Above: Arms of the 26th U.S. Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts)
United States Regular Army
The U.S. Army’s Last Combat Horse Regiment—a Lesson in Effective Leadership
Article by A170 Tom Rozman
Recent history witnessed an element of U. S. soldiers again entering direct combat mounted in the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan. Soldiers of a U. S. Army Special Forces unit, Operational Detachment-Alpha 595, fought mounted at one point in operations in Afghanistan in 2001. This was not a standing mounted unit trained to employ the horse in operations. It rode into battle mounted as an expedient with allied Afghan cavalry.
The U.S. Horse Cavalry organized as a part of the U.S. Army’s combat maneuver force was part of that force essentially through World War II. However, senior Army leadership determined that the age of horse cavalry had ended on the modern battlefield and all cavalry units that deployed in combat, with one exception, had traded their flesh and blood mounts for mechanical mounts. The 1st Cavalry Division deployed to the South Pacific Theater with a modified table of organization essentially as infantry. The 2nd Cavalry Division did deploy to North Africa where it was broken up, its units assigned to other duties and missions.
But one Regular Army horse cavalry unit, the 26th U. S. Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) would expend itself in active combat in 1941 on Luzon as a horse regiment in the best traditions of the U.S. Cavalry. The regiment would make the last horse mounted cavalry charge of a U. S. horse cavalry unit during operations as a covering force during the long withdrawal of U.S. and Philippine forces into the Bataan Peninsula.
The leadership demonstrated by the officers, non-commissioned officers and troopers of this formation in executing a mission that each knew would consume the regiment is profound. From the record, at no point did elements of the regiment fail to aggressively conduct a fighting withdrawal and buy time for withdrawing forces to reach positions on the Bataan Peninsula.
Revisiting the leadership demonstrated by the officers and men of the 26th does provide some insight into effective leadership under the worst of conditions.
The 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) was formed from cadre and troops provided by the 25th Artillery and 43rd Infantry Regiments (Philippine Scouts) at Fort Stotsenburg in 1922. It remained in garrison at this post engaged in the then security mission in the Philippine Islands until active operations began against the invading forces of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1941. On 30 November 1941 the regiment mustered 787 men and 55 officers in its regimental headquarters, Headquarters & Service Troop, Machinegun Troop, two squadron headquarters, and Troops A, B, C, E, F an G.
From 22 December to Christmas Day 1941, the 26th Cavalry Regiment would fight five furious major engagements against the advancing units of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 14th Army on Luzon, after that force’s landings on the beaches along Lingayen Gulf and Lamon Bay. Its commander was Colonel Clinton A. Pierce and Squadron commanders were Majors Hubert W. Ketchum and Thomas H. Trapnell, and troop commanders Captains Forest C. Richards, Jack A. Ford, Leland W. Cramer, Joseph R. Barker, Ralph B. Praeger, John Z. Wheeler, Paul H. Wrinkle, and John W. Fowler.
Colonel Pierce, an aggressive and involved cavalry leader, initiated an intense training regimen on assuming command of the regiment in October 1941 after serving since February 1940 as a squadron commander and then executive officer of the regiment. The regimen was hands on and emphasized both offensive and defensive training to include rapid mounted attack of infantry using pistols.
The colonel anticipated a Japanese initiation of hostilities. It was only a matter of when. His leadership to prepare the regiment, operating on a much slimmer resource package than sister cavalry regiments in the states, was a masterful leadership exercise that would pay dividends in the opening phases of the war. The regiment was trained and its élan was superb. It had a veteran leader who had served on the Mexican Border in 1916 and in France in World War I and who knew his business.
The colonel’s almost two years in the regiment as a squadron commander and executive officer allowed him to know well the officers and non-commissioned officers he led. The leaders at every level were known quantities to each other which lent to confidence in each other’s capabilities.
