6:00 A.M., SEPTEMBER 28, 1901 BALANGIGA, SAMAR, PHILIPPINE ISLANDS
The bugler of Company C, Ninth Infantry, sounded the call for breakfast. American soldiers, unarmed, made their way to the mess hall. Outside, the Filipino Chief of Police, Valeriano Abanador, prepared Filipino prisoners for a day of forced labor. Suddenly, Abanador seized Private Adolph Gamlin’s rifle and shot him point blank. The bells of the local church rang—the signal to the men inside armed with traditional Filipino bolo knives to begin their attack. Abanador’s prisoners, now armed with bolos as well, charged from the other direction.
The bolomen maimed dozens of unarmed soldiers. Captain Thomas Connell and the two other officers of the company were killed. Several soldiers finally managed to obtain weapons and gunned down many, but could not overcome the Filipino attackers. In the end, only a few soldiers escaped to Basey where another company was stationed. They returned and killed hundreds of Filipinos that day. It did not end there. Over the next year, American soldiers exacted terrible revenge on all the inhabitants of Samar. They killed and imprisoned masses, burned towns, and turned the island into a wasteland. The events of September 28, 1901 have gone down in American history books as the “Balangiga Massacre,” but many believe the true massacre was the Samar campaign that followed.
Below, the curator of the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum provides an overview of bolo knife history:
THE “TRUE” STORY OF BALANGIGA
Those are the basic facts surrounding the Balangiga “Massacre.” Just about everything else is still disputed. There is no one “true” story of what happened, but history is not just about events that occurred in the past. History depends on its authors and how its events are remembered – and these memories can change over time. An event like the attack at Balangiga was important in America because it justified the war in the Philippines. At home, it read like a gruesome attack on a company of good, wholesome, American men trying to help their “little brown brothers,” as the Filipinos were often called. It was important to Filipinos because the attack was a successful show of resistance to an unwanted imperial power. Furthermore, the Samar campaign and the destruction it caused were a vicious show of the abuses of colonial power. So, who was the aggressor? Who inflicted the most pain? Did they deserve it? There are no clear answers to these questions, but there is merit in identifying what parts of the story are contested and what that means for those keeping the memory of Balangiga alive.
SPANISH AMERICAN WAR & PHILIPPINE AMERICAN WAR
In 1898, during William McKinley’s presidency, the United States went to war, cajoled by the echoing refrain, “Remember the Maine, to war with Spain!” The Spanish supposedly sank the Maine, a U.S. ship, in Cuba, and that Caribbean island provided the primary motivation for war. However, the United States doubled the harm inflicted on the Spanish by attacking their Pacific colony, the Philippine Islands. After a “splendid little war,” as Secretary of State John Hay described it, the United States acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
American troops were sent to the Philippines to ensure their independence from Spain, but seized the opportunity to impose American rule when post-war negotiations made the Philippines an American colony The country that had once been a small republic (albeit an ever-expanding one) stepped onto the world stage as an imperial power in the Pacific. Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino leader of the rebellion against Spain, had been an ally during the Spanish-American War, but became an enemy when he established an independent Philippine republic. The Filipino people fought against American colonial rule during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). 126,468 American soldiers were deployed to the Philippines—4,234 did not survive. An estimated 16,000 to 20,000 Filipino soldiers died, along with 200,000 civilians.
Crucible of Empire: the Spanish-American War
“The Army in the Philippines,” San Francisco Call, January 19, 1902.
The Philippine-American War began in Manila in 1899. Americans were able to fight successfully in developed areas. But, they soon discovered the Spanish had never succeeded in conquering many of the southern islands. Samar was one such island.
Brigadier General Robert P. Hughesstated, “Samar never has been organized. The Spaniards had never subdued Samar. The Spaniards never risked going into the interior of that island.”
General Vicente Lukban proclaimed himself governor of Samar under Aguinaldo’s Philippine Republic. He demanded complete allegiance from his followers, and severely punished those who disobeyed. By the time American soldiers arrived in Samar, Lukban’s control was well-established. Soldiers set up in the coastal towns of the island, so Lukban retreated to the jungle interior with his followers, knowing it would be nearly impossible for American troops to reach him there. He had a well-established spy network and was constantly receiving information about occurrences around the island. Though Lukban was a harsh, cruel leader, he was fiercely committed to Philippine independence.
