"Balangiga Massacre;" Filipinos Attack American Soldiers, U.S. Army Retaliates

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"Balangiga Massacre;" Filipinos Attack American Soldiers, U.S. Army Retaliates

Members of Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry at Balangiga, Philippines
Photograph taken between August 11 and September 27, 1901
(Unless otherwise specified, all illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 28, 1901

Today's lesson in history focuses on the Philippine-American War, and an incident that still resonates with Filipinos: the attack on U.S. troops at the town of Balangiga, and the subsequent American retaliation.


At the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States became an inadvertent colonial power. In addition to acquiring Puerto Rico and Guam, the Philippine Islands came under American control. This was both good news and bad news to the Filipino people. They were pleased to be rid of the Spanish, who had been their colonial masters for 300 years. However, the Americans were now in charge, and were in no hurry to leave. As a result, the Philippine American War kicked off in 1899, lasting until about 1902.

American forces soon found out that they were facing a native insurgency unlike any they had experienced. The Filipinos had fought a guerrilla war with the Spanish from 1896 to 1897. The insurgency's leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, was persuaded to go into exile after receiving a hefty bribe. In 1898, Aguinaldo was brought back to his homeland by the American military to foster an anti-Spaniard guerrilla war.

Disappointed in the change of masters, Aguinaldo declared a Philippine Republic and began another insurgency, this time aimed at resisting the American military. There were two phases to the Philippine-American War. The first phase – from February to November of 1899 – was dominated by Aguinaldo's ill-fated attempts to fight a conventional war against the better-trained and equipped American troops. The second phase was marked by the Filipinos' shift to guerrilla-style warfare. It began in November of 1899, lasted into the spring of 1902, by which time most organized Filipino resistance had dissipated.

The United States entered the conflict with undeniable military advantages that included a trained fighting force, a steady supply of military equipment, and control of the archipelago's waterways. Meanwhile, the Filipino forces were hampered by their inability to gain any kind of outside support for their cause, chronic shortages of weapons and ammunition, and complications produced by the Philippines' geographic complexity. Under these conditions, Aguinaldo's attempt to fight a conventional war in the first few months of the conflict proved to be a fatal mistake; the Filipino army suffered severe losses in men and material before switching to the guerrilla tactics that might have been more effective if employed from the beginning of the conflict.

Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964) First President of Philippine Republic and leader of the insurrection; Photograph ca. 1898, author unknown
Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964)
First President of Philippine Republic and leader of the insurrection
Photograph ca. 1898, author unknown

The war was brutal on both sides. U.S. forces at times burned villages, implemented civilian re-concentration policies, and employed torture on suspected guerrillas, while Filipino fighters also tortured captured soldiers and terrorized civilians who cooperated with American forces. Many civilians died during the conflict as a result of the fighting, cholera and malaria epidemics, and food shortages caused by several agricultural catastrophes.

Prelude to the Battle

In the summer of 1901 Brigadier General Robert P. Hughes, who commanded the Department of the Visayas and was responsible for Samar, instigated an aggressive policy of food deprivation and property destruction on the island. The objective was to force the end of Filipino resistance. Part of his strategy was to close three key ports on the southern coast: Basey, Guiuan, and Balangiga.

Samar was a major centre for the production of Manila hemp, the trade of which was financing Filipino forces on the island. At the same time United States interests were eager to secure control of the hemp trade, which was a vital material both for the United States Navy and American agro-industries such as cotton.

Map of Philippine Islands, showing island of Samar [Balangiga is in southernmost part of Samar]
Map of Philippine Islands, showing island of Samar
[Balangiga is in southernmost part of Samar]

On August 11, 1901, Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment arrived in Balangiga—the third largest town on the southern coast of Samar island—to close its port and prevent supplies reaching Filipino forces in the interior. At that time those forces were under the command of General Vincente Lukban. Relations between the soldiers and the townspeople were amicable for the first month of the American presence in the town; indeed it was marked by extensive fraternization between the two parties. This took the form of tuba (palm wine) drinking among the soldiers and male villagers, baseball games and Philippine martial arts demonstrations.