The regiment would essentially expend itself. It would lose over a quarter of its strength in the harrowing days from the Japanese landings to crossing the bridge into the Bataan position. Given the wounded who remained on their feet perhaps 400 casualties had been suffered in accomplishing the unit’s assignment as a covering force. Its performance of this mission allowed the U.S./Philippine Armies to withdraw into the Bataan position some 200km from the landing area.
As telling as the human cost, only 50% of the regiment’s mounts survived the withdrawal operation. Sadly, after their brave performance and endurance, they would yet make the ultimate sacrifice. They were ordered to be turned in to the quartermaster.
At early light on the morning of 6 January 1942 the surviving 26th Cavalry troopers, moving on sheer will and their emaciated mounts, crossed the Culo River on the last bridge into the Bataan position shortly before the engineers blew the bridge. The regiment and its troopers, in testament to its superb leadership and training and the quality of the Philippine Scout troopers, had conducted one of the classic successful covering force operations of modern war. And they did it primarily on horseback augmented by the small number of lightly armored scout and machine gun vehicles assigned and without their artillery.
The remarkable and exceptional leadership of the officers had been seconded by that of the regiment’s non-commissioned officers (NCOs), exemplified by the corps of senior NCOs such as Master Sergeants Cornelio Bataan, Juan Dalipe, Cipriano Masiclat, and Ramon Puragganan at regiment and troop first sergeants Paul A. Marinas, Nicholas Mendoza, Justiniano A. Bulawan, Daniel H. Ulanday, Leon Amigaple, Juan C. Bilcera, Sabiano Ibanez, and Gregorio G. Bustos. These seasoned long service Regular Army sergeants, their supporting NCOs, and the regiment’s privates made possible a cavalry action with few peers in the history of cavalry actions of this type, and they did it against overwhelming numbers.
The Japanese tanks had landed at three locations along the gulf shore with the 48th Division’s 43,100 men along with a regiment of the Japanese 16th Division supported by ample artillery. The Northern Luzon Defense Force’s 11th and 71st Divisions, deficient in artillery and poorly equipped with minimum training, could not stop the assaults or keep them contained in the beach areas. The 26th Cavalry, supporting these units found itself early and continuously engaged until entering the Bataan position.
The five tough actions fought by the regiment in this retrograde covering force mission were:
Damortis & Rosario—As the Northern Luzon Defense Force’s 71st Division’s positions gave way above the main landings sites on the Lingayen beaches, the 26th was ordered to the hamlet of Damortis in the vicinity of the town of Rosario. The regiment was to take up position and resist the Japanese advances off the beaches as long as possible. Japanese movement past this point inland would access in one of the main approaches south to Manila.
The regiment moved rapidly to Damortis mounted in daylight, essential for speed despite Japanese air superiority…a decision the leader made from necessity. The well trained and disciplined unit marched rapidly to battle in dispersed order, moving to covered and concealed positions repeatedly when attacked from the air, then returning to the march. Despite the stiff losses, the regiment took position on the high ground and less its supporting Battery A, 23rd Artillery (Pack) that had been ordered away from the regiment earlier and with no anti-tank support, the regiment conducted an unsupported classic position delay, inflicting heavy casualties on the initial infantry assaulting force. With disciplined effective fires the initial attack was repelled.
A reinforced second attack supported by armor was resisted until the regiment’s positions were about to be overrun. At that point the regiment withdrew in good order. This brave stand by the 26th Cavalry Regiment staved off a complete collapse of the Northern Luzon Defense Force as it began a withdrawal southward.
Bianalonan—The regiment conducted a punishing defense on the advancing Japanese lead attack elements, infantry supported by tanks, repelling the initial attack with heavy losses to the attacking force. The regiment‘s effectiveness in this action was underscored by the effect of its rifle and machinegun fires and a counter attack by Troop A into the flank of the attacking units.
