Ordered by Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright to occupy a strategic coastal village on Luzon Island and hold it until American and Filipino troops arrived, Lt. Edwin P. Ramsey set out with two horse-mounted columns of the 26th Cavalry (Philippine Scouts) on January 16, 1942. Riding his powerful charger, Bryn Awryn, a chestnut gelding with a small white blaze on his forehead, Lt. Ramsey and his cavalry troopers rode into Morong, where they fought advancing Japanese infantrymen.
Military historians would later record the 26th Cavalry's engagement at Morong as the last horse-mounted charge in U.S. history.
On the eve of World War II, the 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) was part of Gen. Wainwright's Northern Luzon Force, a force that was made up of 22,000 men, including U.S. soldiers and three newly inducted Philippine Army divisions. The 26th Cavalry was garrisoned at Fort Stotsenburg, adjacent to Clarke Field, 75 miles northeast of Manila.
The mounted unit was organized into two squadrons of three troops each, a total of 784 enlisted men and 54 officers, with an average length of service of 13 years. Gen. Wainwright, a former cavalry man himself, considered the troopers of the 26th Cavalry an elite regiment, one that was experienced, trained, disciplined and combat ready. The unit's missions were the same as traditional mounted cavalry units of the past-reconnaissance, security, raid, attack, pursuit, delay and defend.
On the muggy plains of Luzon, the horse soldiers of the 26th Cavalry trained on their mounting and dismounting skills. The troopers also practiced the mounted charge, the most famous military tactic of the cavalry, where with weapons drawn, men and horses hurled themselves against an enemy with surprise, speed and deadly force.
With the saber phased out of cavalry service in 1935, the primary weapon for the horse soldier in 1941 was the 45caliber semiautomatic, a magazine-fed pistol. A lanyard, which was worn from the left shoulder to right hip, was attached to the butt of the pistol and prevented the loss of the pistol if dropped while on horseback.
With war between America and Japan inevitable, President Franklin D. Roosevelt activated Douglas MacArthur back into the U.S. Army from retirement. On July 27, 1941, the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) command was created and all American and Filipino forces in the Philippines were placed under Mac Arthur's leadership.
By late 1941, MacArthur believed that the Japanese could be stopped on the beaches of Luzon; however, his forces were understaffed and lacked modern weapons. MacArthur had 80,000 poorly equipped Filipino troops and 22,000 American soldiers and Philippine Scouts. Japan had six million men under arms.
At 2:30 A.M. on December 8,1941 (8:00 A.M., December 7, Honolulu time), the operator at the U.S. Navy station at Asiatic Fleet headquarters in Manila intercepted a message that Pearl Harbor was under air raid. With that sobering news, MacArthur and his staff prepared for an attack on the Philippines.
Having just returned from patrol, two squadrons of B-17 Flying Fortresses and P-40 fighters of the 20th Pursuit Squadron were parked on the ground refueling and preparing to take off at Clarke Field. At approximately 12:15 P.M. (Philippine time) on December 8, 1941, 54 twinengine Japanese bombers from Formosa flew over Clarke Field in two formations and dropped their bombs. Then 34 Zero fighters flew in and attacked, totally destroying the gas-filled planes on the ground and adjacent buildings.
The 26th Cavalry was one of the first units to be sent north to defend against an expected Japanese invasion at Lingayen Gulf. With air and naval superiority, Lt. Gen. Masharu Homma of the Imperial Japanese Army landed most of his 14th Army, about 100,000 soldiers of the 16th and 48th Divisions and 65th Brigade plus support units, ashore at Lingayen Gulf, north of Manila, on December 22, 1941. Two days later, the rest of Homma's troops landed at Lamon Bay, south of the capital.
Forming a giant pincer movement, Homma planned to meet and destroy American forces on the central plain of Luzon. Afterwards, he planned to converge and capture Manila. In the face of well-armed enemy forces, MacArthur ordered the withdrawal of American and Filipino forces onto the Bataan peninsula. After declaring Manila an open city, MacArthur moved his headquarters to Corregidor on December 24,1941.