Gen. Vincente Lukban (Photograph courtesy of http://balaisbalangigaon.blogspot.com)
Gen. Vincente Lukban
(Photograph courtesy of http://balaisbalangigaon.blogspot.com)

However, tensions rose due to several reasons. First, Captain Thomas Connell, commanding officer of the American unit in Balangiga, ordered the town cleaned up in preparation for a visit by the U.S. Army's inspector-general. However, in complying with his directive, the townspeople inadvertently cut down vegetation with food value, in violation of Lukban's policies regarding food security. As a consequence, on September 18, 1901, around 400 guerrillas sent by Lukban appeared in the vicinity of Balangiga. They were to mete out sanctions upon the town officials and local residents for violating Lukban's orders regarding food security and for fraternizing with the Americans. The threat was probably defused by Captain Eugenio Daza, a member of Lukban's staff, and the parish priest, Father Donato Guimbaolibot.

A few days later, Connell had the town's male residents rounded up and detained for the purpose of hastening his clean-up operations. Around 80 men were kept in two Sibley tents overnight without any food. In addition, Connell had the men's bolos (knives) and the stored rice for their tables confiscated. These events would have sufficiently insulted and angered the townspeople; and without the sympathy of Lukban's guerrillas, the civilians were left to their own devices to plan their course of action against the Americans.

A few days before the attack, Valeriano Abanador (the town's police chief) and insurrectionist Captain Daza met to plan the attack on the American unit. To address the problem of sufficient manpower to offset the Americans' advantage in firepower, Abanador and Daza disguised the congregation of men as a work force aimed at preparing the town for a local fiesta to celebrate the founding of the local parish, which also served to address Connell's preparations for his superior's visit. Much tuba was brought in to ensure that the American soldiers would be drunk the day after the fiesta.

Hours before the attack, women and children were sent away to safety. To mask the disappearance of the women from the dawn service in the church, 34 men from a nearby town were brought into Balangiga disguised as women worshippers. These "women," carrying small coffins, were challenged by Sergeant Scharer of the sentry post about the town plaza near the church. Opening one of the coffins with his bayonet, he saw the body of a dead child, whom he was told was a victim of a cholera epidemic. Abashed, he let the women pass on. Unbeknownst to the sentries, the other coffins hid the bolos and other weapons of the attackers. The American garrison was unaware of the townspeople's plans.

Examples of Filipino bolo knives
Examples of Filipino bolo knives

Balangiga Massacre

On the morning of September 28, 1901, between 6:20 and 6:45 am, the villagers made their move. Abanador, who had been supervising the prisoners' communal labor in the town plaza, grabbed the rifle of Private Adolph Gamlin, one of the American sentries and stunned him with a blow to the head. This act served as the signal for the rest of the communal laborers in the plaza to rush the other sentries and soldiers of Company C, who were mostly having breakfast in the mess tent. Abanador then gave a shout, signaling the other Filipino men to the attack and fired Gamlin's rifle at the mess tent, hitting one of the soldiers. The pealing of the church bells and the sounds from conch shells being blown followed seconds later. Some of the Company C troopers were attacked and hacked to death before they could grab their rifles; the few who survived the initial onslaught fought almost bare-handed, using kitchen utensils, steak knives, and chairs. One private used a baseball bat to fend off his attackers before being overwhelmed.

Filipinos disguised as women leave; Balangiga church to attack U.S. soldiers (Photograph courtesy of http://balaisbalangigaon.blogspot.com)
Filipinos disguised as women leave
Balangiga church to attack U.S. soldiers
(Photograph courtesy of http://balaisbalangigaon.blogspot.com)

The Filipino men detained in the Sibley tents broke out and made their way to the municipal hall. Simultaneously, the attackers hidden in the church broke through to the convent and killed the officers there. An unarmed Company C soldier was ignored, as was Captain Connell's Filipino houseboy. The attackers initially occupied the convent and the municipal hall; however, the attack at the mess tents and the barracks failed, with Pvt. Gamlin recovering consciousness and managing to secure another rifle, causing considerable casualties among the Filipinos. With the initial surprise wearing off and the attack degrading, Abanador called for the attackers to break off and retreat. The surviving Company C soldiers, led by Sergeant Frank Betron, escaped by sea to Basey and Tanauan, Leyte.

The villagers captured about 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition and suffered 28 dead and 22 wounded. They buried their dead in a mass grave and abandoned the town.

Of the 74 men in Company C, 36 were killed, including all its commissioned officers: Captain Thomas W. Connell, First Lieutenant Edward A. Bumpus and Major Richard S. Griswold. Twenty-two were wounded and four were missing. Eight later died of wounds received in combat; only four escaped unscathed.

