The Last Cavalry Charge in U.S. History


Peter F. Stevens is the news and features editor of The Boston Irish Reporter, an historian, and the award-winning author of The Voyage of the Catalpa - A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels' Escape to Freedom (Carroll & Graf, hardcover 2002, paperback 2003; Orion Books, UK, 2003). He is also the author of The Rogue's March: John Riley and the St. Patrick's Battalion, 1846-48 (Potomac Books - hardcover, 1999; paperback, 2001-2010) and most recently The Twilight Riders: The Last Charge of the 26th Cavalry, published in April by Lyons Press.

“Mount up!”

On January 16, 1942, the order pealed through the sultry Bataan air.  The battered, exhausted men of the 26th U.S. Calvary, of the Army’s Philippine Scouts, climbed astride their horses and flung themselves against the blazing gun muzzles of Japanese tanks.  To the shock of the cavalrymen and the Japanese commanders alike, the cavalrymen scattered and drove back the armored squadrons.

“To them, we must have seemed a vision from another century,” says Edwin P. Ramsey, “wild-eyed horses pounding headlong, cheering, whooping men firing from the saddles.”  Ramsey knows firsthand of what he speaks.  As a young lieutenant in the 26th, he led the battered riders of the 26th on that charge—the final cavalry charge in the history of the U.S. Army.  His heroic dash was only a small part of the valor and skill of the forgotten men of the 26th Cavalry.

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.

Japan’s stunning attack on Pearl Harbor unmasked America’s ill-preparedness for war, and the scenario grew even darker as the talons of the Japanese war-machine grasped toward another plump target—the Philippines.  On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Luzon, Douglas MacArthur’s combined American-Filipino defense forces were in no condition for the imminent onslaught of an enemy hardened in the mountains of an enemy hardened in the mountains of Manchuria and the jungles of Southeast Asia.

In stark contrast to Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma’s veteran nucleus, MacArthur’s divisions lacked training, equipment and manpower, but one of his units was fully prepared for combat.  The 26th Cavalry (PS) 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 man seemingly born to lead thundering columns of cavalry into battle.  With his dapper mustache, rugged features and bulldog physique, Colonel Clinton A. Pierce was his generation’s embodiment of such legendary cavalrymen as “Light Horse” Harry Lee, Phil Sheridan, Jeb Stuart and George A. Custer.

Pierce’s command is little known outside the Philippines and largely forgotten by even the U.S. Army despite the astonishing number of medals earned by the unit during the fall of the Philippines.  In 1901, during the opening stages of the American occupation of the Philippine Islands, the U.S. Army inducted Filipinos into the ranks “to help restore order and peace to a troubled area.”  The Filipinos, trained and led by Americans, played a key and courageous role in quelling the fierce rebels of the Moro tribes on the island of Mindanao and in the Jolo Archipelago.

After World War I, Congress approved the official induction of the Philippine Scouts into the regular U.S. Army.  The Scouts, 6,000 officers and men, originally had two infantry regiments, the 45th (PS) and the 57th (PS), along with supporting artillery, engineers, quartermaster, medical, and other divisional elements composed of Filipino enlisted men commanded by Americans and a few West Point-educated Filipinos.

In the decade before World War II, Japan’s expansionism ignited the War Department’s concerns about the potential defense of Manila Bay, and two Philippine Scout artillery regiments, the 91st and the 92nd, were formed.  So, too, was the 26th Cavalry Regiment (PS) created.  The horsemen were stationed on Luzon at Fort William McKinley, Fort Stotsenburg, Camp John Hay, strategic junctures in Manila, and Petit Barracks on Mindanao.

Friction between the Scout’s American officers and the Filipinos—both officers and enlisted men—simmered below the surface in the pre-war era and sometimes erupted because of what the Filipinos views as two sets of military justice, one for the Americans and the other for the locals.  Still, under the command of Pierce, the 26th possessed a genuine esprit de corps.  When war came, the Scouts were trained and ready.

