Howard V. Ramsey

Obituary

Howard V. Ramsey, Oregon’s last living World War I veteran, has died on February 22, 2007. He was 108.

About the Past

WWI vet Howard Ramsey joined Tualatin VFW Post 3452 on April 2, 2005 — his 107th birthday. He was delighted to receive a VFW flag set featuring the Cross of Malta from Post Commander Dale Potts as a birthday present. That is his great-great Granddaughter, Cameron, on his knee.

Howard Ramsey

{Vice President Honors Oregon VFW member in his speech click here}

Howard Ramsey, young in uniformA featured speaker at many “honor vets” activities in Oregon, his uniform and history are highlighted at the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycomb. Howard has been a Master Mason for 82 years and is the oldest Mason in Oregon as well as having the most continuous years of membership.  Howard said, in joining the VFW, he hoped the organization had enough clout so that the current crop of veterans would not have to  march on Washington DC to get their promised benefit like the WWI  vets group had to do in 1931.

Howard was born in Rico, Colorado on April 2, 1898. He worked 42 years for Pacific Northwest Bell and retired in 1963. He has one daughter, two grandchildren, three great grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. He believes his long life is a blessing from God, a loving family and good friends. He is proud of our men and women who have fought in all the wars and now in Iraq for freedom.  His wish is for people to be grateful for all who have fought for our country, and that we never take our freedom for granted.

(Note: The father of Dale’s son-in-law is the Worshipful Master of Howard’s Masonic Lodge and arranged for Dale to participate in Howard’s 107th birthday celebration).

by John O. Andersen
February 5, 2001
Tonight we have a very special man in our midst. On January 1st of this year, Howard Verne Ramsey had officially lived in three centuries–the 19th, 20th, and now the 21st! As a surviving veteran of the first World War, over 82 years after it ended, Howard is also rare. Of the two million Americans who fought in France during that conflict, today less than 500 are still with us. In other words, 1 in 4,000!

World War One has been called the “war to end all wars.” Sixteen countries sent troops to fight in what became one of the bloodiest chapters in human history. Over 8.5 million soldiers and sailors lost their lives in that conflict. To put this in perspective: if you count the population of the 4 counties in the Portland, Oregon metro area (Clark, Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas) you get a total of around 1.7 million people. Multiply that by 5, and the result is 8.5 million, the total killed in World War I– a staggering number!

When Howard was born in 1898, William McKinley, was president of the United States and Victoria was queen of England. When Howard was five, Wilbur and Orville Wright made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk.

Wright brothers first flight

Nineteen U.S. presidents have served during his lifetime. Howard’s favorite is Teddy Roosevelt. His boyhood fascination with Roosevelt and the Rough Riders revealed itself in the stories and illustrations Howard created. To this day, he still has some of those early stories and cartoons.

In 1916, while attending Washington High School in Portland, Howard joined the Oregon Naval Militia. He trained weekly aboard the USS Boston which was docked on the Willamette just south of the Broadway Bridge. The Boston, a 21-gun cruiser, had been part of Admiral Dewey’s task force which defeated the Spanish Pacific Fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.

On July 15, 1916, Howard sailed with a crew of 300 on a 17 day cruise to Sitka, Alaska aboard the coal-powered cruiser, the USS Marblehead. Howard, who attained the rank of coxswain, recalls a very rough voyage. A member of the ship’s high school division, he performed a variety of duties which included sweeping the deck, cleaning the crews’ quarters, and assisting in the ship’s coal bunker and fireroom.

USS Marblehead

Not long after that cruise, Howard left the naval militia to move with his parents to Salt Lake City. When he arrived, he took a job as a driver for a transportation company. For the next two years he became proficient in driving taxis, ambulances, and even a sightseeing bus.

When he wasn’t driving, he was often dancing at the Saltair Resort on the Great Salt Lake. Saltair, once dubbed the “Coney Island of the West,” boasted one of the world’s largest dance floors. Howard and his partner were excellent dancers. He recalls the two of them performing on the dance floor to the applause of many spectators.

During the Spring of 1917, America’s isolationist stance finally came to an end as German U-boats resumed their attacks on allied shipping. In April, the U.S. declared war on Germany. Over the next year, America rose to the challenge and by the Fall of 1918, had stationed 2 million soldiers in France.

Howard’s skill as a driver was very much in demand particularly when relatively few could drive. It was in fact his ticket into the army when he volunteered in June 1918. Had he not been a proficient driver, he would have been sent home and told to wait for the draft. After June 1918, most of those drafted never saw action in France.