American Retaliation: "Howling Wilderness"

The next day, Captain Edwin Victor Bookmiller, the commander in Basey, sailed with Company G, 9th Infantry Regiment for Balangiga aboard a commandeered coastal steamer, the SS Pittsburgh. Finding the town abandoned, they buried the American dead and set fire to the town. Coming at a time when it was believed Filipino resistance to American rule had collapsed, the Balangiga attack had a powerful impact on Americans living in Manila. Men started to wear sidearms openly and Helen Herron Taft, wife of Governor-General (and future U.S. president) William Howard Taft, was so distraught she required evacuation to Hong Kong.

The Balangiga incident provoked shock in the US public as well, with newspapers equating the massacre to Custer's last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Major General Adna Chaffee, military governor of the Philippines, received orders from President Theodore Roosevelt to pacify Samar. To this end, Chaffee appointed Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith to Samar to accomplish the task.

Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith (1840-1918); Photograph taken at Tacloban, Philippines ca. 1901; Photo courtesy of the National Archives
Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith (1840-1918)
Photograph taken at Tacloban, Philippines ca. 1901
Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Smith was a veteran of the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War. He still had a Minie ball lodged in his hip from the Battle of Shiloh (1862), and another bullet in his body from being shot at the Battle of El Caney in Cuba (1898). He had recently been court-martialed and relieved of command, but was reappointed by Gov. Taft in the belief he was close to retirement age and would leave the service at the highest pay grade. However, his belief was erroneous, as Smith was still three years short of mandatory retirement age.

Gen. Smith began formulating his strategy. In a meeting with Major Littleton "Tony" Waller, commanding officer of a battalion of 315 U.S. Marines assigned to bolster his forces in Samar, Smith gave Waller instructions regarding the conduct of pacification.

"I want no prisoners," Smith told Waller. "I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States." When Maj. Waller asked for clarification, specifically how young a person considered capable of bearing arms should be, Smith bluntly replied, "Ten years."

'Kill Every One Over Ten – Gen. Jacob H. Smith' Editorial Cartoon from the New York Journal, dated May 5, 1902 [Note a vulture has replaced the usual American eagle perched on the shield]
"Kill Every One Over Ten – Gen. Jacob H. Smith"
Editorial Cartoon from the New York Journal, dated May 5, 1902
[Note a vulture has replaced the usual American eagle perched on the shield]

A sustained and widespread massacre of Filipino civilians followed. Food and trade to Samar were cut off, intended to starve the revolutionaries into submission. Smith's strategy on Samar involved widespread destruction to force the inhabitants to stop supporting the guerrillas and turn to the Americans from fear and starvation. He used his troops in sweeps of the interior in search for guerrilla bands and in attempts to capture Philippine General Lukban, but he did nothing to prevent contact between the guerrillas and the townspeople. American columns marched across the island, destroying homes and shooting people and draft animals. Marine Maj. Waller, in a report, stated that over one eleven-day period his men burned 255 dwellings, shot 13 water buffaloes and killed 39 people.


The exact number of Filipino civilians killed by US troops will never be known, but an exhaustive research made by a British writer in the 1990s put the figure at about 2,500; Filipino historians believe it to be around 50,000.

The Bells of Balangiga

Balangiga bells on display at Fort D.A. Russell, Wyoming ca. 1904-1927
Balangiga bells on display at Fort D.A. Russell, Wyoming ca. 1904-1927

The town of Balangiga was recaptured on September 29, 1901 by 55 men of Company G, 9th Infantry. That unit departed the town the same day, and was replaced by 132 men from Companies K and L of the 11th Infantry Regiment which garrisoned the town until relieved on October 18, 1901. When the garrisoning the 11th Infantry departed, they brought home three war trophies. These included two large bronze bells cast in the late 19th century and a much older cannon (later identified as an English falcon cast in 1557). The bells were taken because one or both had been used by the insurgents to signal the attack on Company C, 9th Infantry on September 28, 1901. The cannon had been taken from the plaza in front of the church because it looked like it might make a good war trophy.

The 11th Infantry was redeployed to Fort D.A. Russell in Wyoming, arriving on March 23, 1904. A local newspaper noted in a story dated May 16, 1905 that the two bells and the cannon had been placed near the post's main flagpole. Those bells are still on display, though Ft. Russell was transformed into Francis E Warren Air Force Base in 1949.

