One of the great romantic stories of World War II, is of Polish lancers bravely –and desperately– charging German tanks in the opening days of World War II. Shades of the famed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War, which led a French general, Pierre Bosquet, observing the brave but pointless charge, to remark, C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie (“It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness”).
Apparently, romantic as the tale was, the story wasn’t true: it was a myth created by the panzer commander Gen. Guderian, and spread by the famed war correspondent William J. Shirer; see the Polish-American Journal and The Guardian for details.
What is important about the story of the Polish lancers was that it represented the gallantry of a country and a people outgunned and doomed by the relentless assault of an invader. What is romantic, and true, however, is how Radio Poland played Chopin’s Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1 (“Militaire”) every day, from the start of the German invasion on September 1, 1939, until the city fell on September 27, when “The first eleven notes of Chopin’s (†89) Military Polonaise, the signature of Warsaw State Radio, are sounded for the last time.” Go listen to Arthur Rubinstein’s performance of it.
Radio would play a role in the Philippine resistance, too: when the Commonwealth inaugural for the second term of the president and vice-president was held on December 30, 1941, it turned out there was no way to broadcast the proceedings to unoccupied areas. Radio equipment from Manila were retrieved and transferred to Corregidor, becoming part of the apparatus for the Voice of Freedom which broadcast until Corregidor fell on May May 6, 1942.
But even as radio played a role, it is the legend of the Polish cavalry that concerns us here –and a parallel story of heroism on horseback from the early months of the war in the Philippines.
To place things in context, here is an overview published in Corregidor Then and Now:
Delaying actions were fought to permit withdrawal to Bataan, the bloodiest of which was fought by the 11th and 21st Divisions on the Porac-Guagua line. The 26th Cavalry Regiment protected the west flank of the 21st Division. As the entire USAFFE struggled from south and north toward the Layac junction, the only approach to Bataan, the delaying forces held their line on open and unprepared ground. From 1 January to 5 January they stood fast against massive enemy aerial and artillery bombardment, concentrated tank attacks and banzai charges. Casualties on both sides were heavy. The first defensive in Bataan was the Hermosa-Dinalupihan line, where on 6 January 1942 the 71st Division, the American 31st Infantry Regiment and the 26th Cavalry Regiment fought off the pursuing enemy.
The aim of War Plan Orange-3 was to delay the invading enemy forces until the US Navy could gather together it’s Pacific Fleet and sail to the Philippines, on the way dealing with the Japanese Fleet. But there was no US Navy fleet to gather together, for it now rested on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
The main battle position of the USAFFE, the Abucay-Morong line, was attacked along its eastern flank on 9 January, but the 5th Regimental Combat Team, reinforced by the 57th Infantry of the 21st Division repulsed the attack. On 14 January the Japanese attacked the boundary of the 41st and 51st Divisions. The 43rd Infantry, holding the left lank of the 41st Division, which was reinforced by the 23rd Infantry, 21st Division sharply refused its flank. The 51st Infantry, holding the right flank of the 51st Division, withdrew creating a gap through which the enemy advanced to the Salian River. But a patrol of the 21st division discovered the enemy, and elements of the Division rushed to the Salian River valley where after a savage fight, they repulsed the enemy. Farther to the west the enemy surprised and routed the 53rd Infantry. Penetrating deep behind the main battle position along the Abo-Abo River valley, the enemy advance was held up by combined elements of the 21st Division of the II reserve, the 31st and the 51st Division of the Bani-Guirol forest area.
The American 31st Infantry and the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, succeeded in partially restoring the abandoned line of the 51st Division.
It’s in these encounters that the image of dashing, daring, but doomed cavalrymen seems to have captured the imagination of soldiers and civilians alike.
On December 30, 1941, a young lieutenant in the intelligence unit of USAFFE, Felipe Buencamino III, wrote in his diary,
Heard the 26th cavalry was annihilated in Pozzorubio. They charged against tanks and artillery. An eye witness claims he saw “headless riders charging onward.” Another said that some members of said unit “jumped at tanks, pried open their turrets and hurled grenades.” MacArthur awarded DSC’s to members of this brave unit. Most decorations were posthumous.
Buencamino III at the time he wrote his diary entry was in Fort McKinley (today’s Fort Bonifacio) and not in touch with his family; he would soon join the USAFFE withdrawal to Bataan.
