(Note: Our American education system leaves us in ignorance of the Philippine American war — a rather startling and sobering episode in our history that was a bloody outcome the Spanish American War and our government’s decision to take the Philippines as a spoil of that war. Rena’s hometown of Lawaan and the hearby municipality of Balangiga figured prominently in the single most dramatic episode of that war, and her ancestors were participants in that episode. So without further apology — here is a description of the Philippine-American War, and some broader thoughts on the Philippines as an American colony.)
by Michael D. Sellers
America Crushes the Spanish Fleet and Takes the Philippines as a Colony
When Commodore Dewey and the U.S. Navy Asiatic Fleet famously defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898, the stage was set for America’s expulsion of the Spanish from the Philippines. For years before the American arrival, European educated Filipino “insurrecto” leaders had been harassing the Spanish, and when Dewey sailed into Manila Bay he had already forged an alliance with the Filipino insurgents through their leader Emilio Aguinaldo, and the insurrectos stood side by side with the Americans against the Spanish throughout the siege of Manila, providing ground troops (which America lacked) and keeping the city surrounded on three sides. The siege ended with a mock battle secretly arranged between the Spanish and the Americans and carried out without Filipino participation in August 1898. The sham battle satisfied Spanish honor and brought hostilities to a close. The revolutionaries fully expected America to grant independence to the Philippines once the Spanish were defeated. But this was not to be. In December 1898, for a price of $20M paid to Spain and without so much as a consultation with the Philippine leaders, America took the Philippines as a colony. This imperialist grab did not sit well with the Filipino revolutionaries, and was the subject of great and impassioned debate in America, with great Americans including Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie vehemently opposed to the takeover. Twain wrote:
I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.
But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. We have also pledged the power of this country to maintain and protect the abominable system established in the Philippines by the Friars.
It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
During the debate about whether or not to take the Philippines as a colony, many pictures of Philippine aboriginal tribesmen like the one below to the right were published, feeding what ultimately turned out to be President William McKinley’s rationale for the acquisition — which was that the Filipinos were “not ready for independence”. Meanwhile the revolutionary leaders had all been educated in Spain or elsewhere in Europe and were, in the view of Admiral Dewey who had worked closely with them, “fully capable of self-governance”–and came from a culture that had nothing to do with the pictures that were used to depict Filipinos in the American media.
With American troops occupying Manila and not much else, tensions rose between the Americans and their erstwhile allies, and on February 4, 1899, barely two months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, shots were fired and the Philippine-American War was on. (If you’re an American who has no personal connections to the Philippines, chances are you never heard of the Philippine American War, and it is because our education system has decided to overlook this rather ugly little war that I’m going to linger on it just a bit here.) The Americans quickly came to realize that while it would be relatively easy to control Manila, controlling the rest of the 7,200 islands of the 1,000 mile long Philippine archipelago would be another matter.
Soon after the outbreak of hostilities the Philippine revolutionay leaders withdrew to nearby Malolos in Bulacan and formed the First Philippine Republic, replete with great and elegant (and educated) fanfare. (See photo to the left of the Malolos Congress.) After conventional attacks on the Americans failed miserably, the Filipinos quickly realized they could not win a conventional war against the Americans and in November 1899 the revolutionary leader (and President) Emilio Aguinaldo gave orders for the insurrectos to begin relying on guerilla warfare–ironically modeling their tactics on none other than George Washington, whose account of his guerilla campaign against the British was well understood by the leaders of the revolution–particulary so by Vicente Lukban, who became the leader of rebel forces on Samar, the island on which Lawaan is located. But it was more than just the tactics that they emulated — the Filipinos saw their task as essentially the same as that of the Americans in their own Revolutionary War, which was to hold on long enough and fight hard enough to break the political will of the larger and more powerful colonial master. The Americans easily controlled the main cities but in the countryside and on the distant islands, control was elusive.
On March 23, 1901, a small American group under Frederic Funston assisted by Philippine Scouts succeeded in using a remarkable ruse in which the Amerians posed as prisoners of their Philippine scouts to gain entry to the hideout of Aguinaldo, and the result was the sudden capture of the insurgents’ leader. The war was winding down — but the most violent events of the war were yet to come, and they would happen in Samar.
Lawaan and the Balangiga Massacre
By 1901 the Americans had secured most of the main island of Luzon, plus the main cities, and the war had evolved into sporadic guerilla engagements throughout various parts of the rural Philippines. Political pressure had built to the point in the U.S. that the American government “solved” the Philippine problem in a unique way — by declaring the war a success and installing, with great fanfare, a U.S. civilian government under governor General William Howard Taft (the same 300 pound Taft who would later become U.S. President) on July 4, 1901 in Manila, replacing the military government under Major General Arthur Macarthur (father of Douglas Macarthur of WWII fame.)
