Soldier: Ed Ramsey, 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts)
By Bob Seals
“I brought my arm down and yelled to my men to charge. Bent nearly prone across the horses’ necks, we flung ourselves at the Japanese advance, pistols firing full into their startled faces. A few returned our fire, but most fled in confusion, some wading back into the river, others running madly for the swamps. To them we must have seemed a vision from another century, wild-eyed horses pounding headlong; cheering, whooping men firing from the saddles.”
This meeting engagement on Bataan at the village of Morong, led by then First Lieutenant Ed Ramsey on 16 January 1942, was to be the last horse mounted charge by U.S. Army Cavalry in military history. Surviving early days of defeat and disaster, Ed Ramsey was destined to have one of the most challenging and interesting wartime careers of the Pacific theater during the Second World War. His action packed four years of combat, mostly spent behind Japanese lines, reads like a pulp fiction novel written by a Hollywood screen writer. An illustrative example of an interwar generation of hard-charging Cavalry Army Officers, who worked hard and played hard, Ramsey rose to the occasion after the 8th of December 1941. Refusing to surrender on Bataan in April of 1942, he led tens of thousands guerrillas on Luzon in one of the most successful resistance campaigns of the war against ruthless Imperial Japanese Army occupation forces. His remarkable career in the Second World War encompassed the end of several storied American military institutions, to include the Philippine Scouts and Army horse cavalry, while helping to lay the doctrinal foundation of an Army branch not born until after the war, the U.S. Army Special Forces.
A true child of the Midwest, Ed Ramsey was born in Illinois in 1917, but spent his formative years growing up in Kansas. Visits to an uncle’s farm awakened a love for horses and riding, an early interest that gave him direction in life. Like so many during the Great Depression, Ramsey’s family experienced significant economic hardship, an existence further exacerbated by the tragic death of his father. Deeply concerned about his aimless existence, his mother suggested the horses, order and discipline to be found at the Oklahoma Military Academy (OMA) in Claremore, Oklahoma, to the teenaged Ramsey. Popularly know at the time as the “West Point of the Southwest,” OMA by 1936 was a state sponsored institution with a highly rated and respected senior level Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), one of only three junior colleges in the nation to have a branch specific cavalry program. OMA also had one of the best intercollegiate polo squads in the nation, the “Flying Cadets,” with the legendary local Will Rogers being one of the collegiate team’s biggest supporters.
In a rather timeless military school rite of passage, a young Ed Ramsey was to be sorely tested at OMA by the “rabbit” system and overzealous upperclassmen armed with wooden paddles. Fighting back against bullies and the inevitable hazing of the day, Cadet Ramsey earned the respect of his peers and superiors alike by refusing to inform upon others. Learning to properly ride and care for horses, he became a superb horseman, and skilled member of the OMA varsity polo team. “Polo was the game I was made for,” according to Ramsey, the perfect venue for training would be cavalry officers in the finer arts of decision making, teamwork and aggressive leadership. This ancient sport had an undeniable hold upon the officer corps of the interwar Army, but polo was a dangerous mistress indeed with players at times killed or crippled by the deadly “chukkers” of the game. Graduating from OMA in 1938 as an Army Second Lieutenant in the Cavalry Reserve, a newly minted 2LT Ramsey was thoroughly imbibed with the cavalry ethos being the “…elite…of the service, [with] mobility, shock, and speed, …we knew that we were better than anyone;…we had to be better…to get in ahead of everyone else, the discipline to do our job, and the brains to get out alive.” After graduation the game of polo continued to be a lodestar for Ramsey, driving his decision to enroll in the Oklahoma University Law School, since OU had an active polo squad. The near death, however, of his adventurous flying sister in a plane crash prompted an early withdrawal from law school to care for her. With global war already a reality, and deeply concerned about appeasement in Europe, Ramsey volunteered for Active Duty service.
In 1940, the day of the horse had not yet ended in the Cavalry. Assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 11th Cavalry Regiment (Horse) in February of 1941, he was stationed at Camp Moreno, a mountain and cold weather training site in California near the border with Mexico. With his considerable horsemanship skills, 2LT Ramsey was assigned duties as a remount officer, training both raw mounts and draftees who were beginning to flesh out the skeleton of the woefully under strength Regular Army Cavalry Regiments of the day. It was Old Army. “We wore riding breeches and high boots, and our round campaign hats were titled at a meaningful rake across one eye, the strap stretched beneath the chin. I was twenty-three years old, proud and invincible.”
Less than enthused with the cold weather of Camp Moreno, Ramsey jumped when volunteers were requested for the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) in the then Commonwealth of the Philippines. Commonly know at the time as the “Country Club of the Army,” the 26th Regiment also had one of the finest polo teams in the Army, and, of course, some fine tropical weather to boot.
