The Balangiga Massacre: Getting Even

by Victor Nebrida
© 1997 by Victor Nebrida and PHGLA
All rights reserved

The Philippine-American War started on February 4, 1899 and was officially proclaimed by President Roosevelt to have ended on July 4, 1902. Although General Aguinaldo was captured on March 25, 1901, there followed no mass surrender of other Filipino revolutionary generals. Fighting went on in Batangas, Pampanga, Tarlac, the Ilocos, and the Visayas. In Samar, General Lukban's control had been set and was holding firm.

Kill everyone over ten.

"Kill every one over ten." - Gen. Jacob H. Smith
Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.
Editorial cartoon from the
New York Evening Journal, May 5, 1902.

Company C, Ninth U.S. Infantry sailed into Balangiga on August 11, 1901. Company C consisted of seventy-four veterans, most of whom had seen service not only in China but also in Cuba and Northern Luzon. It was led by Captain 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, eighty 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 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 September 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 seventy one 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.

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 in a gunboat. They quickly dispatched some bolomen on the shore with a gattling gun and executed twenty 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.

Inspection of the ruins. General Jake "Howling" Smith and his staff inspecting the ruins of Balangiga in October 1901, a few weeks after the retaliation by Captain Bookmiller and his troops.

The U.S. Army: Krags and Schoolbooks?

The American military was in the Philippines to quell an "insurrection," a rebellion by the native Filipinos opposing American occupation. They were not there to fight a people defending their homeland. This was the basic tenet taught to the American soldier sent to fight in the islands.

When hostilities started in 1899 and 3,000 Filipino corpses littered the streets of Manila, the Chicago Tribune, a journal close to the McKinley administration opined, "The slaughter at Manila was necessary, but not glorious. The entire American population justifies the conduct of its army at Manila because only by a crushing repulse of the Filipinos could our position be made secure. We are the trustees of civilization and peace throughout the islands."

American historian John Gates, in his book Schoolbooks and Krags: The United States Army in the Philippines, 1898-1902, proudly pointed out that American commanders did not rely on military operations alone to pacify the Filipinos. U.S. soldiers established schools, reorganized municipal governments, and improved sanitary conditions in an effort to convince Filipinos of American benevolence.

But Gates overstated his case. The U.S commanders' commitment and their subordinates' execution of such policies did not, after all, guarantee that Filipinos would swear allegiance. In the province of Batangas, for example, the schools established by the military authorities were poorly attended. In the late August 1900, seven months after American troops had occupied the province, the town of Lipa, with a population of approximately 40,000, had only three schools with an enrollment of 190 pupils. In Bauan, with a population close to Lipa's, exactly 100 children were enrolled in schools.

Nor would the establishment of municipal governments insure local support. By day, the officials of the municipal governments organized by the U.S. Army in Batangas enforced sanitary regulations and dutifully performed other tasks. By night, they cooperated with the local guerrillas in any way they could.

Moreover, Gates gave insufficient attention to the brutality of the U.S. military effort in the Philippines. U.S soldiers frequently burned entire barrios, beat up noncombatants, administered "water cure", and otherwise abused them. They committed major atrocities in Samar, Batangas, and other provinces. If American "benevolence" played a role in pacifying the Filipinos, it was, at best, a minor role.

Guerilla Warfare: Atrocities Increase

The American soldier was used to the classic battle mode of standing your ground and shooting, or charging the enemy and fighting hand-to-hand. His frustration and anger intensified when the Filipinos shifted to guerrilla warfare. Hearing a correspondent remark that "Filipinos are brave," General Wheaton thumped his table and roared: "Brave! Brave! Damn 'em, they won't stand up to be shot!"

On December 20, 1900, General Arthur MacArthur declared in an official proclamation that since guerrilla warfare was contrary to "the customs and usages of war," those engaged in it "divest themselves of the character of soldiers, and if captured are not entitled to the privileges of prisoners of war." Less self-disciplined men found in the proclamation authorization for identifying Filipino fighters as outlaws and dealing with them accordingly.

Arthur Minkler, of the Kansas Regiment, wrote in a letter back home, "We take no prisoners. At least the Twentieth Kansas do not."

