The Balangiga incident/massacre/battle was a shocking twist in a war that seemed to be winding down. To many Americans and Filipinos, though, the conflict was just beginning…
Novelist Jennifer Hallock shares her research on Balangiga, and her experience teaching Philippines History in a US classroom. She explains how the surprise attack on US troops in Samar was the culmination of years of brutal warfare from 1898 to 1902. Local men disguised themselves covertly and snuck around town before striking Americans at breakfast. But while villagers may have repelled American soldiers temporarily, the aftermath of Balangiga would last for a very long time. On today’s episode we’re going to use events from a short battle to understand the effects of a much wider war…
I chatted with Joe Hawthorne about the attack at Balangiga in the Philippine-American War and how the American counteroffensive and the 1902 Senate hearings on “marked severities” predicted future outcries over My Lai and Fallujah. We redid parts of the interview, and because of the way it was edited, I introduce General Smith twice. His orders are shocking enough to revisit, though, so it works.
[This is part three of a three-part series on the Pulahan War. Follow these links for parts one and two.]
In 1905, General Allen of the Philippine Constabulary had to do the thing he hated most: he had to ask for help from the regular military and turn over responsibility for the east coast and most of Samar’s interior to Brigadier General William H. Carter, the commander of the Department of the Visayas, United States Army. According to historian Brian McAllister Linn:
[B]y mid-1905, the entire 21st Infantry, three companies of the 6th Infantry, and two companies of the 12th Infantry were all serving on the island. A small flotilla of five gunboats and two steam launches ferried troops and supplies, protected towns and directed artillery and machine-gun fire against Pulahan concentrations. Perhaps most significant, the Army re-equipped its nine Scout companies with modern magazine rifles, providing them with the firepower to shatter massed bolo attacks (59).
It was about to be a whole new war.
The Army was willing to bring their numbers to bear, but they had to be careful to avoid the kind of excesses that “Hell-Roaring Jake” Smith had used only years before. Smith’s tactics, which added fuel to the fire of rebellion, were exactly what Samareños expected from US Army regulars. Therefore, it was especially important that the newly arrived soldiers use restraint. Even the Manila Times warned: “If any exterminating is done, there is apt to be trouble. Dead men tell no tales, but they sometimes make an awful smell” (Quoted in Linn 65).
The Army also had to be careful to avoid the public relations nightmare of Bell’s tactics in Batangas, even if they had been effective. This time, the Army did not create concentrated zones along the coast, though sometimes farmers had to be relocated to get them away from Pulahan-dominated areas. The Army kept garrisons on the coast for security, but they used the rest of their forces in mobile sweeps. Unlike the later “search and destroy” missions in Vietnam, these patrols were not meant to kill Pulahans, or rack up a “body count.” They were designed to “penetrate into every place which might afford a hiding place . . . [and] keep them constantly moving and in a state of uncertainty to the whereabouts of the troops which will be practically on every side of them” (Linn 65). In other words, they were to set the Pulahans on their heels, to wear them down, and to starve them out—all without troubling the people of Samar and Leyte too much.
Moreover, unlike Bell’s campaign in Batangas, there was no “drop-dead zone” here. The Army made it clear that all care had to be taken not to kill any civilian unnecessarily:
In no case, at the present time, should persons who may be in the hills and have not yet come in, be killed, unless by their clothing or manner it becomes apparent they are Pulahans, for it is a well-known fact that the peaceable inhabitants of many barrios have, by force, been driven from their homes and their barrios burned by the Pulahans, in order that they might be made to work for them and gather food. It is the policy of the Commanding General and the Civil Government, to get these people back into garrisoned places and from under the control of the Pulahan chiefs, and when they present themselves to the authorities they should be well treated (Quoted in Linn 66).
Army patrol tactics were controlled and organized: soldiers marched single file through the jungle (in the mornings only) with fixed bayonets and a cartridge in the chamber. Odd-numbered soldiers faced one way and the evens the other. When attacked, they formed a compact mass around their civilian porters—these Filipinos were to be protected at all costs—and calmly fired (Linn 66-67). Conditions were difficult, but it did make for several romantic memoirs published in the early twentieth century.
The military also set up good intelligence networks, and they did not turn down the services of former revolutionaries. Men who had taken part in the assault on Company C at Balangiga in 1901 were now on the payroll of the US Army quartermaster! Even the former mayor at Balangiga, considered the mastermind of the attack, helped the Americans against the Pulahans because they were threatening his hemp business (Borrinaga, G.E.R, “Pulahan Movement in Samar,” 251). As long as these authorities were seen as relatively honest and had good support among their people, they were used.
