The national coverage of the death of Frank Buckles, America’s last known WWI veteran, who died at age 110 on Feb 27, brings back memories of Tualatin VFW Post member Cpl Howard Ramsey. When Howard died at age 108 in 2007, he was America’s last WWI “combat” veteran, and Oregon’s last verified WWI vet. He had similar national coverage.
I had recruited Howard into Tualatin’s VFW Post after learning about him from the father of one of my son in-laws. In addition to his veteran status, Howard also was the oldest Mason in Oregon.
Born in 1898 in Colorado, Howard grew up in Portland and while attending Washington High School, participated in the Oregon Navy Militia. He drilled weekly on the cruiser USS Boston, berthed South of the Broadway Bridge.
He attained the rank of coxswain. He left the Navy Militia when he moved with his family to Salt Lake City and worked as a driver and mechanic for a transportation company. There, he also gained a reputation as an excellent dancer.
Howard’s efforts to join the Army, after the US entered the war against Germany, were cited in a national speech by Vice President Dick Cheney, who was honoring the 75 anniversary of the VA. The Vice President said that Howard and a friend were rejected for being underweight. “But he wasn’t the kind of kid who gave up easily. Instead, he went out and stuffed himself with water and bananas, and then showed up to be weighed again. This time the Army took him, and before long he was in Europe fighting for his country.”
Howard’s driving skills were in high demand and he was assigned to the motor pool transport center at Commercy, France where he chauffeured officers all over the war zone and also took water to the front lines. After the Armistice in November 1918, he transported war dead from temporary graves at the front to a permanent cemetery. It became the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, with 14,246 American military buried there.
After returning home, he eventually became a telephone engineer where he worked over 40 years. He spent most of those and his retirement years living near Portland’s Mount Tabor Park where he enjoying walking.
He married a telephone operator and they had a daughter, two grandchildren, three great grandchildren, and three great great grandchildren.
I had good “quality” time with Howard, appreciating his good humor and positive thinking. He wasn’t hesitant about expressing his opinion but did it in a thoughtful way that made you think about what he said. He had a lot of colorful stories about historic events and willingly spoke to groups to explain how times have changed the way people think. I felt honored to know him and become his friend. I became his unofficial PR guy.
Through that association, I got to know other veteran advocates including Oregon’s only Medal of Honor winner, Bob Maxwell and Ken Buckles, Frank Buckles nephew, who has organized tributes to Veterans in Oregon for the past 14 years.
Oregonian writer Rick Bella did two columns on Ramsey; the first when he and Howard attended a “Troop Support” breakfast fundraiser at the Post and the second on the day of Howard’s funeral.
Bella was very complimentary in his second column. He said “But Ramsey’s story might not have been widely known if not for Tualatin’s Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 3452 and Dale Potts, former Post Commander”
Following the funeral, I worked with several of Howard’s friends for a memorial at Mount Tabor Park to commemorate the end of a wonderful generation. City Commissioner Randy Leonard joined in this effort but said it was up to the neighborhood. Several groups resisted, saying this was a “War Memorial”. It took several years but eventually we were able to put up a bench with a marker along his favorite trail. On my last visit, I saw a mother with a baby stroller sitting on the bench, watching her other two young children playing in the grass.
Howard didn’t earn a chest full of medals. He was a simple man who did his duty, raised a family, and helped people all his life. This bench is a wonderful tribute to him and all Americans.