The Last Charge

Examine the facade of Morong’s more than four centuries-old church and you’ll find it’s coral walls pockmarked with bullet scars. They were made by Japanese ammunition in WW2 and they are mute testimony to the last charge by a US Cavalry unit and the brave Filipinos who manned it. Yes, the last mounted charge by a US cavalry unit in history was carried out by Filipinos under an American officer, Lieutenant Edwin Price Ramsey of the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts.

Among the American officers at Stotseberg was Illinois-born Lieutenant Edwin Price Ramsey. He was not there to go to war — he simply wanted to play Polo, which he’d learned at the Oklahoma Military Academy, which he left with a commission in the reserve. As Europe growled its way towards
war, Ramsey volunteered to join the 26th Cavalry in the Philippines because it had a good Polo team.

He arrived in Manila in June, 1941 and described the experience as “Overpowering .. . I didn’t even know where it was when Ifirst volunteered except that it was a warm country, it was tropical, it had a good polo team there. By the time I got there, my introduction to it really was as we were coming into the Straits you could just smell the flowers and you would see the fishermen around there, the floating bancas – little
fishing boats — lots of coconuts floating around there that had been harvested. It was a very exotic atmosphere.”

He soon made himself at home in the rarified, rather formal colonial atmosphere of Fort Stotsenburg, where weekly polo matches were played on the parade ground.

So it was that on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Ramsey played what would prove to be his last game for many years, with General Jonathan Wainwright refereeing the game. Following the game Ramsey partied in classic style, found his way back to his quarters and went to sleep.

At 2.30am a U.S. Navy radioman, in the Marsman building in Manila’s dockland, received news that Japanese forces had attacked Pearl Harbour and
informed the duty officer, Lt. Col. William T. Clement. While the news filtered through the Navy, it was not until 3.30am that Brigadier- General Richard Sutherland, Chief of Staff to General Douglas McArthur, commander of US forces in the islands, heard about the attack from a commercial radio broadcast.

Ramsey woke up with a hangover to find the United States at war and a Japanese attack on the Philippines expected at any moment. He recalls: “I didn’t know we were at war until I woke up the next morning. We had already been to war for several hours and I heard all the scrambling around. We had our mess together in the morning so I went over there. All of a sudden I hear everybody running around and I said, “Well what’s going on?” well, we are at war, I said, “You’re crazy, don’t bother me I got a hangover.” They said, “No, we are at war, they bombed Pearl Harbor.”

I didn’t even have a war backpack so I had to rush back to my quarters and throw some things together then get back over to the regiment and to my troop. So it was pretty hectic.”

As Ramsey and his company, Troop G, left Stotsenburg for Baler, on the east coast of Luzon, Japanese aircraft bombed the US Air Force planes at Clark Field, wiping them out.

Ramsey’s troop stayed at Baler, where it was dive-bombed by the Japanese, until just before Christmas. Unable to hold back the Japanese advance, on December 23, US and Filipino forces were ordered to withdraw into the Bataan peninsular and hold out until reinforcements arrived; Ramsey was instructed to rejoin his regiment.

On December 29 he returned to a regiment that had fought hard and suffered heavy losses in actions that set back the Japanese timetable by nine hours and forced them to begin deploying their main column. “By the time we had got back to that point, our regiment had already lost almost half of its officers and men, in the battles that had already taken place.” Recalled Ramsey.

General Wainwright later wrote of the Scouts, “This devoted little band of horsemen, weakened by detachments and by heavy casualties… maintained the best traditions of the American Cavalry. I speak of this from the point of view of an eyewitness.”

Ramsey was sent on a 48-hour reconnaissance mission towards Japanese-occupied Subic Bay and Olongapo. When he returned he found his troop commander, Captain John Wheeler struggling over useless gas station maps trying to figure out the terrain. Ramsey, who was due to be sent to the rear along with G troop volunteered to help Wheeler.

He was put in charged of the remnants of two troops, E and F, which became E/F Troop, “Twenty seven worn and weary Filipinos”. That night he bivouacked the troop and next morning supervised the feeding and watering of the horses before taking his own modest breakfast of rice gruel and coffee.

At midday came an angry visitor, General Jonathan Wainwright. The 1st Philippine Division under General Fidel Segundo had withdrawn from the town of Morong, which now lay between the American forces and advancing Japanese lines. He wanted the town retaken.