Not all credit for the American victory can go to the Army and Scouts, though. The civil government did not disappear, nor did the Constabulary—many of whom were the toughest fighters in an American uniform. One officer recounted the hardships: “The men were on continual campaign, with death in many painful forms ever lurking in the background. Discipline was strict, if not harsh, the pay was small, the clothing and equipment inferior, and the food poor even under ordinary circumstances” (quoted in Hurley 103). Another officer boasted of the “diet of python and rat and fruit bat” upon which his hardened constables lived (Hurley 4). But the greatest contribution of the Constabulary and the civil government was their emphasis on civil action, or the policy of attraction:
[Allen] took practical steps to remove the injustices which created Pulahanism, ordering the Constabulary “to investigate and correct abuses connected with trade in the interior . . . This is equally as important as capturing leaders and getting their guns.” With Manila’s support, Allen began construction of telegraph lines and planned a road across Samar that would end the mountaineers’ isolation, provide jobs for the destitute and allow troops access to the interior. . . . [also] Allen purged Samar’s civil officials, reprimanding or removing the excessively corrupt and inefficient (Linn 56-57).
. . . post officers distributed land to the refugees, encouraged crop cultivation, and punished corruption. . . . At Oras, which had been totally destroyed by the Pulahans, in one month soldiers distributed 2,728 pounds of flour, 2,100 pounds of beans and 15,260 pounds of rice to destitute Filipinos (Linn 59-60).
The pièce de résistance of the American small war effort was amnesty. In Feburary 1905, General Allen issued the following order: “All Pulahan lesser ranks who wished to return to their villages and accept civil authority would be granted immunity; lower-ranking officers could obtain immunity by surrendering a rifle” (quoted in Linn 56). In fact, the civil government was so serious about amnesty that once, when the Scouts were in hot pursuit of a Pulahan band who had burned and looted a town called Poponton, they chased them right into the hands of the civil authorities. Quickly, the Pulahans surrendered to the constables, and when the Scout commander heard of this, he was outraged. But Sheriff W. D. Corn said that Governor Curry had told him to accept surrenders and that he would “not be a traitor to them, although they may be murderers” (quoted in Linn 61).
This may seem like a short-sighted policy, but in the end the combination of carrot and stick worked. “Prisoners reported that Pulahans were dying of starvation; at one abandoned camp troops found every tree in a one-mile radius had been stripped of its edible foliage” (Linn 61). On the other hand, by “1 August  nearly 4,795 Samareños had presented themselves to the authorities”(Linn 60). By May 1906, the Army declared northwest Samar “in as pacified or settled conditions as at any time since the insurrection” (quoted in Linn 63). While a few Pulahans continued to wander through the jungle until 1911, most of the popes of the movement were killed or captured in 1906.
This was a short, isolated war. There were few large battles, which had to have been terrifying, but they did not get the largest headlines. The Moro War being fought further south tended to dominate the papers—and with good reason, since the Moros were possibly even fiercer than the Pulahans. (They even inspired the Army to develop a whole new handgun to fight them: the 1911 .45-caliber pistol, still in use today.) And since the Moros were and are majority Muslim, that campaign is often seen to be more relevant today. However, unlike Samar and Leyte, the Moros of Mindanao were never appeased. They were silenced temporarily, yes, but the last fifty years of Islamic separatism (and recently Islamist terrorism) prove that they were not pacified.
The Pulahans were pacified. In fact, this war may be the only time the Americans fought a movement of religious extremists and won. (The Boxers were defeated militarily, but the Americans did not occupy Beijing long enough to really test their rule.) As millennial movements spring up all across the globe, will the secrets of Samar and Leyte make it into the handbook for the next war?
[Featured image was taken by and of members of the 39th Philippine Scouts dressed in captured Pulahan uniforms and carrying captured bolos. Multiply these men by several dozen, at least, to get the full effect of a Pulahan charge. Photo scanned by Scott Slaten.]
My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Most people have never heard of it. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months of American counterattacks afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.
