Private First Class Reed Thomas Ramsey

Reed Ramsey, date unknown. Photo from WWII Memorial Registry.
Reed Ramsey, date unknown. Photo from WWII Memorial Registry.


Insignia of VMSB-231,
Insignia of VMSB-231, “Ace Of Spades.”
Photo from
Reed Thomas Ramsey

Bolckow, MO
Parents, James & Vicky Ramsey
April 5, 1917
July 30, 1940
September 28, 1942
Pearl Harbor 2nd MAW Quartermaster Private  
Midway VMSB-241 Radioman/Gunner PFC  
Guadalcanal VMSB-231 Radioman/Gunner Corporal MIA
Shot down by enemy action
Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

Birth and Early Life:
Reed Ramsey was a native of Missouri; he was born in Lewis on April 5, 1917, and was the third youngest of James and Wickey Ramsey’s large farming family. Reed grew up in rural Nodaway County; he left school after his freshman year of high school to work in a local quarry. Years spent handling a heavy air hammer put him in terrific shape for his next career with the Marine Corps.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
After joining the Corps on July 30, 1940, Ramsey was sent to Parris Island, where he qualified as a rifle sharpshooter. By October, his training was complete, and Private Ramsey was headed for his first post with VMS-2, an aviation unit out of San Diego, California.

Service Prior to World War II:
Ramsey wound up in the Headquarters and Service squadron of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Group as a quartermaster’s storeroom keeper. The sights and sounds of Ewa Field, Oahu, were far removed from the quarries of central Missouri, and even though Ramsey’s job was more utilitarian than glamorous, it was still considered good duty.

That is, until the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941.

Maryville, Missouri Daily Forum December 13, 1941
Maryville, Missouri Daily Forum December 13, 1941

Wartime Service:
Ramsey was reassigned as an aviator in the first few months of 1942; the reassignment also came with a promotion to Private First Class. By April he was deemed ready for combat, and joined a group from his squadron that left Oahu for an even smaller island in the middle of the Pacific – the island of Midway. PFC Ramsey arrived on April 11, not long after the news of the fall of Bataan was broadcast. The Americans began building up the island’s meagre defenses, while the pilots and gunners – none of whom had seen combat – put their antiquated Vindicator dive bombers through their paces.

At some point in the next several weeks, Ramsey was introduced to 2nd Lieutenant Jesse Douglas Rollow. Rollow had arrived just a few days after Ramsey, and was fortunate to receive one of the newer SBD Dauntless dive bombers that were delivered to the squadron in May. Rollow had been flying with PFC Edward Oliver Smith at first; for reasons unknown, Smith began serving as gunner for 2nd Lt. Harold Schlendering, and Rollow was in need of a crew member. The new crews had only a few days to get acquainted; together, the four Marines (Rollow and Ramsey in SBD 2135, Schlendering and Smith in SBD 2184) formed the second section of the second division of VMSB-241’s attack force.

On June 4, 1942, a Japanese fleet was spotted approaching Midway. Every available aircraft – on Midway, there were precious few – was scrambled; the bombers to attack the shipping, and the fighters of VMF-221 to defend the airfield. Without fighter support, the bombers would have to rely on their rear gunners to scan the skies and fight off any attacks by Japanese aircraft.

As they approached the Japanese fleet, Ramsey and the other gunners charged their .30 caliber machine guns and fired a short trial burst. They were careful to conserve ammunition – rounds for their guns came in tins of 100, which a gunner could expend in seconds – and reloading could take up to half a minute. As the ships hove into view and the Americans prepared to attack, Japanese Zero fighters dropped in among them, guns blazing. The squadron leader, Major Lofton Henderson, was shot down almost at once; the sky was full of tracers, exploding flak, twisting Japanese and falling Americans.

Mainly through trial and experimentation, Ramsey found that firing short bursts had a better effect than long ones – and also that the Japanese pilots waited until the Americans reloaded to make their attack. It was typical for the gunners to throw their empty ammunition tin out of the aircraft; the Japanese would wait for the glint of metal and then zoom in for the kill. Sickened, Ramsey saw one bomber after another fall to the nimble Zeros – and then noticed one seemed to be tailing him.

Ramsey fired a burst or two to keep the enemy at bay. This pilot was clearly waiting for him to reload – then Ramsey and Rollow would join their comrades at the bottom of the Pacific. Casting around by his feet, Ramsey found an unlikely object – a beer can. Thinking quickly, he tossed the can over and made a show of fumbling with his guns.