An American, Captain Dr. Albert Brown, wrote in his diary (the excerpt can be found in this interesting page in the Tragedy of Bataan site) on December 30, 1941:
December 30, 1941 23rd Day of War.
The 26th Cavalry of the Philippine Scouts really distinguished themselves. A Lieutenant made the mistake of lighting a cigarette early one morning. An ambushed machine gunner yelled that was the wrong thing to do and they were riddled by the Japanese, losing about 500 hundred mounts, eight officers, and many unlisted men. They were covering the flank. The Philippine Army retreated and left them cut off. They had to take to the mountains around Lingayen and get reorganized.
News, apparently, traveled fast if Buencamino III and Brown in the field, and Felipe Buencamino III’s father, Victor Buencamino,in already-Japanese-occuppied Manila, also heard the story. writing in his diary on January 9, 1942, something similar:
Talked to an officer whose troops were cut off from the main body of the USAFFE retreating to Bataan. He said the MacArthur strategy in the north was to delay the Japanese advance as much as possible. He recounted the charge of the 26th cavalry. “I saw those Filipino scouts charging armored units, riding on, on, on, matching flesh with tanks. I saw headless riders. . .” I did not make him go on.
The pressure on Filipino and American troops proved to be tremendous. There is January 16, 1942 when, in the vicinity of Morong, 27 members of G Troop of the U.S. Army’s 26th Cavalry Regiment (Philippine Scouts) surprised and charged a Japanese infantry unit– the last cavalry charge of the US Army.
You can detect in the official and personal accounts of the military above, that there was resentment on the part of the Americans towards the Filipinos. Filipinos for their part, were aware of this and both puzzled and indignant about what seemed to be a slur on national valor.
There is a story told by General Basilio Valdes to Francis Burton Harrison on June 12, 1942, about this battle in Morong, Bataan:
Valdes: “After the battle of Morong (in Bataan), General Segundo said, we had to withdraw and with us were cavalry from Stotsenburg who had lost their horses in the battle. The next day we retook Morong; so we searched the forest for those horses. We met a man in Filipino uniform who spoke perfect English; he said he knew where the horses were and led us up a trail. But he led our two officers, a major and a lieutenant up to a machine gun nest–thereupon the guide (Jap) threw himself on the ground. Our lieut. was killed, the officer in command of the machine gun, and the others fled. Then the major killed the false guide. The Japanese were always after Filipino uniforms.”
Those feelings are more fully described in the entry The debate on taking the Philippines out of the war: January 28 to February 12, 1942 on developments at the front, particularly the Japanese offensive in late January, 1942, and how Filipino officers and leaders felt about what was taking place.
But there remains this postscript to the last engagements and charge of the cavalry. Old, decimated, units were recombined, as Ramon Alcaraz reports in his diary on February 21, 1942:
Finally, a composite unit from the PC, 26th Cavalry, 71st Div, PAAC and even Ateneo ROTC Volunteers annihilated the remaining enemy forces at Silaim-Anyasan Pts. thus ending the so-called Battle of the Points in West Bataan two days ago. And so, Alas and Alackay, I can now say “All’s Quiet in All Bataan Fronts.” Have not seen any enemy plane whole day.
And as for the cavalry’s horses, on March 10, 1942, Felipe Buencamino III would write in his diary,
Life is getting harder and harder. Morning ration reduced to one handful of ‘lugao’.
Sometimes carabao meat is given. It is made into ‘tapa’ so that the rest can be preserved for some other day.
The mess officer told me that very soon we will have horse-meat for viand. The QM will slaughter the remaining horses of the 26th cavalry. I don’t think I can eat those brave horses.
Still, the fight would go on. Even after General Wainwright, under duress, ordered the surrender of all USFIP forces in the Philippines, there were officers and men, Filipinos and Americans alike, who continued to resist.
Writing on May 15, 1942, Ramon Alcaraz mentions Ramsey:
I remember the Commando Unit smuggled into Zambales on the night of March 11, by Q-113 of Lt. Santiago C. Nuval with instructions from USAFFE HQ to start guerrilla organization and operation that early. When I told this to the Judge, he said that is perhaps the guerrilla unit under a certain Col. Thorpe operating from Mt. Pinatubo and some of his officers are former Cavalry Officers from Ft. Stotsenberg that managed to escape from Bataan Death March such as Lts. Ed Ramsey and Joe Barker. They were joined by Filipino volunteers from Zambales willing to continue fighting the Japanese.
But the era of the cavalry had come to an end. A simple marker stands as its monument.