Those fallen in battle on either side of a conflict always have a story, and most of those stories are quickly lost and soon forgotten. One story worth remembering of a hero who understood and honored his enemy is that of Lt. Ernest H. Johnson, a Nebraska volunteer who, like many American adventurers at the turn of the century, joined the Philippine Constabulary and served in Moro Mindanao. Johnson and his comrades served during the time of Capt. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, when America was, perhaps ill-advisedly, attempting to do what Spain had failed utterly do in 300 years of occupation — pacify the Moros of southern Mindanao.
Kirk DeRoos describes the episode that would ultimately lead to Johnson’s death in his Lightning from the Skies: The US Army and the Moro Wars:
As the patrol slogged wearily forward through the tangled swamp, Johnson saw a dark-skinned figure in loose black trousers rise out of the “cogon” grass behind his men. He swung the muzzle of his weapon down on the stranger to be greeted by a straightforward look and a smile. Thinking that this was only one of the locals who helped carry supplies for the patrol, Johnson turned away. Suddenly he realized that the face was not familiar! He spun to turn back, but it was too late. The hurtling spear transfixed him, its three-foot blade plunging through his left arm, his chest, both lungs and his right arm. As he staggered, shots began to crack through the neck-high grass. Johnson’s junior officer pulled out the spear as Johnson continued to direct his men’s responses to the ambush. As the shots and screams sputtered out and the enemy vanished back into the jungle, Ernest H. Johnson lost consciousness.
Four months later, on April 11, 1914, an obituary appeared in Mindanao Herald (America’s colonial publication of the era):
Lieutenant Ernest Helmer Johnson, Philippine Constabulary, died at the MilitaryHospital at Zamboanga on April 34, 1914, after an illness of 110 days, during the most of which time he was fighting hard for his life.
On December 15, 1913, he was peared in the chest while encountering a band of outlaws on the Island of Basilan. While his wounds were severe they healed within a few weeks, but numerous complications of a severe nature arose….and on many occasions during his long illness he appeared to be near death’s door. He bore his afflictions with unusual fortitude, like the good soldier he always proved himself to be. He has had nearly three years of service in Mindanao and on several occasions distinguished himself by bravery in conflicts with outlaw bands.
Johnson was fighting Moro warriors at a time when the Americans were fighting “datus” whom the Americans considered outlaws, but who considered themselves to be Princes following the time honored traditions of their culture. What made Johnson unique was not his bravery, but his ability to imagine the mind of his antagonist. In a poem written about a Moro chief tried by an American judge for killing one of his own followers, Johnson wrote:
I slew a man. Ye say I broke the law;
That law the White Man built to rule the Brown. What of our laws?
The laws our fathers ruled Were just and right! The laws by which we lived A thousand years and never felt their lack!
What know ye of our law, Oh Lord: Think ye To break in ten short years the code that held For centuries before we saw thy face?
I slew a man. A man, ye say! I laugh.
A base-born slave who dared to lay his hand Upon my bride. And at my Katri’s cry, Like lightning from the clouds, I smote him down.