The Japanese pilot took the bait and came racing in. In a show of sheer guts, Ramsey quickly brought his own weapon to bear, going head to head with the surprised Imperial aviator. To Ramsey’s elation, flames began shooting out of the Zero, and it fell away out of control. (1)

In the midst of his celebration, Ramsey felt Rollow nose down into a shallow glide, then the jolt as the bombs were released. Craning his neck, he saw one bomb barely miss a Japanese carrier, and another glance of the big ship’s bow. He radioed his observation to Rollow, then got back to his guns.

Rollow quickly found some cloud cover, and brought the bomber safely back to Midway. However, when they landed, they found only eight of the sixteen bombers had returned; celebrating their victory would have to wait, and the battle would not be over for another day. (2)

PFC Ramsey did no more combat flying at Midway. His squadron was relieved later that month, and arrived in Hawaii to a hero’s welcome, looking forward to a much needed rest.

Jesse Rollow's report of the action on Midway, praising Ramsey's conduct under fire and recommending him for promotion.
Jesse Rollow’s report of the action on Midway, praising Ramsey’s conduct under fire and recommending him for promotion.

Every gunner who participated in the Midway action received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ramsey was fortunate that he lived to learn of his; a staggering number of the awards were posthumous. As one of the few gunners, living or dead, to  scored a confirmed kill, Ramsey became an item of considerable interest, and his name appeared in newspapers across the nation. In all the excitement, he evidently forgot to write to his parents.

The Maryville Daily Forum, 27 June 1942. (The continuation of this article has not been located.)
The Maryville Daily Forum, 27 June 1942. (The continuation of this article has not been located.)

The heroes of Midway were allowed some recuperation in Hawaii, but for some the rest would be shorter than others. Reed Ramsey was ordered to report to VMSB-231 (the sister squadron of his former unit) and said goodbye to Lt. Rollow, who was headed back to the United States as an instructor. His new pilot was Lieutenant Dale Leslie; together they headed for the next theater of operations – Guadalcanal.

Maryville Daily Forum, 30 September 1942.
Maryville Daily Forum, 30 September 1942.

For most of September, 1942, Leslie and Ramsey flew reconnaissance missions – sometimes as many as three in a single day – and air-ground liaison sorties. Usually, this meant scouting a Japanese position, coordinating and spotting artillery, or lending support to an attack. However, on one remarkable occasion, their experience would mean the difference between life and death for an entire Marine battalion.

Leslie and Ramsey made their first flight of September 27 at 0800; it was a ground-liaison assignment, completed without comment, as were the second and third. On the fourth, their SBD took off to scout the area around the Matanikau, where the ground-pounder Marines of the First Division had been fighting the Japanese. As they rounded Point Cruz and headed north, Ramsey spotted a strange pattern of white on the greenish brown ground.

It was the word HELP, written in American undershirts. Their owners were jumping up and down, frantically waving at the bomber high above them.

They were members of First Battalion, 7th Marines, led by Major Otho Larkin Rogers on what was meant to be a surprise attack on the Japanese rear, thus breaking the deadlock along the Matanikau. It was the Japanese who did the surprising, though, sweeping in behind the Marines and surrounding them on a small knoll called Hill 84. They had no radios and no way to call for help.

Leslie and Ramsey had been supporting the 5th Marines, who were nearby along the banks of the Matanikau. In addition to his duties as gunner, Ramsey also operated the bomber’s radio; he contacted the 5th Marines and began relaying messages that eventually reached Lt. Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, 1/7’s commanding officer. Puller essentially commandeered the destroyer USS Ballard, which began laying down covering fire, allowing the Marines to withdraw. The flyers circled overhead, Ramsey taking pot shots and monitoring the radio net, while Leslie buzzed over the trapped Marines to boost their morale.

Finally, the landing craft in which 1/7 had been landed were marshaled up and ordered to return; when taken under fire, the leaders faltered and seemed about to refuse to land. In a last, desperate maneuver, Lt. Leslie flew low over the boats, waggling his wings, boring in towards the shore, leading the way with all of his and Ramsey’s guns blazing at the Japanese. The rallying tactic worked, and as the two Marines headed back for Henderson Field to refuel and rearm, they saw the beleaguered battalion running for the boats. Had it not been for their sharp eyes and bravery, casualties among 1/7 would have been far heavier.

ramsey article 2

Date Of Loss:
Despite their busy day – the wheels were already in motion to award Lt. Leslie the Navy Cross for his actions – both pilot and gunner were given fresh assignments the following day, September 28, 1942. An aircraft needed its radar calibrated; while adjusting the equipment, they were to bomb any targets of opportunity off Guadalcanal’s north coast. Leslie and Ramsey took off at 1200 hours – safely before the daily air raid – and set a course for New Georgia.

