June 2021

The Right Way, the Wrong Way, and the Ridgway: The Will to Succeed

by Rolly Dessert

In early 1951, General Matt Ridgway demonstrated one of the most dramatic command achievements in U.S. Army history: an example of brilliant personal leadership. War is a contest of wills; in the face of disaster, "it all comes to rest on a commander's will alone. The ardor of his spirit must rekindle the flame of purpose in all others; his inward fire must revive their hope." Ridgway's leadership in Korea is a stellar example of how to improvise, adapt and overcome.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

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On December 22, 1950, Ridgway heard from General Joe Collins, his boss. "Matt, Johnny Walker has been killed in Korea. You are taking over. Get your things together and get out there just as soon as you can." When asked which officers he wanted to take with him Ridgway said, "I'll go this alone. It's Christmas; even a bachelor has made plans."

In Korea, Ridgway found a shattered army. Six months after the outbreak of war, Eighth Army was demoralized, confused, and near defeat by a Chinese Communist intervention. The unit had performed bravely; withdrawing before a superior Chinese attack. The Americans, however, had been cut off and surrounded so often that commanders were focused on retreat and not advancement. The men were tired, dispirited, and lacked confidence.

Ridgway set out to change that mindset. He improvised by taking measures to give the army new life, purpose, and a fighting spirit. This was critical since another Chinese attack was expected within five days on New Year's Eve. In his first meeting, Ridgway ordered the Eighth Army to prepare for the attack. He personally visited each command post down to regiment, and challenged every commander, "Show me your attack plans."

Highly recognizable in a pile cap with the bill tied back, he wore jump boots, and a parachutist's harness which held a first-aid kit and a live hand grenade which was "solely for self-preservation if my plane goes down in enemy territory." He was audacious, and forced commanders to leave their bunkers, get out on the ground, and conduct personal reconnaissance. He stressed the need for aggressive patrolling and good plans for fire support. Above all, he demanded that everyone perform their duty.

Ridgway adapted by stating his intent. He spoke to every commander down to the company level, telling them to disregard previous orders to "hold positions at all costs". They could give ground if needed but must withdraw fighting in a coordinated manner. No unit would be overwhelmed and destroyed. Units that were cut off would be fought for and brought back unless a major commander assessed that their relief would result in the loss of equal or greater numbers.

Later Ridgway wrote, "I knew it was vital, in restoring the fighting spirit of the troops, to make clear to all of them that their leaders were concerned for their safety and would not expend lives needlessly. I treated them as disciplined, trained men who would take professional pride in their toughness and skill as fighters who wanted to win". He had an intense impact, epitomized by the names he chose for his offensive operations — Thunderbolt, Killer, Ripper, Rugged, Courageous, and Rat Killer.

Ridgway showed that human spirit is the true foundation for leadership. In creating camaraderie, he was responsible for overcoming a tendency to take counsel of fear. A commander said, "Ridgway boosts our morale." After listening to soldiers, he ordered kitchens to move closer to the front and provide large amounts of hot meat and food. Helicopters carried in writing paper, envelopes that did not stick together, warm clothing, and bundles of gloves. Ridgway said, "I knew from personal experience how easy it is to leave a glove behind or drop it to fire a weapon, and then not see it again". Ridgway had seized the moral initiative and began to dominate the war.

The Chinese began their assault on New Year's Eve. Eighth Army gave up Seoul again, but remained in close contact with the enemy; withdrawing seventy-five miles and standing firm. The enemy renewed its attack using massed forces but was halted with heavy losses. On January 25, 1951, Ridgway ordered a counterattack with about 365,000 men, and drove back an enemy force of one million. By the end of March, Eighth Army had retaken Seoul, driven across the 38th parallel with relatively low losses. By June 1951, Chinese and North Koreans were pushed back to the North, and the Chinese stated that they would negotiate a truce.

The decisive factor in turning the tide in Korea was the sheer force of Ridgway's will. One officer wrote, "A retreating, despondent, defeated Army was turned around by the power of the commander's personality."

Another said, "Within a few weeks he had all officers working on plans for attack, in a change of spirit and purpose so swift that none would have believed it possible."

A statesman wrote to Ridgway, "Matt, historians will record how your personal leadership built a great army in Korea and saved your country from the humiliation of defeat."

In 1986, President Reagan awarded General Ridgway the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The citation read, "Heroes come when they are needed. Great men step forward when courage seems in short supply; and there was Ridgway."

If you want to learn specific action steps you can take today to develop your own "Improvise, Adapt and Overcome" mindset, we invite you to download our FREE whitepaper.