ARRIVAL OF THE NINTH INFANTRY
Company C arrived in Balangiga on the coast of Samar on August 11, 1901. Their reason for being there is disputed. One story is that the mayor of Balangiga, Presidente Pedro Abayan, requested American troops to protect his town from dangerous Moro pirates. They complied, not knowing “such raids had become practically nonexistent over the past half-century.” General Lukban, Abayan, and other officials lured American troops there under false pretenses in order execute a well-planned attack on their company. However, other sources report that American troops were stationed there to close Balangiga’s port and disrupt supply lines to Filipino revolutionary forces. This is supported by a letter from First Lieutenant Edward Bumpus of Company C, who wrote that Company C was “in Balangiga to prevent the use of the port to smuggle supplies to the Filipino guerrillas.” In this story, there was no attack planned when the soldiers arrived at Balangiga.
General Hughes later testified before the Senate Committee on the Philippines that he handpicked Captain Thomas Connell to go to Samar. Connell was a devout Catholic and a young recent graduate of West Point, and he sincerely believed in benevolent assimilation in the Philippines. Like many Americans, he believed Filipinos needed their help in order to become civilized. This idea, also known as the “white man’s burden,” was a frequent justification for colonialism. Unlike many soldiers, Connell was friendly to Filipinos, hoping to gain their trust so that they might accept and even embrace American colonialism. Hughes later lamented his decision to send someone so friendly to Filipinos to Samar: “The fact has since developed, which I did not know, that this officer had shown rather unusual confidence in the natives in Luzon. Of course I knew nothing of it at that time.”
“Plan of Buildings and Ground Occupied by Company C, Ninth Infantry at Balangiga, Samar” in Captain Fred R. Brown, History of the Ninth U.S. Infantry 1799-1909, (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909) 581.
Connell was filled with optimism when he arrived in Balangiga. But, he was immediately concerned about the cleanliness of the town. He may have been motivated by a desire for a more civilized way of life, but other accounts suggest he was under strict orders from a very angry inspector-general. Connell asked Presidente Abayan to persuade the people to clean up their homes. This was unsuccessful.
Connell then set about moralizing Balangiga. He was most preoccupied with the men’s love for cockfighting and the young women’s attire (or lack thereof). The American soldiers in his company enjoyed both, much to his disappointment. Connell approached the local priest for help, but was rebuked. The priest took a more practical than pious approach. He told Connell cockfighting was well-established in their culture, and would not likely disappear anytime soon. As for the women, they could never afford petticoats Connell wanted and it was unrealistic in such a hot climate anyway. This reaction troubled Connell, who was worried about his men attending cockfights and fraternizing with local women, but he took no further action.
The ways American soldiers interacted with local women have been contested. Some accounts claim that young girls were used as decoys for insurgents. They would lure a soldier into the jungle and then he would be killed. One historian wrote, “The men learned from this blunder and the next decoy was dragged under a hut and repeatedly raped.” In other accounts, the soldiers simply took advantage of women on a relatively regular basis. Apparently Connell had no knowledge of this until three young girls approached him claiming his men raped them. He was infuriated and posted the following orders:
“I will construe any act of physically touching the body or limb of a native woman by a member of this command as rape and will recommend that the soldier be court-martialed and shot. Think of how this disgrace would sadden your mothers and loved ones at home.”
He also banned cockfights and consumption of Filipino alcohol.
Connell wanted good relations between Americans and Filipinos, but he was in the minority among his fellow soldiers. It irritated them endlessly, but Connell forbid the use of words such as “nigger” or “gugu” to describe the Filipinos. In an attempt to solidify trust even further, Connell ordered his men not to carry their weapons when not on sentry duty. The soldiers began to refer to Connell as a “nigger lover” for his naïve confidence in the Filipinos.
On August 18, 1901 Captain H.L. Jackson of the First U.S. Infantry unexpectedly discovered General Lukban’s hideout. They found the following letter among his belongings:
As a representative of this town of Balangiga I have the honor to let you know, after having conferred with the principals of the town about the policy to be pursued with the enemy in case they come in, we have agreed to have a fictitious policy with them, doing whatever they may like, and when the occasion comes the people will strategically rise against them.
This I communicate to you for your superior knowledge, begging of you to make known all the army your favorable approval of the same, if you think it convenient.
May God preserve you many years,
Balangiga, 30th of May, 1901
P. ABAYAN, Local President
Because of slow, inefficient transfer of information amongst American troops in the Philippines, this letter and the information it contained never reached Company C in Balangiga. Connell continued to be friendly with Presidente Abayan and Abanador.
But, according to some sources, there was a direct impetus for the attack, and it was not General Lukban. Lukban, through his extensive spy network, was most definitely aware of what was going on at Balangiga. And Abayan’s letter seems to prove that they had contact. However, Professor Borrinaga’s research showed a different story. While cleaning up Balangiga, apparently the people were forced to cut down some “vegetation with food value,” which violated strict orders from Lukban regarding “food security.” On September 18, Lukban sent guerrillas to Balangiga to punish the Filipinos who violated his orders. This attack never occurred, but Lukban definitely no longer sided with the people of Balangiga.
