin released, during an extended debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, the text of MacArthur’s letter to him supporting the use of Nationalist Chinese troops in the Korean War.

It was the beginning of the end for General of the Army MacArthur. Following a White House meeting on April 6, President Truman noted in his diary that MacArthur “shoots another political bomb through Joe Martin, leader of the Republican minority in the House. This looks like the last straw. Rank insubordination … I’ve come to the conclusion that our Big General in the Far East must be recalled.”

Three days later Truman signed the order relieving MacArthur as Supreme Commander Allied Powers in the Far East. A message was drafted to send to Secretary of the Army Frank Pace, who in turn was to deliver the presidential order in person in Tokyo. The president also approved a public statement to be issued that said: “With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States and of the United Nations….”

Throughout the day of April 10 General Omar Bradley was unable to reach Secretary Pace, who was conferring with Ridgway in a tent near the front in Korea. At 11 pm Bradley phoned the president to tell him he was radioing MacArthur directly. A little less than two hours later, at an extraordinary news conference at 12:56 am in the White House, press secretary Joseph Short released news that General MacArthur had been removed from command by President Truman. It was nearly 3 pm in Tokyo, where news of MacArthur’s firing was broadcast on the radio before MacArthur himself was officially notified via Bradley’s delayed wire. An aide, Sydney L. Huff, was nearby when MacArthur received the news. “I got the impression that he was aggrieved, that he had suffered a bit of heartbreak. But he never said a word to indicate his attitude, and all of us realized that it would be a grave error to make any sympathetic noises in his presence.”

In his memoirs MacArthur said his relief was momentous “not because of the personalities involved, but as a symbol of a basic change in attitude toward Asia since our entrance into the Korean War.… A chain of reactions was set off which has prejudiced to its very foundation the struggle between the free and the red world.”