Meanwhile, the main body of the 26th Cavalry met the Japanese at Lingayen Gulf and fought them desperately for five days. In a heroic and gallant effort to delay the enemy while American and Filipino forces withdrew to new battle lines, the 26th Cavalry lost more than a quarter of its officers and men and more than half of its horses.
"Here was true cavalry delaying action, fit to make a man's heart sing," Gen. Wainwright wrote.
For almost a week, American and Filipino infantry, tanks, artillery, airmen and others withdrew from northern Luzon and streamed south into Layac Junction, where they crossed the CuIo River into the northern Bataan peninsula.
In the early morning hours of January 6, 1942, the 21st Philippine Division and tanks crossed the river followed by the North Luzon Force rear guard. Among the last Americans and Filipinos to reach the safety of Bataan were the tired riders and scrawny horses of the 26th Cavalry.
On January 9, 1942, Gen. Homrna began an artillery barrage that began the battle for Bataan. After his main force was repelled in a series of bloody battles, the Japanese moved west and searched for a place to break through. On January 15, the Japanese found an opening and broke through the American-Filipino lines.
In support of Mac Arthur's plan to stop the enemy advance in a series of battle lines, Gen. Wainwright personally ordered Lt. Ramsey on January 16 to lead an advance guard to reconnoiter and occupy a strategic village on the Luzon coast called Morong. The 26th Cavalry was ordered to secure it until the First Philippine Division arrived.
Forming two columns, three mounted platoons of the 26th Cavalry set out for Morong. Lt. Ramsey led the head platoon on his horse Bryn Awryn. The two other platoons trailed behind. Reaching the center of the village, Ramsey and his men were met by rifle and automatic weapons fire from the enemy. Japanese infantry by the hundreds were also crossing the river and would soon be streaming into Morong.
The number of Japanese soldiers was overwhelming in comparison to the cavalry troops, and Ramsey knew that the element of surprise would be their only hope of breaking and scattering the lines of advancing Japanese infantrymen.
"Over the rattling gunfire I ordered my troopers to deploy as foragers, and I raised my pistol. A charge would be our only hope to break up the body of Japanese troops and to survive against their superior numbers. For centuries the shock of a mounted charge had proved irresistible; now the circumstances and all my training made it instinctual," Ramsey later wrote.
"I brought up my arm 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," recalled Ramsey. "To them we must have seemed a vision from another century, wildeyed horses pounding headlong; cheering, whooping men firing from the saddles."
Lt. Ramsey's charge at Morong was the last mounted cavalry charge in U.S. military history. After driving the enemy back across the river, his platoon then dismounted, pulled out rifles from their scabbards and formed a skirmish line to keep the enemy from crossing.
With dozens of Japanese still in the village behind the troopers, Lt. Ramsey returned with a few of his men and fought the enemy there. Reinforced by the second and third platoons of Ramsey's cavalry unit and the arrival of the First Philippine Division, the village and defensive positions were finally secured.
In the weeks that followed, the situation on Bataan deteriorated. American and Filipino troops were pushed south. The troops suffered from malaria, dengue fever, beriberi, hookworm and pellagra. There was no food. The soldiers ate what they could scavenge-roots, leaves, papaya, breadfruit, monkey meat, wild chickens and pigs. With men starving, Wainwright ordered all of the surviving horses of the 26th Cavalry butchered for meat.
With the surrender of American and Filipino forces on Bataan to Gen. Homma in April 1942, Lt. Ramsey decided to join the Filipino resistance and helped build a guerilla army on Luzon. He eventually commanded 40,000 guerillas. The intelligence his guerrilla army provided MacArthur, who had been ordered by President Roosevelt to leave the Philippines for Australia, was of immense importance and helped the general to return and liberate the Philippines three years later.
FRED GLUECKSTEIN is a freelance writer, who specializes in nonfiction with equine themes. His work has appeared in The Backstretch, Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, The Chronicle of the Horse, The Texas Thoroughbred, Horse Journal Quarterly and The Cavalry Journal, the official publication of the U.S. Cavalry Association.
Copyright Association of the United States Army Jul 2005
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