A major focus of the American occupation was to set up in key towns and attempt to curtail local villager support for the insurgents while encouraging their support for the American colonial government. While the conflict was “low intensity” as this term has come to be understood in recent times, it contained episodes of American violence against Filipinos that caused outrage among the anti-imperialists of the day, including the introduction of what was then called the “water cure”, and is essentially the same technique that is called “water-boarding” today. Ironically it is easier to find photos of US troops waterboarding in 1901, than it is in modern conflicts in the Middle East. The picture above is such a photo, taken in 1900 in the Philippines.
In 1901 Lawaan was a barrio of the larger town of Balangiga to the east, and on August 11, 1901, the 74 officers and men of Company C, 9th Infantry, US Army, fresh from fighting in the Boxer Rebellion in China, arrived and occupied the town of Balangiga. Company C was a crack, seasoned outfit–respected enough that they had been selected to be the honor guard at the installation of William Howard Taft as civilian Governor General of the Philippines on July 4 in Manila.
What happened over the next six weeks continues to be the subject of debate, with Philippine and American historians agreeing only on the basic outline of the story — which is this: There was an initial period of friendly fraternization, with activities that included tuba (native wine) drinking among the soldiers and native males, baseball games and arnis (stick fighting) demonstrations in the town plaza, and–according to local sources– even a romantic link between an American sergeant, Frank Betron, and a native woman church leader, Casiana “Geronima” Nacionales.
But several weeks into the occupation, tensions began to develop. The American commander, Captain Thomas W. Connell, developed what the Filipinos considered to be an unreasonable fixation on improving the hygiene throughout the town, and applied pressure on the Filipinos to improve sanitation through their leaders–pressure that was not appreciated by the townspeople. Then, according to Philippine accounts, on September 22, at a tuba store, two drunken American soldiers tried to molest the girl tending the store. The girl was rescued by her two brothers, who mauled the soldiers. In what the Filipinos took to be retaliation, Captain Connell rounded up 143 male residents for forced labor to clean up the town in preparation for an official visit by his superior officers. All 143 were detained overnight without food in the town plaza under two conical Sibley tents , each of which was designed to accomodate only 16 persons. In a gesture that highlights the contradictions and confusion about the episode, Connell released 78 of these men the next day due to age and infirmity, but continued to house 65 young men in hot and overcrowded tents that could realistically hold no more than 32. Next, Connell ordered the confiscation from their houses of all sharp bolos, and the confiscation and destruction of stored rice. Feeling aggrieved, the townspeople plotted to attack the U.S. Army garrison. Eugenio Daza, a schoolteacher, and Valeriano Abanador, the chief of police, led the planning for the attack in which all of the men from Balangiga and the surrounding barrios, including Lawaan, mounted an early morning surprise attack on the Americans on Sunday morning, September 28, 1901, while the soldiers were having breakfast. The Filipinos were armed only with bolo knives, while the Americans were armed with the latest Krag Jorgensen rifles — but the Filipino plan unfolded in such a way that most of the Americans never got to their rifles.
U.S. Army Troops in the Philippines armed with Krag Jorgensen Rifles
According to Philippine and American accounts (the latter of which are quite detailed due to subsequent court martial proceedings), 34 men of barrio Lawaan crossdressed as women to gain entry late Saturday night into the church of Balangiga. When the attack started early Sunday morning, the men of Lawaan raced into the adjacent convent where the US officers were quartered and killed them all. Meanwhile other attackers took on the Americans throughout the town, eventually killing 54 of the 74 men of Company C and causing the others to escape in hijacked native outrigger canoes to the nearest garrison in Basey, forty miles to the west. The event was picked up by the US newspapers, who called it “America’s worst defeat since Little Bighorn.”
Immediately after the battle the townspeople of Balangiga and the surrounding barrios, fearing retribution, evacuated into the jungle covered mountains that rise to the north of the coastline. Soon the Americans came back, under orders from Brigadier General Jacob Smith to “kill and burn, kill and burn” and to consider anyone “over the age of 10” to be an enemy combatant. What ensued was characterized as genocide by the International Red Cross, as American troops burned villages throughtout Samar and engaged in wholesale killing any inhabitants unfortunate enough to be caught. Ironically at least two Americans deserted and joined the insurgents, fighting against their former comrades. One was James Denton, who deserted in Balangiga and when captured, was found to have documentation commissioning him as a second lieutenant, signed by Vicente Lukban, the leader of the insurgancy on Samar.
New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902 depicting Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith’s infamous order “KILL EVERYONE OVER TEN”. The Old Glory draped an American shield on which a vulture replaced the bald eagle. The bottom caption exclaimed, “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.”
The Philippine occupation was the first war, historian Gail Buckley has pointed out, in which “American officers and troops were officially charged with what we would now call war crimes.” In 44 military trials, all of which ended in convictions, including that of General Jacob Smith, “sentences, almost invariably, were light.” The Baltimore American had to admit the U.S. occupation “aped” Spain’s cruelty and committed crimes “we went to war to banish.”
A dispute still exists over the exact true number of Samar natives killed by the American campaign of retribution. Exhaustive research by Bob Couttie, a British writer who is generally quite sympathetic to the Philippine perspective, put the figure at about 2,500; Filipino historians believe it was around 50,000. Figures as high as 200,000 have been claimed.
