Smith, Ralph Corbett (1893-1998)

Photograph of General Ralph C. Smith

U.S. Army. Via Wikipedia

Ralph Smith was born in Nebraska and commissioned a second lieutenant in 1916. He fought in the Aisne-Marne, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne offensives in France during the First World War. He subseqently took a B.S. from Colorado State University (1919), served as an instructor at West Point and the Infantry School, studied at the Sorbonne and L'Ecole de Guerre, and graduated from the Command and General Staff School in 1928.

When war broke out, Smith was the commander unlucky enough to be given command of 27 Division, a National Guard unit from New York that was one of the poorest performers in the Pacific theater.  The division contained many older men and was poorly trained, and its long garrison assignment in Hawaii did not help.  27 Division was first committed to combat at Makin, where it advanced much more slowly than planned, allowing itself to be pinned down by a few snipers.  Admiral Turner was particularly critical, accusing the officers and men of lacking “moral fiber.”

General Holland M. Smith kept 27 Division in reserve for his next operation, the assault on Saipan.  However, resistance ashore was considerable and he was forced to commit the division.  Before long the two Marine divisions on its flanks had advanced ahead of it, leaving their flanks dangerously exposed.  Holland Smith responded by relieving Ralph Smith of his command.  This sparked a controversy that has raged ever since.

The Army subsequently convened an investigative board under Simon Buckner that included no Marine or Navy officers in its investigation and refused to allow Holland Smith to be present during questioning of witnesses. Perhaps predictably, the Buckner Board judged Ralph Smith's relief unjustified. However, the Board also acknowledged that Holland Smith had the authority to relieve Ralph Smith and that Ralph Smith had not measured up as a division commander. The Army's own official history, published well after the war, concluded that (Crowl 1959):

No matter what the extenuating circumstances were--and there were several--the conclusion seems inescapable that Holland Smith had good reason to be disappointed with the performance of the 27th Infantry Division on the two days in question. Whether the action he took to remedy the situation was a wise one, however, remains doubtful. Certainly the relief of Ralph Smith appears to have done nothing to speed the capture of Death Valley. Six more days of bitter fighting remained before that object was to be achieved.

Smith briefly commanded 98 Division in Hawaii as the war was winding down. He then served as military attaché in Paris. After retiring, he joined the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and lived to the very respectable age of 104.

Smith was an intellectual acknowledged as an expert on the French military, but he doubted his own fitness for division command (Venzon 2003):

I don't think I'm really a combat commander. I've been highly trained for staff work, particularly in the intelligence field, and that's where I feel my abilities could best be used.

Service record


Born in Nebraska
Second lieutenant     
Graduates from Military Academy

Graduates from Colorado State University

Command and General Staff School
Chief, Administrative Section, Intelligence (G-2), War Department
Brigadier general
Assistant commander, 76 Division
Lieutenant general     
Commander, 27 Division

Commander, 98 Division

Military attache, France




Crowl (1959; accessed 2011-1-13)

Dupuy et al. (1992) (accessed 2008-3-1)

New York Times (accessed 2008-3-1)

Pettibone (2007)

Spector (1985)

Venzon (2005)

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