by Michael D. Sellers
For Americans in 1901, the Balangiga Massacre in the Philippines was the 9/11 attack of its day — a shattering, out-of-the-blue assault (or so it was initially reported) on an unsuspecting U.S. Army unit that was “peacefully occupying” the port town of Balangiga on the Southern coast of the island of Samar. For Filipinos, it was something else altogether — an explosion of pent-up resentment; a repudiation of a foreign occupier, perhaps an assertion of nationhood. The attack occurred during the winding down phase of the Philippine American War, a nasty mostly guerrilla affair that cost America far more lives and treasure than the better remembered (by Americans, anyway) Spanish-American war that spawned it.
All of this came at a time when the official line of the US government was that the vast majority of Filipinos welcomed of the idea of US rule, and peace in the Philippines was at hand. Precisely because the war had receded from the US consciousness, the attack sent shock waves throughout the colonial American community in Manila and dominated headlines in the US. The assault so upset Helen Taft, the wife of American Governor General William Howard Taft, that she had to be evacuated for R and R in China, and American businessmen in Manila began wearing sidearms as they went about their tasks. In retaliation, the U.S. Army sent troops on a mission to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” — a mission of excess that caused painful suffering in Samar, and resulted in multiple courts martial of the American officers involved.
In the century since the events, Filipino film-makers have made movies; Filipino and American scholars have written books; and yet still, for me at least, the tantalizing question has yet to be clearly answered: How did it happen?
What were the true motivations of the people involved on both sides? What mistakes did the Americans make? What grievances did the Filipinos have?
Achieving a real understanding of what happened has been an elusive objective for me throughout the quarter century of my involvement with the Philippines.
In the mid 1990’s, working with Philippine-based British writer Bob Couttie, I researched the Balangiga, including making a memorable visit to the town itself, and co-wrote a screenplay with Bob entitled “Samar”, based on the incident. Money didn’t materialize and so the film didn’t get made, and we all moved on. Bob went on to write “Hang the Dogs: The True and Tragic Story of the Balangiga Massacre”, which is the definitive internationally authored non-fiction work on the incident to date and has left Bob today as an acknowledged and respected non-partisan authority on the subject and the curator for the “Balangiga Research Group” where he is joined by Professor Rolando Borrinaga, the acknowledged Philippine authority on Balangiga and the author of The Balangiga Revisted.
My own continued connection to Balangiga took another form — I married Lorena Llevado, who is from Lawaan, adjacent to Balangiga, and is a member of the Abayan clan, thus a descendant of Pedro Abayan, the mayor of Balangiga at the time of the incident. Her roots can also be traced to the men of Lawaan who famously (and dangerously) participated in the attack. (Her own remarkable story, Daughter of Lawaan, is a work-in-progress memoir elsewhere on this site.) Our relationship, and her biannual trips home, have kept the Balangiga fires burning within me all these years.
Today, the Balangiga Research Group has gone quiet, and the debate over the Bells of Balangiga (an unresolved dispute which, while a sideshow to the main events, has helped keep interest alive) has receded. The persistent and excellent research of Bob Couttie, Professor Borrinaga, and others has answered many questions. My movie remains unmade — but is very much alive in my head. Lingering questions persist. What actually happened? How did it happen? Why?
Meanwhile, aside from my own personal attachment to the tory, America continues to place itself in circumstances that keep the story relevant — as evidenced by this letter to the editor of the Stars and Strips, the unofficial newspaper of the US Armed Forces:
To the Editor
11/26/11 10:31 PM
I was reading your July 25 issue and came upon the article “Commanders’ actions before Afghan attack questioned.”
Reading it reminded me of an incident in the Philippines (Samar Island) on Sept. 28, 1901, wherein Company C, 9th Infantry (“The Manchus”), under Capt. Thomas Connell, were massacred by the townsfolk in cooperation with the local guerrillas under the leadership of the Philippine commander Brig. Gen. Vicente Lukban.
In connection with this, I would like to request your good office to possibly publish [an account of] that historic event, directly related to what we are doing in Afghanistan (counterinsurgency) so that our leaders could learn from it and make decisions that will save American soldiers’ lives, and that, if an ultimate sacrifice is made, it is not made in vain.
I have read other publications regarding the Balangiga massacre, but the most reputable is written by Bob Couttie, “Hang the Dogs: The True Tragic History of the Balangiga Massacre,” with very insightful material that will greatly contribute to our present counterinsurgency campaign.
Maj. Michael Van Hoven
Camp Bucca, Iraq
As always, what’s old is new and, as Paul Simon penned: “After changes upon changes we are more or less the same.”
So, today I’m starting “The Balangiga File” which I intend to be an occasional and ongoing series of essays examining Balangiga from different angles, all with the goal of achieving a personal breakthrough in my understanding of what really happened. There may be a movie in here somewhere — either a feature or a documentary — and that possiblity is part of what drives me. But it’s also personal, because of Rena’s heritage and her blood connection to the events, and because of my own service to America in foreign lands, including the Philippines. I am not going to attempt this as a full-on scholarly work — that swamp has been well-drained by Bob Couttie and Professor Borrinaga. But I will be writing with a keen awareness that “the experts are watching”, possibly, and flights of fancy that are not clearly labeled as such will bring a quick correction – and I welcome that. Indeed, if my efforts provoke comments from the likes of Bob and Professor Borrinaga that help pinpoint the areas where facts are missing and reasoned speculation must fill in the gaps, that would be a good thing.
More than anything else, I just want to understand, how did it happen?
