The U.S. Army’s Last Horse Cavalry Charge
By LtCol Mike Christy, TogetherWeServed Dispatches
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor exposed American’s ill-preparedness for war, and the scenario grew even darker as the talons of the Japanese war-machine grasped toward another plumb target – the Philippines. One day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field and Manila. Two days later, on Dec.10, 1941, Japanese troops landed on the beaches of Luzon.
These small-scale landings were followed by the main assault on December 22, 1941, at Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan and Lamon Bay, Tayabas, by the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, led by Lt. General Masaharu Homma. American’s makeshift defenses rapidly crumbled.
The new Filipino recruits of Maj. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright’s North Luzon Force was no match for their experienced enemy. They could neither repel the landings nor pin the enemy on the beaches. By nightfall, December 23, the Japanese had moved ten miles (16 km) into the interior.
It was apparent that Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s combined American-Filipino defense forces were in no condition for the imminent onslaught of an enemy hardened in the mountains of Manchuria and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
In stark contrast to Japanese Gen. Homma’s veteran forces, MacArthur’s divisions lacked training, equipment, and manpower, but one unit was fully prepared for combat. The 26th Cavalry was one of the best-drilled regiments in the entire U.S. Army. Composed of Filipino enlisted men and American officers, the crack regiment was commanded by a born to lead “thundering columns of horse cavalry into battle.” With his dapper mustache, rugged features and bulldog physique, Col. Clinton A. Pierce was his generation’s embodiment of such legendary Cavalrymen as Phil Sheridan, JEB Stuart, and George Custer.
To stem the enemy tide, Wainwright threw his friend’s Cavalrymen directly into the path of the Japanese juggernaut and remarked to an aide, “The 26th is the only hope to stop them before being in Manila in a few hours.”
Hurling themselves and their mounts against machine guns and tanks, supported only by personnel carriers with thin armor and light machineguns, Pierce’s men slowed Homma’s onrushing divisions. Mounted on horses or riding in personnel carriers, the Scouts continually and aggressively counter-attacked the Japanese tanks and sacrificed their lives to protect the Filipino and Americans as they fell back.
After falling back to regroup, the Japanese unleashed a murderous trio of tanks, aircraft and naval bombardment upon the out manned and outgunned 26th. The shredded columns of horsemen refused to yield. The charged the clanking tanks and picked of Japanese infantrymen who dared lift their heads. Developing tactic on the gallop, bands of horsemen used the jungle terrain to separate Japanese tanks from each other and attack single tanks from three directions at once. The rider’s unleashed small arms fire to force the tank crews to button up their turrets and then closed in to destroy them with grenades and by tossing gasoline-filled soda bottles.
Knowing he could not fight off the powerful Japanese with his understrength and badly bruised force, MacArthur ordered a tactical retreat up the Bataan peninsula. Homma’s threatening to cut off the strategic retreat of MacArthur’s American and Philippine troops to the Bataan peninsula. To prevent a disastrous possibility that Homma would cut off the strategic retreat, the elite Philippine Scouts were given the dangerous task of fighting a delaying action.
Twenty-four-year-old Lt. Edwin Price Ramsey was one of the American officers attached to the Philippine Scouts, serving as the commanding officer of a platoon in the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts). Born in Carlyle, Illinois in 1917, but moved to Eldorado, Kansas when he was two and 10 years later to Wichita, Kansas, with his older sister Nadine – who flew US fighters and bombers during the war – and his mother, who ran a dermatology clinic, after his father died. While at school, he worked in a soda fountain and a waiter in The Palms nightclub in Wichita to help feed his family.
As part of his high school education, he went to the Oklahoma Military Academy in Claremore, outside Tulsa, largely because they had a “horse artillery unit” and a serious polo team. As the war in Europe loomed he applied for active duty in the Philippines, where the U.S. had major military bases although they were not yet involved in the conflict.
On Jan. 15, 1942, Ramsey and his troops were looking forward to some rest and relaxation following a demanding reconnaissance mission. But a counterattack was being planned, and because he was intimately familiar with the region, he volunteered to assist in the assault.
Wainwright wanted to make the Japanese-held village of Morong, strategically located on the west coast of the Bataan Peninsula, the anchor for a defensive line stretching inland to the rugged Mount Natib. On the morning of January 16, Wainwright ordered Ramsey to take an advance guard into Morong. Ramsey assembled a 27-man force composed of mounted platoons from the 26th Cavalry and headed north along the main road leading to Morong.