When they first attempted to enlist, Howard and a friend were rejected because they were underweight. Not to be deterred, they stuffed their bellies with bananas and drinking water. On the second try, they met the weight standard.

After a couple of weeks at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Howard was sent to Camp Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland where he was assigned to Company C of the 302nd Water Tank Train; a unit designated to supply water via motorized tank trucks to troops on the Western Front. Camp Holabird was the staging camp for motor transport corps en route to France. Trucks and spare parts were sent there from a variety of manufacturers. At Holabird, they would be stored, crated, and later shipped to France. Camp Holabird was also a training center for mechanics.

Howard spent just over two months there before heading to Camp Upton, Long Island, a troop staging camp for units immediately prior to going overseas.

On September 29, 1918, Howard and his unit sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the troop ship Leviathan. They arrived in France 8 days later. The Leviathan, formerly the German liner Vaterland, was the world’s largest passenger liner at the time it was constructed in 1913. When America entered the war in 1917, the Vaterland which had been anchored in Hoboken for some time, was seized by the U.S. Government, and converted into a troop ship. Widely recognized for her massive size and zebra camouflage stripes, the Leviathan transported more soldiers to and from France than any other troop ship.

During Howard’s crossing, the Leviathan was part of a convoy of troop ships carrying a total of 24,000 soldiers. Tragically, this passage occurred during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19. Two hundred of the 24,000 soldiers died during the passage, and another 200 from Howard’s ship died within a few days of arriving in France.

Luckily, Howard remained healthy throughout the passage, and immediately after landing in France, was sent to Commercy. Although his unit’s primary mission was to transport water to soldiers on the front, Howard was selected to chauffeur officers from place to place.

In Howard’s papers, I found a receipt for a truck he was issued on November 26, 1918. Along with the vehicle, he received an array of tools and related items. These reveal just how much more know-how was involved in operating a motor vehicle back then. It wasn’t just turn the key and step on the gas pedal. The list included a tube casing & rim, tube, skid chains, galvanized iron buckets, funnels, a jack, spare hubcap, oil can, pump hose, grease gun, and a tool roll with screwdrivers, a hammer, a file, pliers, tube repair kit, and an assortment of monkey wrenches.

Commercy was a motor transport center for the American Expeditionary Forces. For five months, Howard shared a room in Commercy’s Chateau Stanislas. His driving duties, however, frequently took him away for extended periods. During his nearly ten months in Europe he visited a variety of cities including Toul, Monte Carlo, Grenoble, Lyon, Nancy, Argonne, Paris, Dijon, Verdun, Esch in Luxembourg, Nice, and Monaco.

While on the road, Howard remembers frequent stops at Red Cross stations which would provide showers and clean underwear for soldiers. During the war, the American Red Cross operated 22 canteens close to the Western Front. Additionally, nearly 9,000 American Red Cross nurses served in France at that time.

After the armistice in November 1918, Howard was assigned to remove war dead from temporary graves on the front and inter them in a permanent cemetery. The results of his and many other’s efforts became the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, which today is the largest American cemetery in Europe with 14,246 soldiers buried there. Most of them lost their lives in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in what turned out to be the final weeks of the war.

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Howard’s unit returned to the States during the summer of 1919 aboard the F.J. Luckenbach, a ship originally designed to transport horses, mules, and cargo. When the war ended, it was converted into a troop ship to bring the soldiers home.

Recently, while sifting through Howard’s file at the Oregon Military Museum, I happened upon a small pamphlet he received in 1919 on his return voyage to the United States. It’s titled: “To the Homeward-Bound Americans” by E. Van Vorst. What particularly struck me were these words on the final page:

“You have taken part in the greatest adventure upon which humanity has so far ever been launched. You have seen your friends fall by your side, you have, yourselves, perhaps, been face to face with death.

Your contact with men of many nations, your journey in foreign lands, the discipline you have accepted, the close association with Americans from every state in the country, will have inevitably changed your point of view. It has been said that you came into the war as crusaders. When you reach home, you will take up your work in the same spirit.”

Howard opposes war perhaps even more than those of us who’ve never fought in one. Yet, when his country needed him, he jumped in and did what was necessary. That spirit of selfless service carried over into his family life, career, and community involvement. It has been a hallmark of his life.

We would all do well to be more like that.

This veteran’s life spans three centuries

The Oregonian

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

By midmorning Sunday, Tualatin’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3452 was bustling, the wake-up aroma of pancakes delivering an airborne invitation to the Support the Troops Breakfast.