Company C with Valeriano Abanador
Events were set in motion on September 22, 1901 when two drunken American soldiers attempted to molest a Filipino girl. Her brothers came to her defense and mauled the two assailants. Some believe that this prompted Captain Connell’s order to detain all Balangiga’s male residents. However, officially, Connell arrested them in order to secure forced labor to hasten the clean-up of the town. Edwin Bookmiller’s testimony to the Senate Committee on the Philippines stated, “Captain Connell had collected 78 natives of the town and held most of them prisoners for police work.” Almost 150 men were denied food while held overnight in cramped tents. Their homes were ransacked and American soldiers confiscated all bolos, which held cultural capital for Filipino men who lived in rural areas. The American soldiers even confiscated and destroyed their stored rice, “the fundamental symbol of their dignity.” Connell soon brought in more prisoners from around the island, with the help of the Abanador and Presidente Abayan. What Connell did not know was that these “workmen” provided by Abayan were the best bolomen on the island of Samar.
Who planned the attack and why they planned it matters to the history of Balangiga. In the version that has been propounded in American history, the whole attack was planned by Lukban, who planned on killing the soldiers from the time Presidente Abayan requested their presence in Balangiga. In another account, the attack was not the result of lengthy sadistic scheming, but rather a response to the cruelty Filipinos experienced at the hands of American soldiers. The people had been shamed, disgraced, imprisoned, and mistreated by American soldiers and they planned to do something about it.
On September 27, 1901 Filipino women carried small coffins into the local church, claiming a cholera epidemic had killed many of the local children. The sentry on duty was suspicious, but did indeed find a child inside the coffin he inspected. Had he looked closer, he might have seen that the child was in fact playing dead, and underneath him, the coffin was filled with bolo knives. Because of Connell’s rules about touching Filipino women, the sentry was not at liberty to search them either. If he had, he would have found that they were in fact men, and underneath their dresses, they carried more bolo knives.
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE ATTACK
That morning, the Filipinos attacked, leaving Company C almost completely annihilated.
“Survivors of Company C” from Captain Fred R. Brown, History of the Ninth U.S. Infantry 1799-1909, (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909), 579.
The party of survivors “consisted of 25 men, 22 of whom were wounded, and two bodies of men who had died en route.” They arrived at Basey at 4 a.m. the next morning, where Captain Edwin Bookmiller was stationed with Company G. Bookmiller was quite the opposite of Connell; he “despised Filipinos and trusted none of them.” At 9 a.m. Bookmiller and fifty-five volunteers of Company G set out for Balangiga with eight survivors of Company C.
When they arrived, Bookmiller ordered the men to round up all Filipinos in the area. The survivors of Company C gunned them down while the rest set Balangiga ablaze. As the town burned, Bookmiller famously declared, “They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Although as many as fifty Americans perished, hundreds of Filipinos were killed that day as well, and thousands more died over the next year.
REACTIONS TO BALANGIGA
“Butchered with Bolos,” Minneapolis Journal, September 30, 1901.
The American people were horrified when they heard that almost an entire company of men had been cut down by savage Filipino attackers. The Evening World claimed, “The slaughter is the most overwhelming defeat that American arms have encountered in the Orient.” They painted a gruesome picture: “so sudden and unexpected was the onslaught and so well hemmed in were they by the barbarians that the spot became a slaughter-pen for the little band of Americans.” It reignited support for war in the Philippines. The idea that Filipinos would hack a harmless company of men to death during breakfast reinforced the idea in the American consciousness that Filipinos were brutal, savage people. It reinforced the idea that Filipinos needed American colonialism in order to become civilized.
The attack sent shock waves through the U.S. Army. Everyone seemed to have an explanation. Many blamed Connell. General Hughes said, “There is no doubt whatever that the disaster was the result of overconfidence in the Presidente and chief of police.” One officer was more direct: “I have all the time thought that we do not appreciate the fact that we are dealing with a class of people whose character is deceitful, who are absolutely hostile to the white race.”
Adna R. Chaffee, commander of American forces in the Philippines, had the following to say about the attack in the Annual Report of the War Department:
“Born, raised, and educated in a country where peaceful conditions prevail and where all one’s neighbors can be trusted, where security for life and property is assured by peaceful processes and through civil means, I fear our soldiers, transplanted to a strange sphere of action, do not fully realize or appreciate the difference in their surroundings and naturally fall into the error of complaisant trustfulness in a seeming friendliness on the part of the native population.”
