Reflecting beyond the day I found out why.

Lieutenant Ramsey’s War

Published January 26, 2010 in Book Recommendations - 2 Comments
The cover art of this book is a painting created by one of Lt Ramsey's propaganda units in Manila.

The cover art of this book is a painting created by one of Lt Ramsey’s propaganda units in Manila.

I just found a book in the TBS library about a Lieutenant from Kansas who commissioned in 1941 when he was my age, 24, and joined the 26th cavalry. The book is full of Lt Edwin Ramsey’s fascinating tales in the Philippines, which were kept secret for 45 years. He led the last cavalry charge in U.S. history at Morong and was then trapped behind enemy lines. But instead of surrendering as a P.O.W. to the Japanese death march, he transitioned from soldier to Filipino rebel and gathered a force of over 40,000 filipinos to fight the Japanese.

After watching the movie “Green Street Hooligans” starring Elijah Wood about an American who joins up with street gangs in London, there is an interesting parallel for me to have found this book today. Just as Elijah’s character was revered as the “Yank” that everyone knew about in the GSE, Ramsey was the Yank that even the Japanese knew about. Ramsey’s tales are not Hollywood fodder though, and his recant of putting a rattlesnake in another cadet’s bed to earn his reputation when he attended the Oklahoma Military Academy, to the recollection of “cool” Filipino’s wearing white suits in Manila before prompting a bar fight (where Ramsey was hit over the head with glass and held briefly at gunpoint) are highlights before his escapades in the jungle. This heroic “Yank” became number one on General Baba’s death list, and many cities were raided, villages burned, and prisoners tortured by the Japanese General in search of Lt Ramsey.

Even Ramsey’s family is unique– His mother went onto become the President of the National Association of Cosmetologists and his sister ended up as one of eight female pilots qualified to fly fighter planes during World War II. (Nadine Ramsey grew up sneaking flight lessons at the Beechcraft factory in Kansas before moving to California to become a stunt pilot.)

But the real meat of the book lies in stories that discuss the conflicting element between military officer and rebel fighter. His first command decision involves arresting a young Private who fell asleep on duty, and the internal conflict that he debates is one of many to come. His duty was technically to escape the Philippines, but the order never officially reached his unit, so he was able to debate helping the Filipino people:

“Up until this time I had thought of the Philippines only as a post; now I began to see it as a place, and a people. We had failed in our defense of them, leaving them in the hands of their enemies. They ought to have owed us nothing; instead they were sharing what little they had with us and risking their lives to help us. As an American soldier the war had been over for me since the surrender of Bataan, and my duty now was to escape. Yet that night I began to reflect that perhaps I still owed the Filipino people something. The war might be over for me, but it was not over for them. I might escape, but they could not. They still had a war to fight, and I began to wonder whether I should volunteer to join it.”

The difference between conventional warfare and guerilla warfare is significant though, and he argued with a fellow officer at the time as to whether the familiar skills of the cavalrymen — shock, surprise, and mobility — could translate well to leading the many patches of rebels who internally had their own tribal issues with each other.

He later talks about an experience with some of the rebels he worked with. As a guest he asks a particular rebel general to “put a stop to [noises made by three Japanese spies they were torturing] so [he] can get some sleep” and finds himself pleased that there was silence within a few minutes, assuming he saved the prisoners from at least a few hours of torture. But in the morning he wakes up and is horrified at the scene:

“In the morning I went outside to confer with Cadizon and the others. As I passed the prisoners I saw that their faces were covered with flies and their chests were soaked with blood. Ernie had not ordered the beatings to cease; he had ordered the prisoners’ throats cut.
I was horrified. Far from sparing them torture, my request had caused the prisoners’ deaths. … This trip to Mindoro was becoming a grotesque nightmare, one with its own fatal logic. A word, even a casual gesture, could be enough to prompt murder, and I was anxious to be finished with it.”

I admire Lt Ramsey’s mindset to later say that death was not an escape, but was just as much an enemy to him as the Japanese they were fighting. This perception gave him the ability to stay mentally sharp and strong so that he could fight death with his strong will to live. There was even a supposed psychic encounter in the book that gives Ramsey hope against death.

Then there were the impressive accounts of other Americans living among the Filipino people, including one they discovered who was unaware of the ongoing war:

“There was a little cove at the village of Pinamalayan, and we eased into it. While I waited on the beach my men went inland to scout a handful of shacks among the coconut palms.
In half an hour they emerged from the jungle some fifty yards farther up the beach. With them was a tall, skinny black man dressed in native clothing, well into his sixties, his skin deeply wrinkled and his hair ashen white. When he saw me his face burst into a smile of anticipation and disbelief. He hurried to me, leaving my bodyguards behind, and threw his arms out to greet me.
He was a startling apparition, another bizarre encounter on this endless trip, and I stood stunned a long minute in his embrace before I managed to free myself.
‘Sir,’ the old black man panted out before I could speak, ‘if I didn’t know you was an officer, I’d kiss you.”
His name was White, he told me, Sergeant White, from New Orleans. He drew himself up and saluted.
‘Tenth U.S. Horse Cavalry,’ he announced. ‘Buffalo Soldiers.’
He explained that he had arrived in the Philippines in 1907 with an expedition sent to put down the Moro insurrection. ‘I served under Arthur MacArthur,’ White declared proudly, ‘General Douglas MacArthur’s father.’ After his term was us, White had chosen to remain behind on Mindoro. For thirty years he had lived in a remote village in the jungle, where he had married several Filipino women and sired dozens of children.
‘You’re the first American I’ve seen in all this time,’ he told me. ‘I can’t hardly believe it. What branch you from, Sir?’
I told him that I, too, was cavalry.
He paused a long moment, his yellowing eyes clouding. ‘Well, now, I’ll just be damned,’ he said at last, and the tears brimmed over.”

Even more amazing were Ramsey’s consistent chance encounters with death, escaping from a situation where a guard conspires to kill his guerilla Lieutenant because the guard’s prisoner was a relative. After Ramsey narrowly escapes and informs the guerilla group’s senior officer of this particular force, the description later recalls Ramsey sitting with their major one week later as two severed heads (the escaped prisoner and former guard) are brought forth on bamboo trays prior to being impaled on Bamboo poles as an example to the major’s men not to defy the leadership.

If you have a chance to find this book, go get it. It’s an incredible read that deals with one man’s account of a near-secret war– one that allowed General MacArthur to keep his promise to the Filipinos that “we will return.” In trying to understand the importance of insurgent warfare with the conflicts of today, this book is full of several mini lessons that deal with officership, morality, and the very nature of war.

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  • espe

    This is great! Thanks!