But when two bells sounded, all the men at the long tables stood up and faced the door at attention. And when a smiling white-haired man made his way in, they saluted. “They always sound two bells whenever a lieutenant comes aboard a ship,” said Post Commander Dale Potts, who retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve at the rank of captain. “I think today we’ll make our newest post member an honorary admiral.”

Like most veterans’ organizations and service clubs, VFW Post 3452 has worked hard at recruiting younger members. But Potts said the post was tickled to have Howard Verne Ramsey join.

Ramsey, a veteran of World War I, is a relatively spry 107.

He is one of only about 500 Great War veterans surviving today nationwide. Although there are no official records, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs regards him as the oldest veteran in the state.

“Thank you, thank you” said Ramsey, returning the salute. “It’s great to be around the vets again.”

For the sake of perspective, you must realize Ramsey is living in his third century. He was born in 1898, before fighting broke out in the Spanish-American War. He was 5 when the Wright brothers made their flight at Kitty Hawk.

He grew up in a time when most people had a regular relationship with beasts of burden, and has lived to see astronauts explore outer space. He has witnessed the coming of the Machine Age, the Jet Age and the Information Age.

“There’s so much I can’t remember anymore,” said Ramsey, a Southeast Portland resident. “But I remember the war. It was terrible.”

Ramsey was born in Colorado, moving with his family to Portland when he was a boy. In 1916, while attending Washington High School, he joined the Oregon Naval Militia. He attained the rank of coxswain on the USS Boston, an 1887-vintage protected cruiser that was based in Portland. He later sailed to Alaska aboard a coal-fired cruiser.

After the cruise, Ramsey followed his family to Salt Lake City and became a driver and mechanic in a time when automobiles represented cutting-edge technology.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Ramsey abandoned his budding naval career and followed a pal into the Army. His driving skills, in high demand, pushed him into the 302nd Water Tank Train, which ferried fresh water to the trench-bound troops on the Western front. He later was assigned to drive officers to the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the Allied offensive that turned the tide of the war.

In the months after the November 1918 armistice, Ramsey was assigned to remove decomposing war dead from temporary graves on the front and inter them in permanent cemeteries.

“You’d better believe it was pretty awful work,” Ramsey said. “It was tough. But you became hardened to it.”

When he returned to Oregon, he began work as a telephone engineer and met his wife, Hilda Epling, who worked as an operator. Hilda died in 1982. They had one daughter, Cora Falk, who still lives near her father.

Ramsey tried to re-enlist during World War II, but his telephone work was considered essential service during wartime and he remained in Oregon.

On Sunday morning, at least a dozen people stopped to meet Ramsey, an ambassador from a bygone day. Most just wished him well, but some sought Ramsey’s opinions.

Ramsey obliged, saying he felt a bond with those who served and sacrificed when their country called. But he also said wars open wounds that never heal.

“You’ve got to take care of the vets,” he said. “But you should keep out of wars. There’s too much suffering.”

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UPDATED: 7 :51 a.m. PDT, February 24, 2007

WWI vet stood out in France: He drove

Corporal – America’s oldest known combat veteran dies in Southeast Portland at age 108 Saturday, February 24, 2007 WADE NKRUMAH

Howard Verne Ramsey was a 20-year-old with a budding skill when the U.S. Army sent him to World War I battlefields in France.

He could drive an automobile.

Given it was a time when the automobile was a relatively novel transportation mode, Ramsey’s ability to drive made him stand out.

Thus, as a U.S. Army corporal stationed in France, he had important tasks as a driver. He ferried officers, carried water to troops on the front lines and transported dead soldiers from temporary graves to cemeteries.

Sandra Linnell, one of Ramsey’s two granddaughters, said he spoke of his duties as an honor and a privilege.

“He was proud of serving his country, definitely,” she said.

Ramsey, Oregon’s last living World War I veteran and America’s oldest known combat veteran, died peacefully in his sleep Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007, at age 108. He was in an assisted living center in Southeast Portland.

He was born April 2, 1898, in Rico, Colo. He moved with his family to Portland in 1913 and graduated from Washington High School in 1916. He was a member of the Naval Militia.

He enlisted in the Army in 1918 and was stationed in Cheyenne, Wyo., before going to France for 11/2 years until late 1919.

Upon returning to the United States, he worked as a tour bus driver in Salt Lake City for a few years. He then moved to Portland, where he married Hilda Epling in 1923. She died in 1982.