The most damning evidence that the enemy wounded were being killed, or murdered, came from the official reports of Otis and his successor, General Arthur MacArthur, which claimed fifteen Filipinos killed for every one wounded. In the American Civil War, the ratio had been five wounded for every soldier killed, which is close to historical norm. Otis attempted to explain this anomaly by the superior marksmanship of rural southerners and westerners who had hunted all their lives.

MacArthur added a racial twist, asserting that Anglo-Saxons do not succumb to wounds as easily as do men of "inferior races."

Richard E. Welch, Jr., a professor of history at Lafayette College, wrote that the Filipinos' use of guerrilla tactics was the result of his inferior mind and his lowly race.

According to Welch, "the American soldier viewed his Filipino enemies with contempt because of their short stature and color. Contempt was also occasioned by the refusal of the Filipino 'to fight fair'- to stand his ground and be shot down like a man. When the Filipino adopted guerrilla tactics, it was because he was by his very nature half-savage and half-bandit. His practice of fighting with a bolo on one day and assuming the guise of a peaceful villager on the next proved his depravity."

One of the more insightful contemporary analyses of the response of the American soldier in the Philippines was that of H.L. Wells, a correspondent for New York Evening Post. He believed there had been no widespread outrageous acts committed by U.S. troops, but he had no doubt about their savage contempt for the enemy:

There is no question that our men do 'shoot niggers' somewhat in the sporting spirit, but that is because war and their environments have rubbed off the thin veneer of civilization… Undoubtedly, they do not regard the shooting of Filipinos just as they would the shooting of white troops. This is partly because they are "only niggers," and partly because they despise them for their treacherous servility… The soldiers feel they are fighting with savages, not with soldiers…
The accuracy of that analysis is substantiated by scores of letters that have been collected and filed in the archives of the U.S. Army Military History Research Collection at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Equally important is a pamphlet compiled by the Anti-Imperialist League published in 1899, entitled, Soldiers' Letters: Being Materials for the History of a War of Criminal Aggression, available in the Syracuse University Archives. Excerpts are available from a website on the Internet.

One cannot read them without being convinced that the contempt felt by the American soldier for the Filipino enemy made probable, if not inevitable, individual acts of brutality. For the most part, they were very young men, poorly educated and conditioned by the racism and provincialism of their upbringing. They were determined to prove their manhood by shooting "niggers."

Removed from the inhibitions of small-town America, they celebrated by burning barrios of nipa huts; stimulated with the instant authority granted by a uniform and a rifle, they saw short, brown civilians, "sometimes half naked," as inferior and less than human.

Richard Welch continues, "In many letters there is an eerie contrast between the writers' disregard for the slaughter of Filipino goo-goos and their concern for the health of their parents and friends. William Eggenberger described with boyish glee an incident in which he and a fellow private had terrorized the inhabitants of a nipa hut by sticking their bayonets through the side of the house. He then concluded his letter with the request: "Don't you and the old man work so hard all the time… hoping these lines will find you all in the best of health, a kiss for you all."

In the diaries of other soldiers are descriptions of the destruction of rice crops and the slaughter of domestic animals followed by homely accounts of kindness received from fellow troopers and surprise reunions with former neighbors from back home. Claude F. Line, a young private, described not only his love of home and family, but also his delight at terrifying two Filipino civilians. "They were the first goo-goos I ever saw turn white."

The newspaper Call polled veterans in the summer of 1900 as they passed through San Francisco about the war against the "asiatics." Its editor remarked, "ask the volunteers who stood the first brunt of the fighting in the Philippines if they want the Filipinos as fellow citizens, and their practically unanimous decision is against it."

Almost to a man these veterans despised the natives. There were exceptions, but sympathy for the Filipinos and their cause expressed early on in a soldier's tour gave way to contempt for the natives the longer he remained in the Philippines.

The Aftermath of the Balangiga Encounter

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 commanding officer of the Marines assigned to cleanup 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 ten 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. He gave his subordinates carte blanche authority in the application of General Order 100. (Abraham Lincolnís 1863 General Orders No. 100, in brief, authorized the shooting on sight of all persons not in uniform acting as soldiers and those committing, or seeking to commit, sabotage.)

General Smith's "grand strategy" on Samar involved the use of widespread destruction to force the inhabitants to cease 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 Lukban, but did nothing to prevent contact between the guerrilla and the townspeople. American columns marched all over the island destroying habitations and draft animals.