Wainwright recognized Ramsey from the Stotsenburg polo games and ordered him to take the advance guard into Morong. Wheeler suggested
a replacement but Wainwright simply snapped “Ramsey, move out”.

Ramsey took the first platoon and set off for Morong followed by two other platoons He formed his men into a column of twos and sent four men ahead as point guard.

The troop approached Morong from the east took the left-hand road at a crossroads and with pistols raised, entered the silent, abandoned town, now stripped bare of livestock by the retreating allied army. There was little more than the sound of the surrounding jungle and the padding of the horses.

Morong was a place of nipa huts on stilts surrounded by jungle, with a swamp and coconut groves towards the sea on one side and the Batolan River, crossed by a wooden bridge to the west.

Ramsey watched as the point men turned the corner of Morong’s ancient church, the only stone building and suddenly there was an explosion and the sound of gunfire. A private, streaming blood, his body stitched with wounds from automatic weapons raced back. They had run into the heavily armed Japanese advance guard recently landed from Subic Bay to occupy the town. Ramsey saw scores of Japanese infantry firing from the centre of the town and more wading the river behind.

It was vital to break up the body of the advance guard. Ramsey decided to charge.

Looking behind him he found the badly wounded Filipino private from the point with pistol in hand and ordered him to the rear to get medical attention. “I can’t, Sir”, said the man, “I’m still on guard”. Says Ramsey: “He was so brave, I thought he was dead”.

He ordered his men into a line of foragers and ordered the charge. Over the centuries the sight of several tons of horseflesh and shouting, whooping riders has had a powerful impact on an enemy and it did so this time. Some of the Japanese returned fire, most fled and ran
into the swamps. The charge passed through the Japanese and carried on to the swamp, where Ramsey dismounted, sent the horses
to the rear and laid down a skirmish line to delay any further advance from the river.

Then he led the rest of his men back into Morong itself to search for snipers. Unable to use hand grenades for fear of hurting his own men, the Scouts fired through the walls of the flimsy huts as they came under Japanese mortar fire.

Amid the fighting, Ramsey spotted an American officer near the church. “I used some very rough expletives when I saw the guy sort of cowering against the church. I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t know why he was there. I turned around to him and said, ‘Come on you yellow son- of-a-bitch get up here and help us’, thenI didn’t pay any more attention to him. It turned out that was the Chief of Staff for General Wainwright who had been sent in, who shouldn’t have been there to begin with. He had only been sent in to see what the situation was.”

Shortly afterwards the rest of the troops arrived and were able to hold the town until the First Infantry came in andtook over. Ramsey’s part in the battle was over.

He and John Wheeler were wounded. As for Wainwright’s Chief of Staff, he recommended Ramsey for a Silver Star.

Soon after, Ramsey fell ill with jaundice. While he was in hospital he learned the sad news that, with forage in short supply and food for the retreating troops running out, the cavalry horses had been slaughtered. In all some 250 horses were killed for food.

A few months later, Bataan and Corregidor fell and Ramsey took on a new and hazardous career as a guerrilla leader, which earned him the
Distinguished Service Cross. But, in an email interview, he admitted, “Probably the most beautiful medal I have is the Legion of Honor,
Degree of Commander, given to me by President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines”, in part awarded for his command of
the last cavalry charge in Morong.

In 1990, Ramsey wrote his account of the Last Charge, Lieutenant Ramsey’s War: From Horse Soldier to Guerrilla Commander and passed away in 2013.

Was David Fagen A Stud?

David Fagin – His surname was spelt in different ways, in one of the few verifiable images of him. Click photo for full report.

One of my pet peeves is the use of random photographs of American-American soldiers, some dating from the American Civil War, labelled as “David Fagen”. They appear on most Facebook posts about one of the few Buffalo Soldiers to desert to Philippine Republican forces during the Philippine-American War.

Buffalo soldiers served creditably in the American Civil War, the Apache Wars, Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines, in both the Philippine-American and World War Two.

In the Philippine-American War not a single Buffalo soldier was implicated in committing atrocities despite serving in hot-spots like Samar. That is not to say they were perfect, one Buffalo soldier cut off the arm of a Filipina so he could take her bracelet, but in general their behaviour was exemplary.

Most saw their service as a way of demonstrating that they were Americans, despite the shoddy treatment handed out to them in their home country.

So, taking a random anonymized photograph and mislabelling it as someone else deprives the man pictured of his identity, his honour, his courage, his existence.

