PORTLAND, Ore. (Army News Service, March 9, 2007) - The echo of a 21-gun salute and bugler playing Taps seemingly marked the end of an era as a state and national treasure was laid to rest in Portland, Ore., March 2.
Retired Army Cpl. Howard V. Ramsey, Oregon's last living World War I veteran and the last known U.S. combat veteran of WWI, died in his sleep Feb. 22 at an assisted living center in southeast Portland. He was honored in a memorial service attended by nearly 200 people at Lincoln Memorial Park exactly one month before reaching his 109th birthday.
"This is a very historic occasion; we lay to rest today our nation's oldest combat veteran," said Pastor Stu Weber, who officiated over Ramsey's memorial service.
In an Associated Press report, Jim Benson of the Veterans Administration said there are now only seven WWI veterans on record with the VA, although it is possible there are unknown veterans who may still exist.
Of the seven known WWI veterans still living, none were shipped overseas, making Ramsey the last known combat veteran of "The Great War." Ramsey inherited the title two weeks before his passing, when Massachusetts veteran Antonio Pierro passed away on Feb. 8.
Ramsey's lifetime spanned three centuries and 19 presidents. He was born in Rico, Colo., on April 2, 1898, when the U.S. flag had just 45 stars and President McKinley was preparing to declare war with Spain.
Too young to be drafted, Ramsey tried to voluntarily enlist but was told he was too skinny by Army standards. After gorging on bananas and water to successfully meet weight standards, he was placed in the Army's transportation corps.
Ramsey sailed to France in September 1918 to join General John "BlackJack" Pershing's American Expeditionary Force. Ramsey drove cars, trucks and motorcycles for the Army and trained other Soldiers how to drive. He was often selected to drive officers to special engagements, one officer "gigging" him for having a dirty truck despite the constant rain and mud in France. He also drove ambulances, transported troops to the frontlines and delivered water to troops on the battlefields.
Ramsey once recalled his service in WWI saying, "We were under fire a lot at the front, and we really caught hell one time. I lost friends over there."
After the armistice, Ramsey spent several months recovering the remains of American Soldiers who had been hastily buried in the trenches and transported them to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the largest American cemetery in Europe.
"You'd better believe it was pretty awful work," Ramsey told Oregonian reporter Rick Bella in 2005. "It was tough, but you became hardened to it."
Nearly 90 years later, Ramsey was still haunted by regret for not breaking the rules and keeping a diary that fell from the pocket of one deceased American Soldier. Ramsey told family and friends, "I wanted to keep that diary so badly to send it to his mother, but it was against the rules to keep anything from off the bodies."
Veterans of many generations and wars, and military representatives attended Ramsey's memorial service to pay their respects, including Brig. Gen. Raymond C. Byrne Jr., commander of the Oregon Army National Guard's 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and Jim Willis, state director of Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.
"If we are going to end an era, I can think of no better way than to do it with a person who is a model representation of the kinds of Soldiers who served this country in WWI, and someone who would be an example to any combat Soldier serving up to, and including those who serve in Afghanistan and Iraq today. All (veterans) would be justifiably proud to have known Corporal Howard Ramsey," said Willis.
Retired Army Col. Don Holden, whose father was Ramsey's classmate at Washington High School, shared fond memories of Ramsey's sense of humor. He said farewell to his old friend by reading the epic WWI poem "Flander's Field," which Ramsey could recite from memory well into his late 90s.
(Spc. April L. Dustin writes for the Oregon National Guard Public Affairs Office.)