The regiment then repelled multiple following infantry assaults with great loss to the Japanese. Eventually, the now unsupported regiment was about to be flanked in its position and cut off. It began its withdrawal. A classic cavalry action reminiscent of General Buford’s use of his cavalry at Gettysburg, the regiment had forced General Homma to deploy his attack force. The time bought was critical. General Wainwright had personally informed Colonel Pierce that WPO-3, the plan for withdrawal of the entire army into the Bataan Peninsula, was in effect and the 26th was critical to the army’s succeeding in the withdrawal.
Tayug—Just forward of the town of Tayug on the bluffs above the southern bank of the Agno River the 26th Cavalry occupied its “D2” positions of WPO-3. The regiment celebrated Christmas 1941 fighting through the night denying the lead armored and infantry assault elements of the 14th Army a crossing of the Agno. Along the regiment’s front, attack after attack was repelled through the night. On the morning of 26 December elements of the Japanese 48th Reconnaissance Regiment with augmenting armor were able to cross the Agno and threaten the 26th Regiment’s left flank. It was time for the 26th to withdraw thus ending its battle on the Agno. The regiment had done well having bought the Army valuable time in its withdrawal. The regiment had been in active continuous combat for five days.
Position in the vicinity of Lyac Junction along Route 74—The 26th, by a series of effective actions, denied the Japanese lead elements the ability to penetrate the position on 5 January and then conducted a successful rearguard maneuver. The regiment was the last element to cross the Culo River bridge into the Bataan Position. The regiment had been continuously engaged in five continuous days of brutal combat. Its leaders had executed every mission assigned with success. The troopers and their leaders never wavered.
Relative to the following comment, the U.S. Army’s horse mounted tradition was heavily dragoon in nature, units using the horse to rapidly move into position of advantage then fight dismounted. The first four mounted regiments formed in the Revolution were light dragoons and the first horse regiment formed after the Revolution was a dragoon regiment. This regiment was followed by a mounted rifle regiment then another dragoon regiment. By the latter stages of the Civil War with the weapons that had emerged, the very large federal cavalry establishment tended to operate primarily as dragoons and a reconnaissance force. The U.S. Cavalry’s doctrine was not oriented on large mounted charges against strong enemy positions. The horse was a means for rapid force movement to gain operational and tactical advantage in maneuver and not an assault system.
From a historic perspective the later Troop E-F (a consolidated formation necessitated by the regiment’s previous heavy combat) mounted charge at Morong under command of Lieutenant Edwin Ramsey, previously of Troop G, on 16 January 1942 would be the last mounted attack by a U.S. Cavalry unit. The troop was ordered personally by Lieutenant General Wainwright to Morong. The unit under Lieutenant Ramsey, on approaching Morong, found itself confronted by Japanese assault infantry crossing the river into the town.
Lieutenant Ramsey made an immediate decision to charge mounted into the infantry. The charge, violently executed by the cavalrymen, routed the Japanese infantry. It was a classic leader example of assessing a rapidly developing situation and seizing and acting on a course of action with decision and leading that action by example. It was an advance guard mission to secure the Morong position ahead of the Japanese attacking lead elements, a location critical to maintaining the boundary of the two Army Corps’ front.
After the capitulation of U.S. and Philippine forces in 1942, officers and many soldiers of the regiment refused the capitulation order infiltrating into the more remote hill and mountain areas where they operated as guerrillas with exception of Troop C that had been cut off and continued to operate as a unit in guerilla type operations as well. The troop eventually integrated with returning U.S. Forces in 1944. In this sense the intrepid leadership of officers and NCOs of the regiment kept the regiment in action throughout the war despite the capitulation in 1942.
This will to resist indicated a further aspect of the leadership of this body of troops. The regiment did not give in. President Truman would disband the regiment in 1951 five years after the Philippines was confirmed in its independence by President Truman on 4 July 1946. The regiment passed into legend.
The regiment’s commander demonstrated perhaps one of the finest performances of a combat leader in history. In a doomed campaign he never faltered as an effective combat leader who got the mission done nor did he allow his subordinate leaders to fail. They remained mission effective under appalling conditions against superior force arrayed against them. The troopers retained full respect for their officers and NCOs, responding to their leadership and often leading themselves at critical times in the endless combat.