None of the photographs supposedly depicting him were identified as such contemporaneously with one exception, the sketch given above, from the Salt Lake City Herald of 30 October 1900, which may be derived from a photograph of him in civilian attire. The article is based on interviews with those who knew him, both civilians and military and gives a fascinating insight into the character of David Fagen.

Does it change our image of him?

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When Ninoy Aquino Backed Martial Law

Beningo ‘Ninoy’ Aquino

(Part of an occasional series on US diplomats and their relationships with the Philippines)

Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino’s death on 21 August 1983 on the apron of what is now the airport named after him, lit the fuse to the overthrow of the notoriously corrupt dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos  in February 1986. It led to the presidency of Corazon Aquino, and the controversial incumbency of Rodrigo Duterte, son of Ferdinand Marco’s former executive secretary, whose mother was a bitter opponent of Marcos.

The striking of the match that lit the fuse may have come as early as 1972 when Marcos made a strategic error – he arrested Ninoy Aquino.

Ambassador Frank E. Maestrone, who died in 2007, served as US Consular Officer from 1971 and was interviewed by the late Hank Zivetz for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, in 1989. He had a front-row seat.

He gives us a sense of the complexities underlying the road to Martial Law – violence on the streets, a weak central government unable to bring provincial war-lords to heel.

Among the surprises, perhaps, is that Ninoy Aquino would have supported Martial Law as a temporary measure. However, Marcos’s first step was to arrest the opposition, eliminating the moderate opposition entirely, which strengthened the Communist insurgency and leading to a quintupling of recruitment into the NPA.

Maestrone’s interview is given here without comment. 

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How a Slow News Day in Washington Invented the Filipino McKinley Islands

The assassination of William McKinley

No matter how long one has been studying Philippine history there is always something new. It is one of the pleasures of diggingthrough dusty tomes and digital libraries. I belong to some of the better Facebook history groups, which means once in a while something comes up that gets my investigative juices going, like the report that the Philippines could have been called the McKinley Islands, after US President William McKinley who allegedly promised to Christianise and civilise the Archipelago as he pinned a paper US flag into a map in 1901 while pitching for the Methodist vote in an upcoming election.

Had McKinley run for another term he might well have won, but for two bullets fired at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on 6 September 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist born in Michigan. McKinley died a week later.  On 26 October,  three 1,800 volt charges were sent through his body, he was declared dead and his body dissolved in sulphuric acid and what was left buried in prison grounds.
It was claimed that one of Czolgosz’s complaints against McKinley was the US actions in the Philippines.

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The Corporate Slave -Part 1

Your order books are full, you can sell everything you can make and the forward orders might just get you into Forbes. The 500, not the park.
Problem: you need warm bodies on the production line. So you call in your Human Resources Manager and he… does what? This is after all the late 1700s in Jolo and you’re the Sultan of Sulu, a Taosug aristocrat, and rule from southern Mindanao to North Borneo and the Celebes. There
won’t be a classified page until, at best, 1811. You could wait until 1860 and get a free six-line slave wanted ad for free by subscribing to the Diario De Manila, but a century is an awfully long time to wait for the hired help.

You need people to produce deliverables. So, you indent for a kampilan from the company stores, get the transportation department to send 1,000 company bancas around to the front door, load up your lantakas with powder and shot and go off for some serious recruitment in Leyte, Samar, Luzon and wherever else doesn’t have kampilan, lantakas and customers screaming for product.

It was in the 18th century that the slave-raiding business-model changed from one of securing a product, slaves, to sell around the region to one of of acquiring a labour force to produce product to sell to the British for their trade with China.

Don’t think of it as slavery, think of it as hard core recruitment.

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The Day Brownouts Were Invented – Lighting Up Manila

19th Century Westinghouse incandescent bulb

Anyone familiar with the Philippines is familiar with blackouts, power outages, or, in Filipino English ‘brownouts’, a term intended, prehaps to soften the blow of sudden darkness. Equally, one becomes familiar with the yelps of joy when lights go back on and people can resume the serious business of karaoke.

Imagine how much more magical it would have been when the first electric lights shone in the streets of Mania, switched on with much pomp and ceremony. Few history books mention that day but an American businessman working with Peabody & Co left a first-hand account that captures the excitement and wonder of the day.

Electricity arrived in Manila in the late 1880s, at least for the very wealthy who could afford private electrical installations. For everyone else, it was coconut oil, kerosene, gas or candles.