How did I stumble upon Balangiga? When I started plotting my story about an American schoolteacher and a Filipino sugar baron—the story that became Under the Sugar Sun—I did a lot of research at Ateneo de Manila University, where I read through old issues of the Manila Times on microfiche. (By the way, if you want to entertain me, give me two rolls of that microfiche and leave me there all day. It’s like giving a child an iPad. History is my babysitter.) One of the articles I stumbled across was entitled: “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name is E.L. Evans and He is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” From there, I conjured up the idea of a missing brother to bring Georgina Potter to the Philippines. Yes, she was hired by the American colonial government to start a school in the Visayas, but her real motive in coming—and for letting herself get entangled with a jerk named Archie—was finding her brother, Ben Potter.
Why was Ben missing? Maybe because he was in a significant battle? Or, at least, a very confusing one? In Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina goes to Army Headquarters in Fort Santiago in Manila to find out, and she lays out all the news articles from a battle in Balangiga. A clerk tries to help her, to no avail:
“Your brother should be in here one way or another.” The clerk put his finger on the article with the list. “Name and rank?”
If it were that easy, she thought, she would not have bothered crossing the Pacific. “Sergeant Benjamin Potter.”
“I see a Ben Cutter,” the clerk said. “That’s probably him.” He sounded sure, as if the U.S. Army made such mistakes all the time. Maybe they did.
In fact, the Army did print various lists with different spellings of names: Dettron or Bastron for Sergeant Frank Betron, the model for Ben Potter. This is one of the reasons why I chose this setting for my character. It makes sense that if he survived, he still might not want to be found. Moreover, several survivors stayed in the Philippines afterward—in Betron’s case, maybe to find a woman from Balangiga. Now, there’s a story there!
So, it was decided: Ben served in Company C, Ninth Infantry, which saw action in China during the Boxer War, and then returned to the Philippines to be stationed in Balangiga. Poor Ben. Poor Balangiga.
Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill.
The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, or more specifically an ambush. I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.
As we will see in Sugar Moon, at first things went okay. Uneasily, but okay. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. The man Sergeant Benjamin Potter is based on studied martial arts with the police chief. Individuals got along. But here’s the rub: if the townspeople became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. So the town tried to play it cool, stay neutral.
But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and the Yanks thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. If the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. That is a dangerous game.
The captain of Company C doubled down. He imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were each jammed full with between 70-90 men and boys who had to sit on their haunches all night. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.
The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, on the edge of a hostile island, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. Yet they did not expect the ambush. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks, which starts with him trying to court a local woman. He’s a proper gentleman, don’t worry, but he’s smitten.
On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, the police chief attacked the American sentry. A church bell rang. Warriors rushed out of the jungle line east of town. Others dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, and several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from other attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.
Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries—General Lukban’s men in the interior of Samar—but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town actually planned the attack themselves. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.
After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. The American commander in Samar ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. (This is in violation of General Order No. 100, which served as the American law of war at this time.) American soldiers made a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and kill anyone in sight. Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga. The destruction was so widespread that it sowed the seeds for a whole new war only three years later.
This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.
But how do you criticize the methods of occupation without questioning the whole endeavor to begin with? You can blame a few “bad apples” to satisfy the public, but is it enough? The general in Samar received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, and though popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement, the punishment still didn’t fit the crime. The general retired with a full pension. Similarly, the American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only seven months of house arrest and then was pardoned. In both cases, “marked severities” divided the American public.
My character Ben tried hard to be better than the rest, but what happened in Balangiga tortures him. You are not supposed to have liked him in Under the Sugar Sun, and he does not like himself much, either. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress disorder, something that two of my very best friends share with him. Soldiers with PTSd struggle with guilt, depression, substance abuse, anger management, insomnia, and other health problems. I am greatly indebted to these friends for letting me put some of their worst fears on the page. I hope they will also appreciate the redemptive journey Ben goes through and the healing power of love that he finds. They would tell me this is far too simplistic a cure, but I think they want Ben to have a happily-ever-after, so it’s okay.
George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting he said so at the outset of what was later called the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad—and it’s aftereffects like PTSd—are familiar to people today. But they were not really a part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War. America’s professional army was born out of this war. Before 1898, the entire US Army was smaller than today’s New York City Police Department. Most of the Spanish-American War had to be fought with state volunteers whose enlistments lasted only a year. When hostilities broke out in Philippines, Congress promptly doubled the size of the regular army once, and then doubled it again. For the first time in its history, America had a significant standing army stationed far from its borders.
Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. You should experience it yourself. That’s the garden where empathy grows. That’s where you get all the feels. I hope Sugar Moon helps.