October 18, 2018

War hero was ‘what’s right about America’

Many of us recognize the names of World War II heroes Audie Murphy, Gen. George S. Patton and Gen.  Douglas MacArthur, whose lives and exploits have been celebrated on screen. The name Ed Ramsey may not be as familiar, but as depicted in the documentary “Never Surrender: The Ed Ramsey Story,” the Army lieutenant’s heroics were clearly remarkable. 

An expert horseman and polo player, Edwin Price Ramsey was dispatched in February 1941 to the Philippines to join the 26th Cavalry Regiment. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year, Ramsey volunteered to guide a mission to secure the village of Morong on the Bataan Peninsula. His soldiers fought off 500 Japanese in what would be the last horse-mounted cavalry charge in United States military history. When MacArthur withdrew from the Philippines, Ramsey remained, leading the Philippine guerrilla resistance until the end of the war, which he barely survived.

Without their horses, which had to be slaughtered for food, Ramsey and his now-infantrymen suffered from dysentery, malaria and yellow fever. Ramsey had acute appendicitis and underwent a life-saving operation without anesthetic. 

Sick and severely malnourished when the war ended, he spent a year in a hospital but recovered to attend law school and work for Hughes Aircraft in Japan. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. He died in March 2013 at age 95 and was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Until he wrote about it in his 1990 memoir, “Lieutenant Ramsey’s War,” Ramsey kept his story to himself. Although the movie rights were sold to Columbia Pictures, the option lapsed and ownership reverted to his widow, Raquel Ramsey. 

On a visit to the Philippines for a different project in 2014, filmmakers Steven Barber and Matthew Hausle heard about Ramsey’s exploits from a Filipino who fought alongside him. “I had to tell that story,” Barber said.

A few months later, Barber contacted Raquel Ramsey, a Santa Monica resident and retired English teacher who worked for Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles and for Beverly Hills High School. “We convinced her that we were the ones to make the film when we showed her a four-minute trailer we had made, at her 70th birthday party,” Barber said.

Fortunately, there was no shortage of interview footage of Ramsey from various sources, and the filmmakers combined that with new interviews with Raquel Ramsey — who became executive producer of the film — and others who knew him.

One of those interviewed was Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles, who knew the man behind the hero.

“He was quite an amazing human being, a great American patriot but also a presence,” Cooper said. “When he came into a room, you knew you were in the presence of a very special person.”

Cooper said he met Ed Ramsey through Raquel Ramsey around 1986 or 1987, when he needed advice about dealing with “anti-Semitism and negative energy coming out of Japan. I’m not an expert on the Japanese, so I would unofficially seek his counsel, and he shared some of his insights. I felt elevated through every contact with this man.”

Cooper related a story that Ed Ramsey told about his reunion with the Japanese officer who had overseen attempts to capture him, which came with a $100,000 reward. 

“They met decades after the war in the Philippines, and the former officer bowed to Ed Ramsey out of respect,” Cooper said. 

The admiration was mutual, which may surprise some, considering everything Ramsey witnessed and endured.

“I don’t think this guy had any hatred in him at all. He wasn’t looking for revenge. I’m not sure I’d feel the same way. I know many GIs who suffered at the hands of imperial Japan who did not,” Cooper said. “What he represents is loyalty, patriotism, respect and human dignity. Those are values I connect with as an American and as a Jew.”

For that reason, it made sense to Cooper to offer the Wiesenthal Center’s theater for a premiere screening on Nov. 13, the Sunday of Veterans Day weekend. “It’s a natural place for this kind of event to take place,” he said. “Ramsey was a walking advertisement for what’s right about America. This guy was the real deal.”

Cooper also has enduring admiration for Raquel Ramsey, who is featured prominently in “Never Surrender.” The Ramseys “were two very accomplished people who were very much in love with each other. She has done everything she can to honor him after he passed.”

Adds Steven Barber, “The film is Mrs. Ramsey’s homage to her husband and their love story. They were madly in love until his last breath.”

Barber, who hopes to make the documentary short list for the Academy Awards, is looking into distribution options including Netflix, HBO and PBS. The filmmaker, who was adopted by Unitarian parents but had a Jewish birth father, is working on two new projects: “Saving Sgt. Stewart,” a Vietnam War hero story, and “Murder in Benghazi,” about U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in Libya in 2012.