Lukban (whether he planned the attack or not) was pleased with such a successful show of Filipino resistance. He sent out a telegram stating, “Providential events like these clearly demonstrate the justice of a God.” He continued, “We desire you to attempt the same thing against the enemy, and with them demonstrate in sight of the nations our dignity, and with them bequeath to our successors fame and honesty, those successors whom we have made happy with their independence.” Read the whole telegram here
THE “HOWLING WILDERNESS”
The Balangiga massacre gave officers the justification to pursue harsher methods. General Jacob H. Smith led the charge in Samar. He gave the following instructions: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.” Major Littleton Waller asked to know the age limit, and Smith replied “Ten years.” These orders were immortalized in a cartoonin the New York Journal whose caption read: “Kill Every One Over Ten: Criminals because they were born ten years before we took the Philippines.” Smith asked his men to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness,” and they obliged.
“Kill Everyone Over Ten”
Over the next year, the US Army practiced a scorched earth policy on Samar. They trudged through dangerous jungles, burning towns, taking food, and either killing the people or taking them to coastal villages for internment. Thousands of Filipinos, mostly noncombatants, were killed during the Samar campaign. It became the most gruesome campaign of the entire Philippine-American War.
For the people who lived there, it was not the events of September 28, 1901, but what came after that was the true Balangiga “massacre.” Before leaving the island, American troops revisited Balangiga, where it all began. They took the church bells that signaled the attack on that day and sent them back to the United States as war trophies, where they still reside to this day.
THE BELLS OF BALANGIGA
Though this incident has been largely forgotten by most Americans (along with American colonialism in the Philippines), the scars remain to this day. Scholars still dispute the events surrounding the attack. Some, like Stuart Creighton Miller in Benevolent Assimilation paint a picture in which General Lukban and the people of Balangiga lured an American company to Samar and massacred them in cold blood. On the other hand, Kimberly Alidio characterizes the events differently: “The attack of the townspeople and the armed guerrillas led by General Vicente Lukban was a response to weeks of forced labor, mass imprisonments, and the seizure of food supplies under the military occupation” She claims the true brutality was afterwards, when “American forces waged a genocidal campaign, which produced thousands of civilian deaths on the island and the leveling of Balangiga.” Even the matter of what to call the incident is disputed. Sharon Delmendo claims that “it is the interpretation of the incident as a ‘massacre’ that engenders some of the anti-compromise Americans’ resentment over the incident even today, thus fueling their opposition to returning the bells.” The fact that five times more Filipinos than Americans died on that same day, for Delmendo, “provokes some meditation on the use of the term massacre.”
The bells of Balangiga reside in Wyoming on the F.E. Warren Air Force Base. For decades, Filipinos have been trying to negotiate the return of the bells. For them, the bells symbolize their fight for independence and they want them returned to the Philippines so they can honor those who fought at Balangiga. But many American veterans and civilians believe that the bells should stay in the United States to commemorate the sacrifice made by the soldiers at Balangiga who defended American sovereignty in the Philippines. Alidio writes, “Several enlisted and civilian Americans expressed in interviews the fear that the U.S. soldier (or the memory of U.S. bravery against the ‘insurrecto’) would be greatly diminished by the view that the battle of Balangiga was an incident of imperial conquest.” Returning the bells to Balangiga would mean changing the memory of Balangiga. The way that we remember history is crucial. Although it is remembered differently, what happened at Balangiga should never be forgotten.
For more information:
- Read an interview with Stanley Karnow, author of In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines.
- Explore PBS’s A Conflicted Land: Rebellions, Wars, and Insurgencies in the Philippines, 1898-1933: America’s Colony
- Read first-hand accounts online: Captain Fred R. Brown’s History of the Ninth U.S. Infantry, 1799-1909, (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909); Company C survivors John D. Closson, George F. Markley, Arnold, Irish, Walter Bertholf, and Charles Marak in Captain Fred R. Brown, History of the Ninth U.S. Infantry 1799-1909, (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1909), 583-591; and Major Ray’s Account, as he arrived there just hours after the massacre in “Noble Heroes of Samar,” Railroad Trainmen’s Journal 19, no. 4 (April 1902): 253-259.
- Read Army History’s piece by Thomas A Bruno, “The Violent End of Insurgency on Samar, 1901-1902”
- Use google to explore the US Archives and “The Massacre at Balangia,” Deeds of Valor from Records in the Archives of the United States Government: How American Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, ed. W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel (Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1906), 470-474.