The 26th Cavalry Regiment (PS) was, in respects, the elite unit of one of the most unique institutions of the interwar Army, the Philippine Scouts. Formed in the aftermath of the War with Spain, Scouts were authorized by the Philippine Department in 1901, proving to be extremely effective during pacification operations throughout the islands with their local knowledge and language ability. Organized into local native company sized units officered by U.S. Army personnel, Scouts were tough and reliable, with two earning the Medal of Honor. After the First World War, Philippine Scouts were the mainstay of the islands meager defenses against both internal and external threats. Long serving regulars, it was not uncommon for Scouts to serve in the same company or troop for 30 years. Formed in 1922, the 26th Cavalry, “Our Strength is in Loyalty,” was one of the remaining horse mounted cavalry regiments in the U.S. Army by 1941. Organized into two squadrons of three troops each, with service and machine gun troops, the 26th was smaller than Horse Cavalry Regiments stateside, and did not possess mortars or anti-tank weapons. The regiment did, however, possess scout cars and motorized assets, to include 4 ton semitrailers or large trucks for long range transport of mount and man, and was relatively well equipped in small arms, with troopers armed with the modern 8-round semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle, M1928A1 Thompson submachine gun and the M1911A1 pistol.
Reporting for duty at Fort Stotsenburg, north of Manila near Clark Field in the foothills of the Zambales Mountains, Lieutenant Ramsey was assigned to Second Squadron, Troop G. The small troop consisted of a captain, one sergeant, a corporal, and twenty-five privates. It was a rather enjoyable colonial army life on the small post in the summer of 1941. Comfortable quarters, friendly native servants, with dress uniforms required for dinner, it was more akin to “Gunga Din” than the twentieth century. But unseen to many junior officers in the mess, a serious threat hung over the islands, the nearby Empire of Japan. With war in Asia now in its tenth year, indications abounded of a possible strike by Japan in order to take the Philippines. Thoroughly enjoying his new assignment, Ramsey began seeing a White Russian bombshell nightclub dancer in Manila, until warned by Army Intelligence that Olga was a Japanese agent.
By 1941, reconnaissance over flights, espionage and aggressive moves elsewhere in Asia had convinced senior American military leaders to take precautionary measures in the islands. These included sending dependents home, mobilizing the nascent Philippine Army and shipping additional air and ground reinforcements westward to booster anemic island defenses. Retired General Douglas MacArthur was recalled to active duty and given command of the new United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFEE). From his command he informed the War Department that “Military forces maintained here by the United States are entirely inadequate…little more than token symbols,” in fact.
Inadequate or not, by the fall of 1941, USAFFE forces, and the 26th Cavalry Regiment (PS), were training hard, getting ready for an uncertain future. Regimental officers were now fully engaged with exacting drills or maneuvers during the day followed by Tagalog classes in the evening. Forces assigned to the islands had a daunting task of defending some 7,000 islands and 11,000 miles of coastline with 22,000 troops, with 12,000 of those crack Philippine Scouts.
Appropriately enough, there was to be time for a final pre-war polo match at Stotsenburg on 07 December 1941between the Manila Polo Club and the regiment, with Lieutenant Ramsey playing on the four man home squad. With North Luzon Force Commander Major General Jonathan M. “Skinny” Wainwright as umpire, Ramsey rode hard but well in a losing cause. After a memorable post-match party, Ramsey began World War II on Sunday morning, 08 December with a considerable hangover. Confusion abounded that first morning of war; however, Colonel Clinton A. Pierce, the regimental commander, immediately moved the regiment from garrison proximity near Clark Field to preplanned dispersed battlefield positions. Missing the chaos of the Japanese air attack on Clark Field, Ramsey and his platoon moved across Luzon to the east, moving into battle positions at Baler Bay.
Two days later the Japanese 14th Army, led by the capable General Homma, began landings at Lingayen Gulf, driving south towards Manila. In a classic cavalry delaying mission, it was up to the 26th Cavalry Regiment (PS) to delay the Japanese advance, giving time for American and Filipino forces to sidestep into the Bataan Peninsula. South of the invasion beaches the Regimental Operations Officer recalled "It was a wonderful thing, to watch…soldiers who'd never before seen a gun fired in anger, calmly choosing their positions, adjusting their rifle slings, and proceeding to pick off Japs as though they were silhouette targets on the rifle range."