Introduction to the Balangiga Incident
The Basic Factual Outline
When America acquired the Philippines as a colony from Spain in December 1898 after defeating the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines, Filipino insurgents who had been fighting Spain for Independence for years (and who had helped America take Manila) felt betrayed and a bloody war ensued. The Philippine American War began as a series of conventional battles on the island of Luzon, but evolved into a guerrilla affair that would give America its first taste of battling a jungle insurgency in Asia 60 years before Vietnam.
By mid 1901, with various provinces unpacified, the American govrnment (ingeniously, some would say) declared the war over, thus taking it off the front page of American newspapers, and installed a civilian colonial administration under William Howard Taft (who would become US President) on July 4, 1901. The perception that the war was over was further fueled by the fact that the revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo had, earlier that year, been captured and was under civilized house arrest in Manila, where he had sworn allegiance to the US administration. The Philppines was–in the American public consciousness, at the time–a largely peaceful outpost of Manifest Destiny where willing “little brown brothers” were being gently molded in America’s image by well-intentioned teachers, administrators, and businessmen. Military operations were in the “mopping up” phase — there were a few recalcitrant “ladrones”, but not truly organized resistance.
Against this backdrop, on August 11, 1901, Company C, 9th US Infantry, a force of 77 men who had previously fought in the Boxer Rebellion in China and were considered hardened troops, arrived in Balangiga, a provincial port in Eastern Samar, one of two areas in the Philppines with active insurgents under the capable command of Vicente Lukban, a Tagalog from Luzon who had been sent by Aguinaldo to represent the Philippine Republic on the island.
The Americans, whose presence had been requested (or maybe not–there is dispute about this) by Pedro Abayan, the town’s mayor, and Valeriano Abanador, the police chief, had orders to secure the town and keep supplies from flowing inland to the insurgents. It was a peaceful occupation that went terribly wrong. On September 28, 1901, six weeks after Company C’s arrival, a force of 500 Filipinos armed only with bolos attacked the Americans while they were at breakfast and succeeded in driving them out of the town. Thirty-six Americans were killed in the initial onslaught and a total of 54 eventually died. Although for years there were reports that as many as 500 Filipinos had died, scholarship now seems settled on a figure of about 30 Filipino deaths and 20 wounded. Of the original 77 man US contingent, 48 died and 26 survived, 22 of them severely wounded. The dead included all of Company C’s commissioned officers: Capt. Thomas W. Connell, 1st Lt. Edward A. Bumpus, and Maj. Richard S. Griswold (the Company surgeon). The guerillas also took 57 rifles with 25,000 rounds of ammunition.
The event stands out not only as a disastrous defeat for the American forces, but also a a singular event in Philippine American history in which an apparently peaceful (but not without tension) coexistence between Filipinos and Americans erupted into sudden, horrific violence.
The stunning defeat, which was labeled by the newspapers of the day as America’s worst military defeat “since Little Big Horn”, caused a sensation in the United States and resulted in a campaign of retribution which proceeded under US General Jacob Smith, who famously ordered Colonel Littleton Waller to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” – earning him the nickname “Howling” Smith, and ultimately earning him a court martial. In his court martial, it was established that Smith told Waller: “I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. I want persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States,” Responsible scholarshap places the number of Filipinos killed in the campaign of retribution in the vicinity of 2,000-3,000, with many homes were burned, and towns demolished. The popular version in the Philippines–which has generally been debunked by serious scholars of both Philippine and American orientation–erroneously placed the number of those killed in the campaign of retribution far higher — in the hundreds of thousands. Regardless of what the numbers actually were, there was no denying it was an ugly affair that brought no honor to America, and was only partially rectified by the court martials and howls of outrage that would eventually emanate from the US once matters were brought to light.
As a final insult to Filipinos, during the campaign of retribution the US Army took two (and possibly 3) bells from the church in Balangiga, never returning them to the Philippines in spite of the close relationship that ensued after the fighting was over, and which continues now, more than a century later. This remains unresolved, and is a sore point between the countries. Increasingly, there are Americans calling for the bells to be returned — but it hasn’t happened. They remain at an Air Force Base in Wyoming, where it custodians steadfastly refuse to return them to the Philippines.
That’s the general outline, but underneath that, there is much to contemplate.
Why is the Story of Balangiga So Compelling?
For me, the “why” of the story is easy enough to understand n a basic factual level, but hard to understand on a deeper psychological one. It’s easy to imagine the Americans blundering and upsetting the Filipinos; it’s hard, however, to imagine those slights being so deeply felt as to provoke the inhabitants of a quiet Filipino town to risk everything in a desperate attack that had at best a 50/50 chance of success, and which even if successful would bring about a hail of predictable retribution from the Americans. What pushed them so far over the edge that this seemed like a reasonable course to pursue?
What actually happened to cause the Filipinos in this town (and no other) to make such a daring and risky attack against the Americans? What drove them to do it when no one else did? Was the the entire invitation (if there was one) a trap?
What was the role of women in the tensions, and ultimately the uprising? What was the true nature of the interaction between the young American soldiers an young Filipina women of the town? And their brothers and parents?
What was the true nature of the relationship between the town leadership in the insurgents under command of Lukban? What role did the insurgents play in planning or executing the attack? Did the idea for the attack come from the insurgents? Did they pressure the townsfolk? Were they caught between the Americans on the one hand, and the insurgents on the other?
What were the atmospherics in the town during those six weeks when the Americans were there? What incidents contributed to the buildup of tension? What was the role of the insurgents? Who among the Filipinos promoted the idea of the attack? What convinced the others to join, at great peril?
When I think of the momentous nature of the decision to attack the Americans, and the risk it entailed–not just to the attackers but to their families, their children–I have always felt like the dots don’t completely connect.
It’s worth another look.
To be continued…..