Decorated with two Distinguished Service Medals, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Italian Cross, General Gaither is honored by the Society of John Gaither Descendants for his service to our country and this Society. He was both a founder of the Society and its first president.
In his first message as president to the Society’s membership, he said, “I hope that our efforts can be combined and exerted to establish an organization of which we all can be proud to hand down to our progeny of future Gaithers”.
The Society was conceived at his home in Annapolis, Maryland when Mel Gaither, the Society’s 2015 recipient, and Dr. William Gaither met to decide how best to preserve our family’s history. He also hosted the 1988 Reunion and Annual Meeting in Annapolis. It is with pride that we honor General Gaither this year.
General Gaither commanded the 40th Infantry Division in the Punchbowl and Heartbreak Ridge campaigns of the Korean War. He retired in 1962 as commander of the 2nd Army at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Born in Baltimore, he was a graduate of Boys' Latin School and began his career as a military officer in 1924 after his graduation from St. John's College in Annapolis. His family had included Army officers since the Revolutionary War.
Before World War II, he served at various posts in this country, Alaska (then a territory) and China, where he was stationed when the Japanese invaded in 1937.
An early proponent of airborne forces, he became the second commander of the Parachute School at Fort Benning, Georgia, taking the training along with the men under his command and qualifying as a master parachutist. While in command there, he was instrumental in forming the 555th Parachute Infantry Company (nicknamed the Triple Nickels) a segregated unit which was the U.S. Army’s first African-American paratrooper unit. He was also a graduate of the Command and General Staff College.
After heading the Parachute School from 1943 until 1945, he jumped with the 17th Airborne Division, east of the Rhine River, landing almost on top of a German antiaircraft battery. It was at this battle that General Gaither fought using his general officer’s pistol, a .380 Colt 1908, now on display at the NRA National Firearms Museum along with those of Generals MacArthur, Yeager, and Eisenhower. His pistol is unique in that collection in that it is the only one known to have been fired in battle. The Americans took the position, and later, General Gaither said one group of Germans might have been taken prisoner sooner if he had not shot down their truce flag, which was so dirty he did not immediately recognize it. In addition, he said, he risked being fired upon to retrieve a dental plate in a bag he had dropped in the landing.
General Gaither then served briefly with the 86th Infantry Division in the Philippines and then from 1946 until 1949 with troops on the border between Italy and Yugoslavia, becoming a member of the allied commission that established the border and serving as military governor of Trieste. During this period, he also served as president of a War Crimes Court in Florence, Italy.
In 1949, he became commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. By the start of the Korean War, he was operations officer in the Pentagon. After commanding the 11th Airborne Division in this country, in 1952, he became commander of the 40th Infantry Division in 1953, fighting in the Punchbowl and Heartbreak Ridge sectors in Korea.
After becoming intelligence officer in the Far East Command in 1954, he served as assistant chief of staff for intelligence in Washington in 1955 and 1956.
After being made a Lieutenant General in 1956 he headed the Army Reserve and National Guard units in the Continental Army Command. In 1958 he became commander in chief of the Caribbean Command, a post he kept until taking over the Second Army in 1960.
General Gaither became Annapolis police commissioner in 1966, retiring finally in 1973. He was also a former president of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland, a former commander of the Annapolis chapter of the Military Order of the World Wars, and a Paul Harris Fellow of the Rotary Club of Annapolis. He had also been a member of the Annapolis Yacht Club and other organizations.
General Ridgely Gaither, Jr is the son of Ridgely Gaither, Sr., descended in the line of George Riggs Gaither, Jr., George Riggs Gaither, Sr., Daniel Gaither, Major Henry Gaither, Benjamin Gaither, John Gaither II, and John Gater
General Gaither died at age 89 on October 26, 1992 in Annapolis and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. His first wife, the former Dorothy Bassford, died in 1969. His second wife, the former Anne Stuart Harcourt died in 1988; his only daughter, Elizabeth Ridgely Gaither Ochs died in 2010. His grandson, William VanDyke Ochs III died in 2011. As of May 2016, General Gaither is survived by his grand-daughter, Margaret Ridgely Ochs Tiernan, and six great-grandchildren, Vanessa Ridgely Ochs, Lt Shelby Alexander Ochs USMC, Genevieve Silvia Ochs, Juliet Ochs Oleck, Cary Tiernan, and Maggie Tiernan.