By the time the last bridge had been blown over the Layac River leading into Bataan, the 26th Cavalry was roughly down to half strength with only one composite squadron remaining with “…men haggard and showing signs of malnutrition…horses that were left could scarcely walk.” With a defensive line now established across the peninsula, Ramsey and the regiment were ordered to the west coast of Bataan to support General Wainwright’s I Corp and the Philippine Army First Division. Volunteering to remain and guide a replacing troop, Ramsey on his mount Bryn Awryn entered Army history on 16 January 1942 leading the last horse mounted U.S. cavalry charge. Ordered to take point by General Wainwright, who recognized him from December's polo match, he rode north on reconnaissance leading a horse mounted column. At the small village of Morong Ramsey's platoon charged into an advance element of Japanese Colonel Watanabe's 122th Infantry Regiment, succeeding in driving the infantry back until the composite E-F Troop arrived. Ramsey joked years later that he had violated one of the three basic principles of soldering, "never volunteer." After the change he was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star for gallantry in action. Wounded and jaundiced he was evacuated to a jungle hospital but rejoined the 26th Cavalry before the surrender of forces in April. By that point the regiment was fighting on foot, since all horses and mules, to include Bryn Awryn, were used to feed the starving "Battling Bastards of Bataan." Refusing to surrender, Ramsey and CPT Joe Barker walked north out of the peninsula, carrying little more than their side arms. Uncertain about their future, or legal status, the assumption by both was that they would be dead in 90 days or less.
Officers now in search of a command, the two were able to eventually link up with COL Claude Throp, a USAFEE staff officer sent north by MacArthur to organize resistance to the Japanese before the fall of Bataan. Luzon had been divided into four areas of operations, with Barker and Ramsey given Manila north to Lingayen Gulf, the East Central Luzon Area Force. The cavalry tenets of shock, mobility, surprise, and a borrowed copy of Mao Tse-Tung's work on guerrilla warfare guided the "war criminals" as they began efforts. Challenges were plentiful. Intelligence gathering was the first priority as underground, auxiliary and guerrilla forces had to be established in East Central Luzon. Getting information out of the islands was a challenge but improved considerably after contact was made with the Allied Intelligence Bureau. His "first real contact with the outside world had come from MacArthur personally," with Ramsey instructed via radio message to remain and continue his efforts. By 1943, Ramsey, now promoted to Major from Australia, had assumed command of the force after the capture of Barker in Manila. Moving up to number two on the Japanese counter-intelligence kill or capture list, with a price of $200,000 on his head, Ramsey forged an effective resistance force with more than 38,000 men and women under his command.
Years behind the lines were dangerous indeed, with Ramsey busy fighting the Communist Huks and Japanese alike, escaping an assassination attempt, having an emergency appendectomy without anesthetic, organizing efforts in Manila, he survived a remarkable series of wartime events. Many did not, but by the fall of 1944 an estimated 250,000 resistance forces organized into 11 major groups were conducting effective combat operations against the occupiers. MacArthur and the United States had finally "returned." The information provided by the guerilla forces such as those led by Ramsey, was vital to the return to the Philippines. Army official histories credit an “abundance of information” provided reference Japanese strength, dispositions, capabilities and intentions on Luzon by the “veritable hotbed of guerrilla resistance” at the time. Finally linking up with the U.S. Sixth Army, the East Central Luzon Area Force provided additional support to conventional forces moving south towards Manila.
On 13 June 1945 General of the Army Douglas MacArthur presented the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) to then Major Ramsey for “…extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with the Philippine Guerilla Forces, East Central Luzon Guerrilla Area, in action against enemy forces from 21 April 1942 to 30 April 1945, in the Philippine Islands.” Also honored with the DSC at the same ceremony were surviving fellow American guerrilla leaders Anderson, Lapham, McKenzie, Boone and Hunt. By now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and clearly ill, Ramsey was ordered back to the states three days later by MacArthur, suffering from malaria, amoebic dysentery, anemia, acute malnutrition and a state of general collapse. It would take almost a year in hospital stateside for a complete recovery. Medically retired from the Army, Ed Ramsey would go on to complete his Law Degree at the University of Oklahoma, and have a successful business career with Hughes Aircraft in Manila, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.
Deserved recognition and honors followed over the years, to include a grateful Filipino nation awarding him the Philippine Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Conduct Star, Distinguished Service Star and Wounded Personnel medal. His wartime Unconventional Warfare (UW) experiences, with those of fellow Guerrilla Leaders Volkmann, Lapham, Blackburn and Fertig, helped to establish the doctrinal and organizational structure of the U.S. Army Special Forces in 1952. The Commanding General of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School recognized his wartime UW accomplishments with the award of the Special Forces Tab and Green Beret during a guest speaker visit to Fort Bragg, NC, in 2001.
One of the last living Philippine Guerrilla Leaders from World War II, the "Grand Old Man" of cavalry remains delightfully active at age 93, and is now retired in Los Angeles, CA. LTC Retired Ramsey can be often seen at the U.S. Cavalry Association Annual Bivouac and was recently inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame in 2010. He finally had to give up the sport of polo after an almost fatal fall in 1964, but his last charge mount Bryn Awryn is remembered now in the annual Army vs. Marine polo match, with the best playing pony award named in his honor. Thusly, appropriately enough, both man and mount will always be remembered on both the polo field and battlefield of American military history.
About the author:
Bob Seals is a retired Army Special Forces officer currently working at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School on Fort Bragg. He lives on a small horse farm with his wife, a retired Army Veterinary Corps officer. He was fortunate to have served with several Son Tay Raiders during his career.
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