Upon reaching the Batalan River that formed part of Morong’s eastern border, Ramsey’s unit swung west and cautiously approached the seemingly deserted village, composed of grass huts suspended on stilts, with livestock living beneath the structures. The only stone building was the towering Catholic Church, located in Morong’s central plaza. Ramsey halted his column short of the village and pulled out a pair of binoculars. Three trails branched from the road. The middle one led directly into the village, a jumble of nipa grass huts atop bamboo stilts rigged to pen livestock.
Ramsey raised his left arm and gestured toward the middle trail. He divided his platoon into a column of three squads. On his signal, every man reached for his hip holster and withdrew his Colt .45 pistol. Ramsey ordered the point riders to advance into Morong. As this vanguard, pistols aloft, trotted into the outskirts, the rest of the men steadied their mounts and listened for opposing gunfire.
None came. Ramsey nudged Bryn Awryn forward, his platoon following. Even though Morong seemed deserted Ramsey halted short of the square.
Beyond the town lay dense coconut groves inclining through a swamp stretching the sea. To their right coursed the narrow Batalan River, spanned by a crude wooden bridge. Ramsey’s vanguard had turned into the square and out of sight. His three squads followed cautiously, pistols at the ready and eyes on the huts.
Suddenly explosions erupted. Birds screeched and soared away in a flutter of brilliant plumage. Horses reared or bucked. As riders swiveled their heads and struggled to rein in their mounts, rifle and machine-gun fire chattered from the north. Ramsey could see scores of Japanese infantrymen who, he said later, “turned out to be the advance guard of the Japanese who had been landed from Subic, north of Morong.” Following behind these skirmishers came rank upon rank of what appeared to be hundreds more enemy soldiers, some wading the chest-deep river, others crowding the ramshackle bridge.
Ramsey’s point men galloped back. One, Private First Class Pedro Euperio, had been shot several times in his left arm and shoulder. Remarkably, Euperio “held his pistol with his right hand while the rein of his mount still remained hanging in his left elbow.” Ramsey ordered the wounded trooper to the rear for medical treatment.
It was now fight, or flee. With the Japanese attackers advancing on the church, Ramsey drew on ingrained training. “I formed a line,” he said later. Then, pistol aloft, he shouted, “Charge!”
The command was as old as mounted cavalry – and as stirring to Ramsey’s “Yellowlegs” as it had been to generations before. Instinctively, men crouched low in their saddles, hugging their horses’ necks. Outnumbered and outgunned, the scouts galloped forward and slammed into the Japanese, trampling some and felling others with point-blank pistol shots. When Dan Figuracion and other troopers found themselves blocked by bamboo fences, they dismounted, holstered their 45s, unsheathed their M1s, and continued afoot.
Panicked enemy soldiers vaulted into huts. Others bounded for the river. “They say Japanese don’t run but they did that day,” Figuracion said. “We caught them by surprise.”
One kill rankled Figuracion long after. “I shot him in the back, still bothers me,” the cavalryman said. “But he was the enemy.”
Knowing he had to hold Morong long enough for John Wheeler to arrive and reinforce him, Ramsey halted the charge. While a handful of troopers grabbed reins and led horses to shelter, one squad established a perimeter, hoping to pin down the main Japanese column.
With his second squad, Ramsey galloped into Morong, intent on clearing its huts. Mounted and afoot, the men systematically fired into windows, doors, and grass walls. The men inside returned fire and crossfire erupted from Japanese advancing on the eastern flank and enemy light mortar crews whose 50mm projectiles set huts ablaze and terrified horses. The hooves of riderless mounts thumped and skidded along Morong’s paths. One horse, standing calmly near the church as its rider fired into a hut, took the brunt of a mortar blast. The doomed animal reared, screamed, and “crumbled onto its haunches,” as the trooper, wounded and enraged, regained his feet and resumed shooting.
Amid the explosions, small fire, shouts, and horses’ shrieks, the troopers barely heard approaching hoofbeats: John Wheeler’s reinforcements had arrived. In a letter to his father, Wheeler had written, “I have found myself entirely equal to everything we’ve been up against, steady and unafraid, as for my men, they have proved themselves splendid fighters.” Now, steady and unafraid, Wheeler waved one platoon of his splendid fighters to reinforce Ramsey’s riverbank line while he and his other platoon joined the door-to-door melee. Several of Wheeler’s horsemen chased fleeing Japanese, leaving enemy bodies in their wake all the way to Morong’s outskirts and pressing the chase to the banks of the Batalan.