Major Waller, for example, reported that in an eleven-day span his men burned 255 dwellings, slaughtered 13 carabaos and killed 39 people. Other officers reported similar activity.

The orders issued by the general and his emotional statements at the beginning of the campaign had encouraged such unproductive acts. As the Judge Advocate General of the army observed, only the good sense and restraint of the majority of Smith's subordinates prevented a complete reign of terror in Samar. Still, the abuses were sufficient to cause outrage in the United States when they became known near the end of March 1902.

After receiving his orders from General Smith, Major Waller issued his own written orders with regards to his men's conduct, what they were to seize and destroy, and other matters of similar nature. Towards the end, he wrote, " We have also to avenge our late comrades in North China, the murdered men of the Ninth U.S. Infantry." This added more to the rage. The Chinese and the Filipinos were, it seems, of the same nature, and stock, and even ideology. There was no difference among "asiatics."

Waller was later accused of ordering the execution of eleven native guides because during a long march, they had found edible roots and had allegedly conspired to keep this knowledge from the famished American troops.


America soon got tired of the conflict. Because of public outcry, the Secretary of War investigated the reported atrocities and brought court martial proceedings against General Smith and Major Waller.

First to be tried was Major Waller for the execution of the eleven native guides. He was acquitted. His defense was that he was simply following orders, a defense that was not allowed when the U.S. Army tried enemies decades later in Nuremberg.

General Smith was then tried on the charge of conduct to prejudice of good order and military discipline and that he had given orders to Waller to take no prisoners and that the "interior of Samar be made a howling wilderness." He was convicted and sentenced to be admonished by a reviewing authority. He soon retired from active service.

One historian says he was disgraced. However, another says that he was a hero among the military. Soldiers lined the dock in San Francisco on August, 1902, to cheer General Smith as he came ashore from the Philippines. For the next few days, Smith granted interviews to fellow officers who came to pay tribute to their hero.

Smith's medical officer spoke to the press in San Francisco and said:

"It makes me sick to see what has been said about him (Smith). If people knew what a thieving, treacherous, worthless bunch of scoundrels those Filipinos are, they would think differently than they do now. You can't treat them the way you do civilized folks. I do not believe that there are half a dozen men in the U.S. army that don't think Smith is all right."
Virtually every member of America's high command in the Philippines had spent most of his career chasing Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, and Sioux. Some of them had taken part in the massacre at Wounded Knee. According to historian Stuart Creighton Miller, it was easy for these commanders to order similar tactics in the Philippines when faced with the frustrations of guerrilla warfare. Easy, because that warfare was waged against an enemy belonging to an inferior race. That, too, explains why today the Balangiga Massacre still means in American history books the killing of forty-eight Americans, not the killing of tens of thousands of Filipino civilians.

Further reading:

  1. Gates, John Morgan. Schoolbooks and Krags. The United States Army in the Philippines, 1898-1902. Westport, 1973.
  2. Lichauco, Marcial P. and Moorefield Storey. The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, 1898-1925. New York, 1926.
  3. May, Glenn A. "The Zones of Batangas," in Philippine Studies, XXIX (1981).
  4. May, Glenn A. "Why the United States Won the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902" in Pacific Historical Review, LII (Nov. 1983).
  5. Miller, Stuart Creighton. Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903. New Haven, 1982.
  6. Roth, Russell. Muddy Glory. Hanover, 1981.
  7. Schott, Joseph L. The Ordeal of Samar. Indianapolis, 1964.
  8. Stanley, Peter W. Reappraising An Empire: New Perspectives on Philippine American History. Cambridge, 1984.
  9. Welch, Richard E. " American Atrocities in the Philippines: The Indictment and the Response." in Pacific Historical Review, XLIII (May 1974).
  10. Wolff, Leon. Little Brown Brothers. Makati, 1960.
(An earlier version of this article was originally presented by the author to PHGLA on 11/11/95.)

To cite:
Nebrida, Victor. "The Balangiga Massacre: Getting Even" in Hector Santos, ed., Philippine Centennial Series; at US, 15 June 1997.

PHGLA Logo The Philippine History Group of Los Angeles invites you to send your comments to the author, Victor Nebrida, or the editor of this Philippine Centennial Series, Hector Santos.

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