There Are Still Lessons to be Learned from History
Book Review of Edwin Price Ramsey and Stephen J. 1990. Lieutenant Ramsey's War: From Horse Soldier to Guerrilla Commander. Lincoln: Potomac Books, Inc, An imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.
By Pete Reider
Lt. Ramsey’s War is an autobiographic tale of determination, perseverance, and survival in the Philippines during the Second World War. This is the story of Lt. Edwin Ramsey, told in his own words, of how he transformed from a naïve 1st LT in the 26th Cavalry (Cav.) to a leader of 40,000 guerillas and a vital part of U.S. plans to return to the Philippines. He is credited with leading the last U.S. Cavalry charge in American history, surviving the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, establishing himself as a guerilla leader and briefing General MacArthur. Edwin Ramsey recollects his experiences both highs and lows, discusses his motivations, and his work with indigenous forces. It is a harrowing story of one man’s fight in a larger conflict, but also offers insights into resistance movements, occupation, and collaboration with indigenous forces.
Lt. Ramsey was at his first duty station at the 26th Cav., Philippines, for only a few months when the Japanese invaded. The U.S. and Pilipino forces’ situation became ever increasingly dire as the Japanese experienced success after success. Lt. Ramsey exemplified this desperation when he led the last U.S. Cavalry charge into advancing Japanese armor (p. 66). Bravado alone could not repel the Japanese for long and the few survivors of the 26th Cav. were forced to escape and evade into the jungle. From his lowest point in the jungle: sick, starved, and contemplating suicide, Lt. Ramsey decided that he would make the Japanese pay: “I had not done this to myself, a voice in my mind was saying, it had been done to me, done by the enemy, the Japanese. They were responsible, and they ought to be made to pay (p. 104). He integrated with a small network of officers to eventually rise to commanding a 40,000-person strong force. This force developed intelligence networks throughout the Philippines which enabled Gen. MacArthur’s eventual return.
This story does an excellent job of displaying the ground level realities of guerilla warfare in a denied environment as well as the toll that they take on an individual. Ramsey displays his vulnerability throughout the book from his self-doubt, constant sickness to the point of needing an appendectomy without anesthesia (p. 269), and his need to be carried from meeting to meeting because he physically could not bear movement. In this sense, his dedication to his mission over all else is inspiring. More broadly his success in building and maintaining his forces is also an excellent example of how a guerilla campaign supports conventional operations.
Ramsey understood that the guerilla movement alone would not defeat the Japanese in the Philippines. This in mind, Ramsey focused on civil military relations of different factions and getting them to march in the same direction. He recognized the need for continued training, amassing supplies, and arms, and foremost keeping the force alive and growing under the nose of the Japanese Kenpeitai (Japanese secret police). This operational patience was necessary and enabled him to mass forces in large attacks coordinated with the U.S. return to the Islands. He also needed to contest with the communist guerilla forces known as the Huks. The friction between the Hukbalahap and Ramsey’s forces eventually led to Ramsey declaring war on the rival guerilla movement. Ramsey displayed the patience of building a force for approximately three years to have them fight for two months.
The book is told from the perspective of Lt. Ramsey; external factors such as how the overall war in the Pacific impacted operations within the Philippines can be sparse. That said, this is not a comprehensive study on the U.S. operations in the Philippines, or the campaign to retake the islands. Nor does Ramsey claim such a mandate. This is a perspective of one man and his struggles to thrive and survive in a hellish combat environment for almost three years. For a wholistic view of the campaign, one would need to look to at testimony or examples from General MacArthur’s staff of how Lt. Ramsey’s guerilla operations impacted the overall invasion
This book has value to individuals working in special operations or those who study special operations. There are many examples within the book that display the importance of continual operational vigilance and how to balance this with the need to show trust in relatively unknown indigenous entities. It is also a great study in the value of the individual and the importance that one individual may provide to an organization and operation. Lt. Ramsey was the interlocking piece in a complex resistance movement which eventually consisted of 40,000 members. His adaptability, inter motivation, and perseverance provide an invaluable inspiration for military leaders as well as unique insight to what drives some men to thrive and conquer the direst of situations. His innovation and development of guerilla warfare informed guidelines in developing special warfare training in the United States. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the Special Forces tab and Green Beret in 2001.