In Morong, Wheeler’s reinforcements joined Ramsey’s scouts in securing the town center. For hours, as enemy mortar rounds landed and riverbank sharpshooting held off the Japanese main column, the Cavalrymen secured Morong. At midafternoon, Fidel Segundo’s infantry regiment, accompanied by Wainwright, poured into town and chased the Japanese into the jungles beyond Morong.
Enemy casualties littered the area. One horse soldier lay dead; at least six had serious wounds, including Pedro Euperio, who had not gone for care. “Here he is standing, waving a pistol in his hand,” Ramsey said. “He was so brave. I thought he was dead.”
Neither Wheeler nor Ramsey escaped being wounded: Wheeler had been shot in the calf and shrapnel had caught Ramsey’s knee.
Shortly before the capitulation of U.S forces in the Philippines, the troopers of the 26th endured the ultimate nightmare of a Cavalryman, for, with provisions virtually non-existent, the 26th’s beloved mounts were slaughtered to feed Wainwright’s doomed Army. Surviving troopers who stoically recall the deaths of comrades in arms have a hard time holding back tears in describing how they had to shoot the horses. “They shared all our dangers, loving and trusting us as we did with them. There’s a special bond, and we were the last to share it,” reflected a rider of the 26th.
All but a handful of the Cavalrymen who were forced to surrender with the rest of MacArthur’s encircled Army would share the horrors of the Bataan Death March and Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
When Bataan fell on April 9, 1942, Wainwright and Wheeler were among those captured; Wheeler died in the subsequent ordeal. Others, including Figuracion and Ramsey, avoided capture. Ramsey originally thought “to get out of Bataan, down and across into the Sierra Madre, south to where he could get a boat and work our way to Australia. It was very ambitious, probably stupid.”
Escaping capture during the Japanese advance, Ramsey retreated to the jungle and mountains, building a guerrilla force of Filipinos, eventually totaling 40,000 men. They harassed the enemy for the next three years while most American soldiers and their allies had retreated or been captured, many forced into the infamous Bataan Death March. The Japanese offered a reward of $200,000 for his capture (the equivalent of millions now) and capture meant certain execution.
For three years Ramsey’s family assumed he was dead – as did Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been forced to retreat from the Philippines – until Ramsey started getting messages to him from the Central Luzon jungle, via guerrillas, sympathizers, and American warships. Ramsey recalled how he smuggled messages through enemy lines: “You take lemon juice and write with it and you don’t see it until you put heat under it. Unless you put a match under it, you couldn’t see it.”
On retreating from the Philippines MacArthur had said: “I shall return.” He did, famously wading ashore in October 1944, and after the Japanese surrender the following year he insisted on personally pinning the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart on Ramsey for harassing the enemy for those three years, a major factor in securing an eventual allied victory in the Pacific.
MacArthur later estimated that Ramsey’s guerrilla activity, and the intelligence he gathered, had saved tens of thousands of American and Filipino lives. His operations became a blueprint for modern-day U.S. Special Forces and to this day, to Filipinos of a certain age, the name Ramsey is second only to MacArthur as their most-loved American.
Relics of bygone days, hopelessly overmatched against mechanized forces, the dauntless riders of the 26th Cavalry nevertheless wrote a stirring conclusion to the glorious chronicles of the mounted warriors who had charged with resolute courage onto the battlefields of the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars.
Gen. Wainwright’s official report of the Philippines Campaign provided the ultimate epitaph for the gallant men of the 26th when he wrote: “The savage clash between Ramsey’s riders and the Imperial Japanese Army marked the end of an institution whose roots stretched back to the Revolutionary War. The “hell-bent-for-leather” strike of Ramsey’s troopers, however, was hardly the first mounted action unleashed by the 26th during General Douglas MacArthur’s ill-fated defense of the Philippines. From the first few hours after the Japanese troops had poured from their landing craft onto the shores of Luzon Island to the final months on “The Rock,” the Corregidor fortress, the Scouts had bought time for MacArthur’s Army to fight back. The Cavalrymen fought the last “horseback campaign” in America’s annals, paying a terrible toll but exacting an even higher one upon the Japanese troops.”
After the war, Ramsey became an attorney and worked as an executive with Hughes Aircraft Corporation. He returned to the Philippines as a private businessman before retiring to California. In 1948, in Manila, he married Madeleine Willoquet, daughter of the French Ambassador there and they went on to have four children. He remained active in U.S. Veterans’ affairs for the rest of his life and recorded his wartime exploits in the 1991 book “Lieutenant Ramsey’s War.”
Edwin Price Ramsey died in 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Please view a short video featuring Edwin Ramsey at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNk2fZAmkFs