If you wanted to take a look at electric lights you could pop over to the wharves at the mouth of the Pasig leading to the Bridge of Spain. There was also an electric light on the bridge to guide vessels after sunset.

Street lighting was provided by kerosene lamps.

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How Drug Wars Paid For The Most Expensive Piña Dress In The World

Queen Victoria in 1844

Public demonstrations of status and wealth require investing in things that are unnecessary, expensive, beautiful, and preferably labour-intensive, whether it is a Cartier watch, a Lamborghini, or a trophy wife. As Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Imelda Marcos and Donald Trump show, these items need not be tasteful or stylish, nor need the wealth be honourably acquired.

Embroidered Piña, the Philippine textile derived for the leaves of a pineapple, ticks all the boxes. It is unnecessary in that cheap cotton covers the body just as well, it is costly, inarguably beautiful, and certainly labour-intensive. Literally fit for a queen, that queen being Victoria.

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The Shocking Case of the Manila Ambulance

De Dion-Bouton electric and petrol-powered vehicales werepopular in the Philippine around 1910. So much fun, apparently, they’d put your black chauffeur out of a job.

Sometimes one comes across a bit of information that makes one raise an eyebrow in surprise then, a moment later, makes one wonder why one was surprised in the first place. So it was when I discovered that the first motorised ambulances in Manila were not run on petrol or diesel but on electricity and steam.

Today, much is made of the new electric-powered jeepneys on city streets today, but the basic technology is more than 125 years old.

When I think of electric vehicles I think not of Tesla’s battery-powered sportscars but the humble British milk float. Early each morning this once-common vehicle delivered bottles of milk to nearly everybody’s doorstep from a little before dawn. Its characteristic sound was a faint thump as the drive engaged then a quiet hum and a rattle of glass bottles as it set off to its next delivery.

The loudest noise about it was often the whistling of the milkman.

Having once earned pocket money helping a milkman on his rounds, I still rescue a dropped bottle by putting my foot underneath it.

It was that silence that made electric ambulances ideal in the first two decades of 20th century Manila. But electric ambulances were not the only driving force in town, as we shall see.

It was steam-powered vehicles that gave us the word chauffeur, derived from a French term meaning someone who heats up the boiler for a steam-engined vehicle it lives on in Tagalog as tsuper.

And we may have a few more surprises.

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Balangiga Bells – The Return


It is rare that the study of history makes a difference, but it did in the case of the Balangiga Bells. The town, and its bells, have been part of my life for a quarter of a century and the work that I and Rolando Borrinaga put into establishing the real history of what happened played a role in the education program launched by US Veterans to get the bells returned.

Although my role was modest it is, nevertheless, one I am quite proud of.

The bells were returned to Balangiga on 15 December 2018. Sadly, I could not be there to greet them but I did get to see and touch them for my birthday two weeks later.

It was, for me, a moving and emotional moment as you can see below.

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Quezon’s Game and the Japanese Earthquake.

My ‘must-see movie’ of the moment is Quezon’s Game. Having worked with wonderfully talented Matt Rosen, who directs this story of the rescue of more than a thousand Jews ahead of Germany’s Holocaust by Manuel L Quezon, with Raymond Bagatsing, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with on two movies, I’m excited to see it.

Normally, my heart sinks when I hear ‘historical’ and ‘movie’ in the same sentence. Especially with Philippine movies where the historical advisors are not usually up-to-date on current scholarship, as in the case of Luna. I often prefer it when there is a historical connection by the actual facts don’t matter, as in Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, a wonderfully quirky movie with flying carabao which I thoroughly enjoyed.

In the case of Quezon’s Game there is good reason to expect a truthful rendition without being a documentary. Matt Rosen is Jewish, with some of the best Jewish jokes you can imagine, so the story is very close to his heart. While Quezon is depicted watching film of the Nazi death camps, which he could not possibly have seen at the time, how else would one show the results if Quezon had failed?

As many as 10,000 Jews were to be offered a place in the Philippines in Mindanao as farmers. There was opposition based on stereotypes of Jews not being farmers.

At a time when top lawyers in the Philippines like Ferdinand Topacio hang portraits of Hitler in their offices and deny the Holocaust ever happened, and the President of the Philippines can casually and coldly liken the Jews to drug addicts, a film like this is really needed.

But this was not the only time that Quezon, a brutal and astute political operator, reached out a hand to help those in trouble overseas.

Continue reading “Quezon’s Game and the Japanese Earthquake.”