Their course would take them along the escape route for a force of Japanese fighters retreating pell-mell from Henderson Field. “Tojo Time” had been disastrous on September 28; the daily raid had been met by spirited American resistance and the frustrated Japanese pilots scored no kills while losing heavily. As he headed back to base, PO3 Moriura Toyoo spotted a lone SBD, attacked at 3,000 feet, and evidently caught Dale Leslie and Reed Ramsey by surprise. Two quick passes set the Dauntless ablaze. (3)

As the bomber fell towards the ocean, one parachute blossomed behind it. Lieutenant Leslie had escaped the wreckage, but his ordeal was just beginning – he would be missing in action for the next forty days, spending nearly all of it behind Japanese lines, before a coastwatcher returned him to base.

Reed Ramsey went down with his plane, and was never seen again. He was declared dead on September 19, 1943, a year and a day after his disappearance. (4)


Next Of Kin:
Parents, Mr & Mrs James Ramsey

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
Savannah Cemetery, Nodaway Township, Missouri.
Praire Home Cemetery, Graham, Missouri.
(1) Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway. History has carefully not recorded whether Reed’s beer can was full or empty.
(2) One of the dead was Rollow’s original gunner. PFC Edward O. Smith, who was evidently killed in his seat. Lieutenant Schlendering was forced to ditch his aircraft and was picked up by a rescue boat; Smith went down with the bomber and is considered lost at sea.
(3)  Lundstrom, John B. First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign. page 287
(4) Ramsey’s final rank is reported differently. Squadron muster rolls list him as MIA as a PFC, while the Air Group’s war diary claims he was rated corporal. On his two headstones in Missouri, he is named as both PFC and Sergeant.

7 thoughts on “Private First Class Reed Thomas Ramsey

  1. What a somber story… To have been such the hero yet not to be recovered… It does not appear he was awarded any medals for bravery in action? I can only imagine the anguish and hate in his parents hearts.

    1. Ramsey did get the Distinguished Flying Cross for Midway (as did all the gunners, both living and dead) but apparently no extra recognition for getting a Zero, or for September 27. Possibly if he had survived with Lt. Leslie, he would have been decorated. It’s a shame he didn’t even appear to get the promotion his first pilot requested.

      I’ve noticed that in many cases, the pilots receive the higher award if any – e.g. every pilot who flew at Midway received the Navy Cross, while every gunner got the DFC (although they were also recommended for the Navy Cross). Also, apparently at this point in the Guadalcanal campaign there was a decision made to limit the number of NCs awarded – supposedly why Lt. Lees received the DFC instead of the Navy Cross before his death.

      I found Ramsey’s story particularly fascinating; I knew his name from researching Midway, and Lt. Leslie’s name from researching Hill 84 – I had no idea that the two stories would come together like that.

      1. Reed was my uncle. His next older brother was my Dad. I was not born until 1943, therefore never knew him.
        We named our oldest son Reed Thomas. He was a marine also. Sadly, we lost him in 1999 in an airplane accident (cropduster). Our Reed is buried in the same cemetery as Uncle Reed’s parents(my grandparents), My parents, Uncle Reeds oldest brother (Emerson) & wife and several other Ramseys.
        I once communicated with Lt. Leslie via letter in which he confirmed the events mentioned above.
        I have gathered all the memorbilia surrounding Uncle Reed and share it with other members of the family immediately.
        If you have more info, I would appreciate hearing it.

    1. Mike,
      I have a whole bunch of stuff on Uncle Reed. Both hard copy and in folders on my computer.
      You are welcome to all of it. I will try to figure out a way to get it to you.
      As you may know, our oldest son was named Reed Thomas Ramsey also. We lost him in a plane accident 17 years ago, just shy of his 30th birthday. He is buried in the cemetery at Graham, next to Dad & Mom. So there are 2 Reed Thomas Ramseys memorialized in that cemetery. Also James and Wickey (grandparents) are buried there. As well as Uncle Emerson (Alta’s brother) aunt Eva (sister).
      As item of interest, a lot of the old Ramsey ancestors are buried in the Brodbeck cemetery just south of New Point down towards Oregon. The first Ramsey (Thomas) and a bunch of kids. He settled in Holt county in about 1847. I have the original land grant of the 1st 40 acres he bought from the government.
      We need to hook up someday and trade all this ancestry info.
      Cousin Tom

      1. Yes I’ve to the brodbeck cemetery often just 3 miles South of me and then also the Fairview cemetery 3 miles North of me a lot of the Campbells are there. My uncle Donald (Reed) Freeman is named after Reed. It would be great to get together. you could email the info to or mail or thumb drive to me. I did not know a lot of this. I did know on the back of James and Wickey’s stone at Graham also has Reed’s Info. ggod to hear from you. Mike

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