Ramsey began a 40-plus-year career with Pacific Northwest Bell telephone company. After a job transfer took him and his wife to Los Angeles for about five years, they returned to Portland about 1930. Ramsey worked at the company as an engineer until his retirement around 1963.

In retirement, Ramsey and his wife traveled the country by car, as well as to Mexico frequently. They also went to Australia and South America.

Ramsey in recent years gained attention as one of a dwindling number of American World War I veterans.

Dick Tobiason, a Vietnam veteran in Bend, earlier this month contacted Mayor Tom Potter about naming in Ramsey’s honor the reservoirs in Mount Tabor Park.

Dale Potts, another Vietnam veteran, paved the way in April 2005 for Ramsey to become a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Tualatin.

“He’s a national treasure,” Potts said of Ramsey. “Not many people get a chance to know somebody like that.”

Ramsey is survived by his daughter, Coral Falk of Portland and Hemet, Calif.; granddaughters, Sandra Linnell of Damascus and Shelley Fontana of Clackamas; three great-grandchildren; and five great-great grandchildren.

Arrangements are pending.

Wade Nkrumah: 503-294-7627; wadenkrumah@news.oregonian.com

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WWI vet showed ‘how to live life’

Monday, March 05, 2007The Oregonian

It’s hard to take the measure of a man whose life spanned three centuries without tapping all the ready superlatives.

Of course, just for perspective’s sake, we should remember that Howard Verne Ramsey was born before fighting broke out in the Spanish-American War. He already was 5 when the Wright brothers took to the air at Kitty Hawk.

He grew up in an era when most people toiled daily with horses and mules, and lived long enough to see an international space station orbiting the Earth. With an open mind and characteristic good humor, he witnessed the coming of the Machine Age, the Jet Age and, finally, the Information Age.

When Ramsey died Feb. 22, at age 108, he was hailed as Oregon’s last verified World War I veteran and America’s oldest known combat veteran.

Tributes poured in from all quarters. Retrospectives noted that Ramsey was mentioned in a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney.

But Ramsey’s story might not have been widely known if not for Tualatin’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3452 and Dale Potts, former post commander.

Nearly two years ago, Potts, a retired U.S. Navy Reserve captain, heard from a relative in a local Masonic Lodge that there was a very senior member who talked about his military experiences all the time, but hadn’t participated in a veterans’ group since the 1940s.

So Potts contacted Ramsey’s daughter, Coral Falk, to see whether her father might want to join Post 3452.

“She said, ‘Oh, he’d love that. That would be wonderful,’ ” Potts said.

I was lucky enough to attend Ramsey’s induction breakfast — lucky to witness a stirring ceremony, lucky to be reminded of history’s lessons and lucky to meet a man who seemed like an ambassador from another time.

Ramsey told me that his ability to drive and repair a car, at a time when few could, put him on the cutting edge of technology. His combat unit was sent to France, part of the 302nd Water Tank Train, which ferried fresh water to the trench-bound troops on the Western front. He later was assigned to drive officers to the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the Allied offensive that finally broke the war’s grueling stalemate.

In the months after the November 1918 armistice, Ramsey was assigned to exhume decomposing bodies from battlefield graves and rebury them in cemeteries.

He told me that in our old segregated Army, African American troops did the actual digging. And of course, he drove the trucks.

After returning from the war, Ramsey was an early employee of Western Electric, when telephone lines for the first time brought instant communication into people’s homes.

“Howard was an example of how to live life,” Potts said. “He served his country. He raised a family. He had a good career and he helped people all his life. That’s what made our country great — the simple folks like Howard.”

That’s why it’s embarrassing that the nation has no big monument in Washington, D.C., to WWI vets, a war in which Western democracies triumphed over power-hungry empires that launched invasions.

And yet it is understandable, in a way, that WWI vets might be lost in history’s shuffle.

Howard Ramsey didn’t earn a chest full of medals, didn’t build towering dams or paint masterpieces.

He just lived life like a good and decent man. And that should be enough for any of us.

Rick Bella: 503-294-5114; rickbella@news.oregonian.com; 15495 S.W. Sequoia Parkway, Suite 190, Portland, OR 97224
©2007 The Oregonian

One comment on “Howard V. Ramsey
  1. Rene Ervin says:

    My grandfather also served in the 302 Water Tank Train in WWI. I love that after reading Howard Ramsey’s obit and recollection of the war, it has helped me understand what is in my grandfather’s WWI photo album.

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