Recent photograph of the Balangiga bells at Warren AFB, Wyoming (Photograph courtesy of http://philippineamericanwar.webs.com)
Recent photograph of the Balangiga bells at Warren AFB, Wyoming
(Photograph courtesy of http://philippineamericanwar.webs.com)

A third Balangiga bell has a somewhat murkier story. The 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment maintains that the single bell in their possession was presented to the regiment by villagers when the unit left Balangiga on April 9, 1902. This bell is currently on display in the 2nd Infantry Division museum at Camp Red Cloud, in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

Third Balangiga bell on display at 2nd Infantry Division Museum, Camp Red Cloud, S. Korea (Photograph courtesy of http://balaisbalangigaon.blogspot.com)
Third Balangiga bell on display at
2nd Infantry Division Museum, Camp Red Cloud, S. Korea
(Photograph courtesy of http://balaisbalangigaon.blogspot.com)

Footnote #1: When American newspapermen learned of the devastation of Samar, the press in the U.S. raised a ruckus. The first victim was Maj. Waller, who was brought before an Army court-martial in March of 1902. During the course of his defense, Waller's attorney brought in Gen. Smith, who denied ever issuing his "howling wilderness" command. To corroborate Waller's contention, three officers present at Smith and Waller's initial meeting were brought in. Eventually, the Army court voted 11-2 to acquit Maj. Waller. Later the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General dismissed the entire case, on the grounds that a Marine officer was not subject to an Army court.

Footnote #2: In May of 1902, Gen. Smith was himself court-martialed. It was recommended that he be forcibly retired from the army. President Roosevelt accepted this judgment, and no additional punishment was meted out.

Footnote #3: Over the past 27 years, various attempts by the Philippine government, the local Catholic diocese which includes Balangiga, and members of the U.S. Congress have made attempts to return the three bells to the Philippines. To date, all attempts have come to naught.

Footnote #4: The American Legion, at its 94th National Convention, agreed to National Security Resolution #62, entitled, "Protection, Preservation and Retention of Federal and Military Monuments of the United States." The text of this resolution can be found here.

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I am confused. The Balangiga Massacre is the part wherein the Filipino men attacked the American soldiers who were having breakfast, right?

a Few days before the100th anniversary of the Balanggiga massacre, a newspaper article devoted to the event ended with " the reason for the massacre of the Americans remains a secret because the descendants of the Balanggigan attackers and the descendants of the American soldiers refuse to talk about it and chose to just forget about it, after all 100 years have past so they let bygones be bygones! When I read that, I immediately left Manila for Balanggiga to find out the truth because I had an inkling as to why the natives were so enraged with the Americans.
The company sent to Balanggiga came from Manchuria and were in Manila for what the Americans call R&R. While in Manila, they were free to go around the city and chose to go to Ermita's Red Light district and have some fun. Of course the women they met were prostitutes and the soldiers had their way with them. Thereafter, there was an outbreak of cholera in Balanggiga and the Company was sent there to control the disease. When the US soldiers arrived in Balanggiga, they molested the women, thinking perhaps that the women there were like the women of the red light district of Ermita, Manila. Of course, the Balanggiga men were enraged at the rape of their wives and daughters.The US soldiers therefore got what was coming to them. One US soldier was able to swim to Leyte and was taken care of by a fisherman who found him in the beach almost dead. When the soldier fully recovered, he sailed to Manila and reported to US authorities. The US general rewarded the fisherman, and then gave the "howling wilderness" order. The fisherman became rich with the reward given to him and became Speaker of the National Assembly (Norberto Romualdez.) There is a Balanggigan folksong that tells the story of the big fire which is still known to many of the Balanggigans todays. The song says in essence that "the fire was so big, one could not see the smoke. The fire went on for SEVEN YEARS." According to the old folks in Balanggiga today, most if not all are descendants of those killed by the Americans, the fire may not really have lasted 7 years. Maybe it was 7 month 0r 7 weeks, but be it 7 years or 7weeks, it sure was a howling wilderness. Again, "SO BIG WAS THE FIRE THAT ONE COULD NOT SEE THE SMOKE ANYMORE." For anyone interested to know more about the truth about Balanggiga, I suggest that the best way to research is to go there now and talk to the old folks. They know.

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