(When I was in high school, we used to have to prepare “book reports” on assigned reading. Now that I’m retired, I’m reading more and will periodically do a report on the books I complete.)
I recently finished the first book on my “retiree” reading list – “Lt. Ramsey’s War: From Horse Soldier to Guerilla Leader.” The book fits my reading preferences very well: non-fiction, World War II, and the Philippines.
Lt. Ramsey’s War is the memoir of an American cavalryman serving in the Philippines with an “elite” unit: the 26th Cavalry, also known as the Philippine Scouts. Officers were American and the remaining scouts were Filipino.
Coincidentally, I finished the book the same week that Hiroo Onoda died. If you missed the news reports about him, Onoda was a Japanese soldier who held out on a Philippine island for some 30 years after the war ended. (His memoir is titled “No Surrender: My Thirty Year War.”)
Similarly, Lt. Ramsey did not surrender after the fall of Bataan, the largest surrender of American forces in history. His unit was overrun during the final Japanese assault and he was cut off from the main forces. When he learned of the surrender, he decided to join the guerrillas (which technically made him an “illegal” combatant.)
Lt. Ramsey (who came to the Philippines because he enjoyed polo and the Scouts had a polo team) entered American military history during the short fighting after the Japanese invaded the Philippines. On January 16, 1942, he commanded a screening force for an infantry advance to a small town named Morong.
In the town center he encountered a small Japanese advance guard and a larger force preparing to cross a river to occupy the town. Outnumbered, Ramsey believed that the only way to halt the Japanese advance was…the shock of a mounted charge.
Here is how he described that:
“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.”
The charge broke through the advance guard and Ramsey’s force was able to defend the town from the Japanese advance until friendly infantry arrived later that afternoon. Ramsey’s attack was the last mounted cavalry charge in U.S. military history.
He was awarded the Silver Star with Cluster for his actions. (Subsequently, he received other awards including a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Cross. The Philippines also awarded him many medals, including the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Cross of Valor and Philippine Legion of Honor, Commander degree.)
It’s been said that war is often long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. The book reflects that.
Most of the memoir after the fall of Bataan details Ramsey’s organizing efforts and there is little guerrilla action until just before and after the Americans invade. Ramsey travels throughout the main Philippine island of Luzon (and off the island) to meet with other guerrilla groups and organize his own area. Probably just as dangerous as the Japanese were the Filipino communist guerrillas – the Huks, who had ordered his execution.
By the time the Americans invaded, Ramsey had become one of the top guerrilla leaders in the country because most of the other leaders had been killed or captured. The Japanese secret police had placed a reward of $200,000 for information leading to his capture.
During the many years Ramsey spent with the almost entirely Filipino guerrillas, an identity issue arose. He writes:
“…was a patriot fighting for the freedom of his native land, the Philippines. But what was I? I was an officer of the United States Army, but had I not become a Filipino patriot as well?… I was no longer merely with the Filipino people; I was of them.”
An interesting fact came out in the book. At a strategy meeting with President Roosevelt, Adm. Nimitz and Gen. MacArthur had differing plans. Nimitz wanted to bypass the Philippines and invade Formosa. (This was a “let them wither on the vine” strategy used with another Japanese stronghold – Rabaul in New Guinea, which was bypassed and had a garrison of almost 70,000 troops when the war ended.)
Roosevelt was leaning toward Nimitz’s “bypass the Philippines” plan and asked MacArthur whether or not an invasion of the Philippines would be very costly. MacArthur replied that there were thousands of guerrillas in the Philippines and the Japanese would be caught between the invading American troops and the guerrillas in their rear. That swayed Roosevelt, who also did not want to face the charge of abandoning the Philippines for a second time as an election came up.
MacArthur’s analysis was shared by the Japanese. Gen Yamashita, Supreme Commander of all Japanese forces in the Philippines, decided to withdraw his forces to a mountainous region in a crescent in northern and eastern Luzon named the Shimbu line. This way, he would not have to worry about the guerrillas. Yamashita declared Manila an “open city” and left a token garrison under the command of Rear Adm. Ibawachi, who was ordered not to defend the city when the Americans arrived but only to delay their advance by destroying bridges.
Ibawachi did not agree with Yamashita about surrendering Manila so easily. He brought in 17,000 sailors and marines to defend the city to the death. Consequently, Manila was the second most devastated city at the end of the war.
By the end of the war, Ramsey weighed just 93 pounds. After the liberation of the Philippines, Ramsey suffered two nervous breakdowns and was sent home by Gen. MacArthur, who had promoted Ramsey to Colonel. He suffered from malaria, amoebic dysentery, anemia, and acute malnutrition. Col. Ramsey passed away in 2013 and was buried with military honors at Arlington.
Here is a video made for his 85th birthday: