The bells of Balangiga are scheduled to land in Manila as this original post is being typed. A US Air Force plane will finally deliver them back to the country they were taken from 117 years earlier. Why would the US give the bells back now, at a time when relations between the two countries may be at their worst point since the Philippines ejected Americans from their Luzon military bases in 1992? Why did the American government finally decide to ignore the protests of the Wyoming congressional delegation—including the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney—who still openly oppose the return of the bells? And what might this have to do with the Philippines’ reevaluation of the 1951 mutual defense treaty between the two countries?
The joint efforts of veterans and scholars deserve a lot of the credit. Even if they did not convince the Department of Defense to finally take this move—because the Pentagon does what the Pentagon wants, after all—they were essential in greasing the airplane wheels. Only after the Balangiga Research Group, which includes authors Rolando O. Borrinaga and Bob Couttie, assembled a better understanding of the attack could both sides move on.
But some of the credit also goes to the increasingly worrisome geopolitical struggle between the United States and China—a struggle that the Philippines will literally have a front-row seat for. This is good for none of us, but it helped bring the bells back.
I tried to write something short for this blog and failed. Instead of posting a long article here, please feel free to download my paper and read it at your leisure. Congratulations to the people of Balangiga, Samar, and the Philippines as a whole. This should have happened long ago.
Catbalogan means “an everlasting place of safety,” and for hundreds of years it was safe—for pirates. The sheltered bayside harbor lies just north of the San Juanico Strait between Samar and Leyte, a key access point to the Pacific Ocean and the primary shipping route for the Spanish galleons. Since these vessels were headed to Manila with silver and then back to Acapulco with a hold full of porcelain and spices, they were ripe targets for pirates, right? And by “pirates” I mean the English and the Dutch privateers, who were licensed by their sovereigns to interdict and steal the Spanish bounty. Catbalogan became a haven for pirates and privateers, their crews, and lost sailors.
The Americans would find the city no easier to manage in the early twentieth century. For the first year of the Philippine-American War, the Yanks mostly ignored Samar because they had their hands full in Luzon. But then, in January 1900, gunships arrived offshore Catbalogan and sent a messenger to General Vicente Lukban, the Philippine revolutionary in charge of Samar and Leyte. The Americans wanted to negotiate a surrender of the whole island by offering Lukban the governorship of Samar. But Lukban wanted more than a title; he wanted full local autonomy. The Americans refused, so Lukban forbade them from landing. In turn, the Americans began to bombard the town. In other words, things escalated fast. Unable to withstand the US Navy’s firepower, Lukban and many of the locals abandoned Catbalogan, burning it as they retreated.
What followed was a ruthless two-year war to subdue the revolutionary forces in Samar. Company C of the Ninth Infantry was stationed to Balangiga to prevent Lukban’s men from using the southern port to import arms and supplies. On its own accord, the town ambushed the garrison in September 1901, and the American military took revenge on all of Samar. General Jacob Smith (known in the press as “Hell-Roaring Jake”) vowed to make the island a “howling wilderness.” Dusting off a legal gem from the American Civil War known as General Order 100, the Americans aimed to starve, burn out, torture, and kill as many guerrillas as possible. They even took the bells of Balangiga church. Catbalogan and Tacloban (Leyte) were the centers of American authority in this period.
General Smith’s “short, severe war” was both. The death toll from this period ranges from two to fifteen thousand. The extremity of Smith’s orders—to kill all those capable of bearing arms, which he defined as over ten years old—would lead to his court-martial and removal. (Yes, I know this seems like a slap on the wrist, and it was. But President Roosevelt actually forced his retirement against army and public opinion, according to this New York Times article. In an interesting side note, this was Smith’s first court-martial: “Hell-roaring Jake” was a petty crook, as well as a blow-hard war criminal.)
Still, contemporary American generals argued that a strong hand in Samar was necessary. They argued this strong hand was exactly the reason that Lukban’s forces surrendered in April 1902 in a grand ceremony in Catbalogan. (Lukban himself had already been captured.)
Those surrendering had to turn over their rifles captured from Balangiga the previous year and pledge loyalty to the United States, but then they were freed. Lukban himself would become mayor of the Tabayas province (now Quezon) within ten years. This begs the question of whether it was the severity of the fight or the quality of the peace that pacified the countryside? Amnesty is not used much in America’s modern war playbook, and I wonder if this is an oversight.
There is an interesting fashion note worth mentioning: the Americans did loan the revolutionaries a few Singer sewing machines so they could surrender in style with new (and complete) uniforms. Pride was salvaged all around.
This is not the end of the story, though. This first war—including the destruction of half the municipalities in Samar and the burning of tens of thousands of tons of rice—caused a lingering famine and sparked another war two years later. Today, we call this phenomenon “blowback.” The Pulahan War was both a civil war (inland highlanders against lowland merchants and farmers) and an anti-American insurrection. On the American side, it was fought by the Philippine Constabulary, Third District—a civil police force organized, funded, equipped (not well), and trained by Americans (usually former soldiers). And by the 39th Philippine Scouts, trained and equipped (with better rifles) by the US Army. Both these units had significant troop presences in Catbalogan, along with the 6th, 12th, and 21st U.S. Infantries.
Catbalogan was a highly fortified town, but it was still beautiful. The ring of mountains separating it from the suffering of the rest of Samar did make for a stunning backdrop.
The city fared better than the rest of Samar through the lean times. Though the galleons no longer journeyed back and forth to Spain, Catbalogan was a center of the abaca trade in the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the large buildings and church. Abaca, also called Manila hemp, was in high demand as naval cordage. Its trade was dominated by ethnic Chinese and British merchants, and once Samar was no longer in ashes, the fiber would revive and bring an influx of capital to Catbalogan.
In the early twentieth century, Americans complained about the lack of poultry, eggs, and fruit in Catbalogan. (I find the fruit claim hard to believe.) They also complained about the lack of dedicated school buildings—not one in the whole town—and the lack of teachers. (Whose fault is that?) And they complained that there were only five miles of road on the whole island. The Americans would build more.
I traveled to Samar in 2005—and while I would not recommend December for your trip because of the rain, I loved it. The island is just as breathtaking as the postcards from 100 years ago.
A week ago, I re-introduced you to Allegra Alazas, the heroine of the upcoming Sugar Moon. She already has a fan club because she stole every scene she could in Under the Sugar Sun.
Her hero (or anti-hero?) is a different kettle of fish. Ben Potter is not someone you were supposed to like in the past book—and yet I always intended to give you his story because it needs to be told.
Ben is loosely based on the real men who served in Company C of the Ninth U.S. Infantry. These men fought at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Just as soon as they returned to their home barracks in upstate New York, they were shipped out again to the Philippines.
What had been meant as a sideshow the war against Spain became the first American imperial war overseas. In March 1899, only one month after tensions between Filipinos and Americans erupted in open combat, the Ninth was sent to reinforce the area around Manila. But they did not stay there long, either. After fighting in several battles that year, they were shipped to China to rescue to the American legation in Beijing (known back then as “Pekin”) during the Boxer War. They scaled the walls of the Forbidden City and camped in the palace grounds.
One might question what the heck America was doing. A war against Spain fought in Cuba had blossomed into a new war in the Philippines that lent soldiers to fight yet another campaign in China. Talk about mission creep. Yikes. Progressives in the Republican Club of Massachusetts claimed in a 1900 leaflet that the end justified the means: “Isn’t Every American proud of the part that American soldiers bore in the relief of Pekin? But that would have been impossible if our flag had not been in the Philippines.”
Once the foreign powers—Europe, Japan, and America—consolidated their hold on mainland China, the Ninth was sent back to the Philippine-American War. Their vacation was the steamer trip to Manila. There, the battle-weary group was given the privilege (and bother) of serving as honor guard for newly-named civilian governor (and future president of the United States), William Howard Taft.
Two years into their overseas rotation, this company of grizzly veterans was sent to one of the roughest outposts in the islands: Balangiga, Samar. Tasked with closing the port to trade—thereby preventing weapon smuggling to the Philippine revolutionaries—Company C settled down to village garrison life.
These men may have been the worst possible choice for this task. By this point, they were unlikely to trust anyone. In addition, some soldiers were likely suffering from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Finally, they were cut off from the rest of the world, without even mail call since they were not on the main steamer line. Private Patrick J. Dobbins wrote to his family:
One man in my company went crazy a week ago and escaped to the hills, probably to be killed and eaten by the natives. Another, who was sick unto death, committed suicide this morning at 6 o’clock. His name is Schechterle and he enlisted at the same time I did in Boston. . . . A grave has been dug near our quarters, and a guard of eight men are over the grave. The body is being lowered into the earth. The flag is at half mast. Three volleys are fired, taps is sounded. It is his last call, ‘absent, but accounted for.’ He is better off. Many of us watch him as he is gently lowered with envious eyes.
Though the commanding officer of Company C, Captain Thomas Connell, was a West Point graduate (1894), he did not manage his garrison well. At first too permissive, he became stringent when he realized that his next promotion was on the line. He felt that the villagers were not obeying his commands to “clean up” the streets, so he ordered Company C to round up all the men and keep them prisoner in two tents on the square.
Yes, my character Ben will try to stop all of this from happening, but history is history. He will not be successful. A week later, the town—with help from guerrillas in the jungle—would ambush the company, killing 48 out of 74 Americans. This was real war with real consequences.
Obviously, my imaginary Ben Potter lived—or did he? For families like his in America, it would have been hard to know. Names in the real reports were spelled wrong. Numbers changed. It felt like even the Army did not know who had survived. When I found a real article in the Manila Times about a sister writing to a missing brother, I rewrote it in my mind to fit fiction:
This is a lot of backstory, to be sure. And it is only backstory, not the plot of my book. But I think it is critical history that Americans have forgotten and been doomed to repeat: the Philippines was the Vietnam or Iraq (or Syria?) of the Gilded Age.
Ben lives through these events as a very young man, and they will haunt him for years. Love may not be a cure for combat trauma, but it can encourage Ben to face his past—especially when that past threatens his future with an amazing woman. (Want to read some teasers? There are some here. Enjoy!)
I just revised my Sugar Moon flashback scenes from Balangiga, a horrible incident that Ben Potter barely survived. While I was doing that, I went down a teensy-weensy research rabbit hole. Again.
I wanted to know what a typical morning looked like in the Army in 1901. That’s sort of tough because the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War were not written about nearly as much as, for example, the Civil War or the Great War. But Google Books and the Rural New Yorker to the rescue! I found out from the (incompletely excerpted) article below that there was an awful lot of bugling:
If you have gone to summer camp, you know what reveille sounds like:
What about the others? The twenty-first century U.S. Army came to the rescue here. The day of a soldier has not changed much in 120 years, it seems.
Here is the tune to assemble for roll call:
After attendance is taken, soldiers were led through basic calisthenics. What did that look like in 1901? Thanks to the Manual of Physical Drill by the U.S. Army (1900), I know it went something like this:
The manual states to: “Never work the men to the point of exhaustion.” I think my active duty and veteran friends would laugh heartily at that one. And I think we all would find something to be desired in the instructions for how to dress for exercise:
Negligée? I have all sorts of images in my head there. All. Sorts. Especially in some of these drills…
And I do not think any of us are going to exchange our moisture-wicking nylon for flannel. Egad.
After the exercises were over, the mess call would be blown:
What happened after that? Well, you will have to wait for Sugar Moon to find out! (Or head on over to my Balangiga page for some serious spoilers. Hint: It doesn’t go well.)