‘A howling wilderness’and human rights

By: Ramon Farolan


Philippine Daily Inquirer

01:00 AM September 26th, 2016

IT WAS a sunny Sunday morning on Sept. 28, 1901. The town of Balangiga in what is now Eastern Samar was occupied by a company of US Army troopers from the 9th Infantry Regiment commanded by Capt.Thomas W. Connell, a West Pointer. They were just beginning to head for breakfast after the bugler had sounded mess call. (A few weeks earlier, President William McKinley had been shot by Leon Czolgosz during a visit to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, not quite 43, would become the youngest president in US history.) A Mass had been scheduled to commemorate the assassination of the president.

Twenty minutes after reveille, Police Chief Pedro Sanchez of Balangiga, suddenly grabbed the rifle of an American sentry walking his post close to the mess tents. Sanchez fired the rifle, yelled out a signal, and then all hell broke loose.

“The church bells 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 bolo men who had been waiting inside. The native laborers working about the plaza suddenly turned on the soldiers and began chopping at them with bolos, picks, and shovels.” (“The Ordeal of Samar,” Joseph L. Schott)

It was combat at close quarters, bolos against Krag rifles. Of the company’s original 74 members, only 20 would survive. On the Filipino side, more than a hundred of the attackers were killed.

In a letter to his comrades in Samar dated Oct. 6, 1901, Gen. Vicente Lukban wrote, “With great pleasure, I communicate to you … the glowing achievement carried out successfully in the town of Balangiga on Sept. 28 at seven in the morning. Led by the great local leader and without arms other than bolos, they overcame in less than five minutes the detachment of the enemy composed of 74 men.” The American press rated the Balangiga action with the Alamo as one of the worst tragedies in American military annals.

Retaliation was swift. McKinley’s principle of “benevolent assimilation” was the first casualty. The Army commander, Gen. Adna Chaffee, directed Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith to end the resistance on Samar Island.

In turn, Smith provided Marine Maj. Littleton Waller with four companies, verbally giving him the following orders: “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.” When asked to define an age limit, Smith replied, “Ten years.” In another order, he directed that Samar “must be made a howling wilderness.” The message earned for him the nickname “Howling Jake” Smith.

In carrying out Smith’s instructions, Waller “ordered his men to shoot all native suspects as he led an expedition against Lukban’s redoubt, located in the mountains of the interior. Waller and his troops marched across the island destroying every village along the way.” (“In Our Image,” Stanley Karnow)

Perhaps one reason Samar remains one of the poorest provinces in the country today is that Major Waller apparently did a thorough job when he carried out the “howling wilderness” order of General Smith.

It was not only Samar that carried the brunt of American cruelty after the Balangiga massacre. In a bid to crush Filipino rebels under Gen. Miguel Malvar, Brig. Gen. Franklin Bell took over the province of Batangas. He issued the following orders to his men: “Neutrality should not be tolerated. Only those who provided the American forces with intelligence, guided operations against the guerrillas, or identified them and their sympathizers, would be judged guiltless. Prisoners would be executed by lot in retaliation for the murder of U.S. soldiers…

“A congressman who visited the area reported that U.S. troops took no prisoners and kept no records but simply swept the country and wherever or however they could get hold of a Filipino, they killed him. A correspondent covering the push called it relentless, with American soldiers killing men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino… was little better than a dog who belonged on the rubbish heap. They rounded up natives, stood them on a bridge, and without a shred of evidence against them, shot them one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses.” (“In Our Image,” Stanley, Karnow)

The Phlippine-American War resulted in 4,234 Americans dead and 2,218 wounded. It cost the United States some $600 million or roughly $4 billion, in today’s currency. The Filipinos suffered some 20,000 casualties “The devastation of the country was reflected in a single statistic: The number of carabaos without which the rural population could not plant or harvest rice, the staple food, shrank by 90 percent during the war.” (“In Our Image,” Stanley, Karnow)

It is but proper that President Duterte reminded our American friends of their own record of human rights.

* * *

When 9th Infantry units left Balangiga in October, they took the church bells, along with a cannon dating back to 1557, as war trophies. Today two of the bells are on display at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. The third is with the 9th US Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.

Over the years, efforts by government and church officials to secure the return of the bells have proven futile. In contrast, a few years back, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned to his Indian counterpart two statues allegedly looted from ancient Indian temples, ending a long-running battle over the pieces. On returning the objects,

Abbott’s office said, “The move is testimony to Australia’s good citizenship on such matters and the importance with which Australia views its relationship with India.”

The bells of Balangiga must be returned to their rightful owners.