Over the two years after the Balangiga massacre the American grip on Samar grew stronger, with the main guerilla leader, Vicente Lukban, captured in Feburary 1902. By 1904 the situation had stabilized to the point that the townsfolk of Lawaan were able to return from the mountains and resume life in the the town.
AMERICAN COLONIAL RULE IN THE PHILIPPINES
With the declaration of civil rule, America effectively marginalized the Philippine war, branding remaining holdouts as bandits and pushing the conflict off the pages of U.S. Newspapers. Meanwhile America began attempting to fashion a Philippines ‘in our image’, shipping hundreds and eventually thousands of schoolteachers, civil servants, and military men to the Philippines. The first Governor General, William Howard Taft, returned to the U.S. and became President. Theodore Roosevelt, who had lobbied for the job as governor general in the Philippines but settled for being McKinley’s vice president, ascended to the Presidency with Mckinley’s assassination in 1901. (Ironically, Company C in Balangiga learned of McKinley’s assassination with the mail delivery on the eve of the Balangiga Massacre.) Uprisings continued from time to time throughout the country. In Samar, the “pulehani” uprisings against American rule continued until 1909, and in the far south in Mindanao, Moro rebels held out against the Americans under American General Black Jack Pershing through most of the first decade of the century. Recognizing the Philippines strategic location at the center of Asian shipping lanes, America developed its largest overseas Naval Base at Subic Bay, and expanded Clark Field into a mammoth Air Force facility. Filipino schoolchildren learned English from “Dick and Jane” readers that depicted a culture vastly different than their own; government buildings modeled on the U.S. government buildings in Washington were built; and over time, steps toward Philippine independence were undertaken.
Pictured Above: A Company of the Philippine Constabulary
America defined its colonial mission in the Philippines as one of tutelage, preparing the Filipinos for independence. During successive U.S. administrations, policy toward the Philippines fluctuated but institutions including a legislature, civil service were created, and the Philippine Constabulary (which was open to Americans as well as Filipinos) was created to deal with the remnants of the insurgency and gradually take over the responsibilities of the U.S. Army. A health care system was established and staffed with American medical personnel so that by 1930 the mortality rate from all causes was reduced to a level similar to the United States itself. Slavery, piracy and headhunting were all suppressed, but not extinguished. An educational system was established which, among other subjects, provided English as a lingua franca so that the islands’ 170 linguistic groups could communicate with one another and the outside world.
In distant Lawaan, the main impact of the American period was an influx of missionaries. Protestantism was introduced in 1928, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses Chapter was organized in 1949. In 1959 Lawaan became a municipality in its own right — no longer a barrio of Balangiga. And many other barrios that were previously attached to Balangiga–including Guinob-an, the seaside barrio where Rena would be born–became barrios attached to Lawaan.
WORLD WAR II AND THE LEYTE LANDINGS
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was already December 8 in the Philippines and in a coordinated attack, the U.S. Air Base at Clark Field was bombed and through a tragic series of miscommunications, the attack caught most of the planes on the ground and destroying them before they could get airborne. The Philippines was at that time still an American colony and a retired American General who had been born and raised in Manila — Douglast Macarthur–had been brought back in service to head USAFFE, the United States Army Forces in the Far East, a combined U.S. and Philippine army numbering 100,000 soldiers who were largely ill equipped and poorly trained at the time the war started. Some of what happened is the Philippines is well enough known to be part of World War II legend — how Macarthur declared Manila an ‘open city’ to avoid Japanes bombing and withdrew his troops to the nearby jungle peninsula of Bataan; how Macarthur himself holed up on the island of Corregidor at the entrance to Manila Bay (and just a few miles from Bataan); how the forces then held out against the Japanese for many months with Macarthur eventually being forced to escape by PT Boat, making his famous “I shall return” vow and then going on to Australia where he regrouped and organized an ongoing guerilla campaign that eventually saw him return in 1944 with the famous Leyte Landings–and from there sweep the Japanese out of the Philippines as the war entered its final act.
During the War, escaped Americans and Filipinos together formed a nationwide guerrilla force that resisted the Japanese occupation of the country, and gathered and disseminated intelligence that would prove vital to the retaking of the country by America. Guerillas in Eastern Samar including the mountainous jungles above Lawaan were responsible for much of the preparation that made possible the Leyte Landings in which MacArthur made good on his vow to return to the Philippines. The Samar guerillas included a mixture of Filipinos and Americans, and so it was that coming out of World War II, and in particular with the granting of Philippine independence shortly thereafter, attitudes towards Americans were generally favorable, and stayed that wayinto he 1970’s, when American support for the increasingly unpopular martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos led to the strengthening of a communist insurgency against the Marcos dictatorship — an insurgency that gained considerable traction in out-of-the way places in the Philippines like Lawaan and Guinob-an and would lead to trouble for the families in Lawaan.
General Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at Tacloban, and the Leyte Landing Memorial Today