POSTSCRIPT / September 28, 2004 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Balingaga bells toll today to remind us all

MASSACRE: This day, September 28, is a red-day in both Philippine and American history as the day of the Balangiga Massacre.

One morning 103 years ago today, Waray bolomen nearly wiped out the 74 grizzled fighters of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, then having breakfast in their garrison in the coastal town of Balangiga in eastern Samar.

The attackers were protesting the starvation forced on them by the destruction or seizure of their food stocks, the rounding of about 80 villagers for forced labor and detained in crowded cells with little food and water, and their having been humiliated by the foreign intruders.

Balingaga is described by the US military as its “worst single defeat” in the Philippines and among the worst defeats in its entire history.

The sneak attack triggered a vengeful rampage of US reinforcements with orders to kill natives older than 10 years who crossed their paths and reduce the island into a “howling wilderness.” The pacification carried out from October 1901 to January 1902.

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TWO VIEWS: Most US history books report on the Balangiga incident as the killing of 48 Americans, not the killing of tens of thousands of Filipino civilians.

American soldiers being shipped to the islands were told they were to quell an “insurrection,” a rebellion by savages opposing US occupation. They did not see their campaign as one waged against a people defending their homeland.

Filipinos now demand the return of three church bells looted from the Balangiga church, but Americans insist on keeping the religious items as war booty (while agreeing to return similar bells taken from Nagasaki, Japan).

The smallest Balingaga bell is in the traveling museum of the 9th US Infantry, now stationed in Korea. The two bigger ones are displayed at the Trophy Park at the Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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NEW SAMAR: We are supposed to be in Balangiga today with Eastern Samar Gov. Ben Evardone, a media colleague, to join his constituents in marking this day and using it as a jumpoff point to a more progressive future.

I suspect that Ben, at 41 the youngest governor Eastern Samar ever had, also wants to show Manila media the unspoiled beauty and potentials of his province, “where the Philippines meets the Pacific.”

Ben also wants to see more Americans visiting and getting acquainted with the new Samar. He said it was high time both sides bade goodbye to the animosity and mutual suspicion that ruled relationships a century ago.

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GETTING EVEN: One recommended short reading on Balangiga is that of Victor Nebrida’s “The Balangiga Massacre: Getting Even.” In his account (, Nebrida writes:

Company C, Ninth US Infantry, sailed into Balangiga on Aug. 11, 1901. Company C consisted of 74 veterans, most of whom had seen service not only in China but also in Cuba and Northern Luzon. It was led by Capt. Thomas Connell and his second in command, Lt. E. C. Bumpus. This was in response to the town mayor’s petition for an American garrison to protect the town from Muslim and rebel raids. The townsfolk needed relief and the policy of benevolent assimilation had apparently come to Balangiga.

For weeks, the outfit engaged in routine duties including the cleanup of garbage by a hundred male conscripts. Later, 80 additional natives from the nearby hills were added to the work force on recommendation of the town mayor. The Americans found them unusually industrious, but they happened to be Lukban’s (a Filipino general who was still resisting US occupation — fdp) best bolomen.

Then the Balangiga Massacre happened. This is how Joseph Schott describes it in his book, The Ordeal of Samar:

“On the night of Sept. 27, the American sentries on the guard posts were surprised by the unusual number of women hurrying to church. They were all heavily clothed, which was unusual, and many carried small coffins. A sergeant, vaguely suspicious, stopped one woman and pried open her coffin with his bayonet. Inside he found the body of a child. The woman hysterically cried, “El Colera!” The sergeant nailed the coffin again and let the woman pass. He concluded that the cholera and fever were in epidemic stage and carrying off children in great numbers. But it was strange that no news of any such epidemic had reached the garrison. If the sergeant had been less abashed and had searched beneath the child’s body, he would have found the keen blades of cane cutting bolo knives. All the coffins were loaded with them.

“At 6:20 that morning, Pedro Sanchez, the native chief of police, lined up around 80 native laborers to start their daily cleanup of the town. The entire Company C, comprising of 71 men and three officers, was already awake, having breakfast at the mess tents.

“There were now only three armed Americans out in the town — the sentries walking their posts. In the church, scores of bolomen quietly honed their gleaming blades and awaited a signal.

“Pedro Sanchez walked behind a sentry and with casual swiftness, he grabbed the sentry’s rifle and brought the butt down in a smashing blow on his head. Then Sanchez fired the rifle, yelled out a signal and all hell broke loose.

“The church bell ding-donged crazily and conch shell whistles blew shrilly from the edge of the jungle. The doors of the church burst open and out streamed the mob of bolomen who had been waiting inside. The native laborers working about the town plaza suddenly turned on the soldiers and began chopping at them with bolos, picks and shovels.

“The mess tents, filled with soldiers peacefully at breakfast, had been one of the prime targets of the bolomen. They burst in screaming and slashing. A bolo swished through the air, made a sodden chunking sound against the back of a sergeant’s neck, severing his head.

“As the soldiers rose up and began fighting with chairs and kitchen utensils, the Filipinos outside cut the tent ropes, causing the tents to collapse on the struggling men. The Filipinos then ran in all directions to slash with bolos and axes at the forms struggling under the canvas.”

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RETALIATION: Picking it up from there, Nebrida writes: Surprised and outnumbered, Company C was nearly wiped out during the first few terrible minutes. But a small group of American soldiers, a number of them wounded, were able to secure their rifles and fight back, killing some 250 Filipinos.

Of the company’s original complement, 48 were killed or unaccounted for, 22 were wounded, and only 4 were unharmed. The survivors managed to escape to the American garrison in Basey.

Captain Bookmiller, the commander in Basey, sailed immediately for Balangiga with a force of volunteers. They quickly dispatched some bolomen on the shore with a gattling gun and executed 20 more they found hiding in a nearby forest. As the American soldiers were buried, Captain Bookmiller quoted from the Book of Hosea, “They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

Thus ended the short-lived policy of benevolent assimilation in Balangiga.

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HOWLING WILDERNESS: Nebrida continues: General Jake “Hell-Roaring” Smith’s campaign was poorly planned and faulty in its execution. Convinced that he could make Filipinos submit to American control by making “war hell,” he sought to substitute “fire and sword” for the benevolent and humane policy that had preceded his campaign.

General Smith instructed Major Littleton Waller, the commander of the Marines assigned to clean up the island of Samar, of the methods he was to employ: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.”

He directed that Samar be converted into a “howling wilderness.” All persons who have not surrendered and were capable of carrying arms were to be shot. Who was capable? Anyone over 10 years of age, according to Smith. At this point he became better known as Jake “Howling” Smith.

What followed was a sustained and widespread killing of Filipino civilians. The basic elements of his policy were few. Food and trade to Samar were to be ended to starve the revolutionaries into submission. He instructed his officers to regard all Filipinos as enemies and treat them accordingly until they showed conclusively that they were friendly by specific actions such as revealing information about the location of revolutionaries or arms, working successfully as guides or spies, or trying actively to obtain the surrender of the guerrillas in the field.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 28, 2004)

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