The Japanese army’s initial landings took place from Dec. 10-16, 1941, and the Americans’ makeshift defenses rapidly crumbled.  The raw Filipino recruits of Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright’s North Luzon Force were no match for their experienced enemy.  On Dec. 22, large-scale Japanese amphibious operations along Lingayen Gulf breached Wainwright’s defense perimeters.  To stem the enemy tide, he threw his old friend Clint Pierce’s cavalrymen directly into the path of the Japanese juggernaut and remarked to an aide, “The 26th are the only ones to stop them from 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 machine guns, Pierce’s men slowed Homma’s onrushing divisions.  Mounted on horses or riding in the Scouts continually and aggressively counter-attacked the Japanese tanks and sacrificed their lives to protect the Filipino and American troops as they fell back.

After falling back to regroup, the Japanese unleashed a murderous trio of tanks, aircraft and naval bombardment upon the outmanned and outgunned 26th.  The shredded columns of horsemen, however, refused to yield.  They charged the clanking tanks and picked off scores of Japanese infantrymen who dared lift their heads.  Developing tactics 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 riders unleashed small arms fire to force the tank crews to button up their vehicles, and then closed in to destroy them with grenades.

Their grim faces caked with dirt, perspiration and blood, their casualties mounting by the minute, some 727 troopers of the 26th pummeled their foe for three hours that seemed an eternity until the order to retreat reached their lines.

As the troopers dashed from the fray, the sudden emergence of a Japanese tank in the midst of the riders’ ranks caused a panic.  Wild-eyed, panting horses scattered as additional tank columns rumbled up and decimated the withdrawing 26th.  Pierce managed to rally his men, but by nightfall the regiment was reduced to 175 effectives.  Never was a unit’s code name, the 26th’s “Might,” more appropriate than on the bloody afternoon of Dec. 22, 1941.

Although several hundred troopers cut off during the action of Dec. 22 rejoined the regiment, the 26th continued to take a dreadful pounding all the next day.  Pierce received more disheartening news that very evening.  MacArthur had ordered a full retreat to Bataan, and the 26th’s task was to cover the withdrawal of Wainwright’s entire army.  For several hours during the morning of Dec. 24, ex-cavalryman Wainwright joined Clint Pierce at the forward headquarters of the beleaguered 26th.  The general’s presence bolstered the troopers’ morale.  Wainwright, Pierce and the regiment’s other officers, Americans and Filipinos alike, displayed the renowned élan that had long been the hallmark of America’s cavalrymen: a last hoarded bottle of scotch was produced and all had a quick shot and a toast.

Fighting one of the war’s most brilliant but overlooked delaying actions, Pierce’s men threw back wave after wave of attackers of infantry.  The 26th fought on horse and on foot, tossing gasoline-filled soda bottles at enemy tanks when the cavalry’s supporting artillery ran low on anti-tank shells.  When the last of Wainwright’s main force reached the safety of their new defensive line, the troopers ran from their foxholes to their horses and headed for the Agno River.  Few units in the history of the United States Army have ever matched the valiant exploits of the 26th Cavalry on Dec. 23-24, 1941.

The final battlefield appearance of a mounted American unit occurred on Jan. 16, 1942.  As the Japanese surged across the Batalan River, E and F Troops of the 26th drew up their horses in perfect formation and drove the enemy toward the north and west of Bataan’s borders.  Their ranks ravaged, fodder for their horses critically low, the men of the 26th never rode into combat again.

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. 

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.  General Wainwright’s official report of the Philippines Campaign provided the ultimate epitaph for the gallant men of the 26th:

“I was personally present during a portion of this flight and cannot speak in too glowing terms of the gallantry and the intrepidity displayed by Colonel Pierce and all the officers and the men of the 26th Cavalry on this occasion.  This devoted little band of horsemen had maintained the best traditions of the American Cavalry…”