The following quote captures a sense of the 26th Cavalry Regiment and its leaders… officers, NCOs and troopers.
“Thus ended the 26th Cavalry (PS), the last cavalry regiment in United States history to go into action on their traditional mount, the horse…From Damortis to the last organized stand on ill-fated Bataan, it had fought courageously, steadfastly, and efficiently to uphold the finest military tradition of both countries from which its members were drawn…the 26th Cavalry which gave the last full measure of its devotion to duty and country jn the defense of the Philippine Islands… Yes, yes they wrote their names in Filipino history with blood.”
(Epitaph for a regiment by regimental S-2/S-3 then Major William E. Chandler, United States Military Academy Class of 1931, later colonel who retired from the Army in 1961.)
Note 1: the 26th Cavalry Regiment’s commander, then Colonel Clinton A. Pierce, born in Brooklyn, New York in June 1894 and while a student at the University of Illinois enlisted in the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Artillery Regiment on 16 June 1916 shortly before his artillery unit was federalized for service on the Mexican Border where he subsequently served. He was promoted to artillery corporal on October 1916.
He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant of Cavalry on 22 March 1917 integrating into the Regular Army. He experienced rapid promotions to 1st Lieutenant on 15 May 1917, temporary captain on 5 August 1917 and served in France in WWI serving with the 2nd Cavalry rising to the rank of temporary major 24 October 1918. He reverted to Regular Army captain, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, in January 1919.
He completed the Troop Officer’s Course in 1923 and the Advanced Officer’s Course in 1932 at the Cavalry School at Ft. Riley, Kansa where he also served as an instructor. He had been promoted to Regular Army major on 3 March 1930. He was promoted to Regular Army lieutenant colonel on 14 July 1939 deploying to the Philippines in February 1940 where he served as squadron commander and executive officer of the 26th Cavalry. He was promoted to colonel in October 1941 assuming command of the 26th Cavalry Regiment at that time.
He would be advanced to brigadier general in January 1942 and would assume command of the 71st Philippine Army Division. At capitulation of the forces on Bataan he would endure prisoner of war status under the Japanese Government until 1944. He would retire from the Army as a brigadier general in 1950 after serving in U. S. Army Europe as the commander in Augsburg.
He was perhaps the finest U. S, cavalry officer of his day short of his cavalry colleague George Patton.
Note 2: Lieutenant Edwin Price Ramsey would continue to operate in the Philippines after the capitulation against the Japanese. A graduate of Oklahoma Military Academy, and commissioned in 1941, Lieutenant Ramsey would medically retire from the service in 1946 as a highly decorated lieutenant colonel.
Among other service and valor awards he was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. He later obtained a law degree from the University of Oklahoma and rose to high corporate positions, one being Vice President with Hughes Aircraft Corporation.
Note 3: Horse units were used effectively in World War II by the German Army and other augmenting forces and the Soviet Army. Different than popular accounts, the Polish Army that also used horse mounted formations in active operations in the opening months of World War II applied a similar doctrine to the U.S. Cavalry, operating mounted units as dragoons using the horse to obtain more rapid tactical and operational mobility but fighting dismounted when in position. The one time a Polish squadron commander made a mounted attack against an attacking armored unit in a desperate effort to buy some time for withdrawing infantry and artillery units, the squadron commander was court martialed. The Spanish and Swiss Armies retained horse mounted units into the 1970s and 90s to take advantage of the horse’s mobility in broken country.
Note 4: material for this vignette was developed from the following sources…
- Dwight J. Zimmerman 10 April Defense Media Network “Charge of the Philippine Scouts and the last Horse Cavalry Charge of the U. S. Army
- Wikipedia Philippines Campaign (1931-1942)
- Stevens, Peter F., The Twighlight Riders…The Last Charge of the 26th Cavalry, Lyon press 2011