The older I get, the more I know that I know less than I previously imagined. One thing I love about writing historical fiction, then, is the opportunity to research historical events and personalities that weren’t covered in any of my K-college history classes.
My new novel, Widowmaker, is set in the first decade of the 20th century, an era that, save for the Wright Brothers (their hometown paper refused to public accounts of their first powered flights, deeming them too short to be of importance) and Henry Ford (Ford’s 1908 Model T popularized the left-hand steering column), doesn’t usually rate more than a mention in textbooks. The Spanish-American war, maybe, but again, apart from Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, only a cursory mention and then it’s off to World War I and the Great Depression.
In researching the Nineteen-Oughts, I found parallels between events then and now. First is a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals. In both eras, a wealthy few used their money to bend laws and institutions for their personal benefit. Both eras also saw widespread public opposition to these plutocrats (primarily unions and Progressive politicians in the 1900s; current opposition is rather less-well defined). As well, there were controversial foreign wars (the Vietnam War [1965-1973], and the Philippine War [officially, 1898-1901], which quickly devolved from an effort to wrest the Philippines from Spanish control into a long counter-insurgency [1901-1913, at least] against Filipino forces who felt they’d been cheated out of their rightful independence). Racial animosities affected nearly every region of the country. And lastly, both eras witnessed rapid and disruptive technological changes.
The Philippine War is often footnoted under the Spanish-American War but it was far longer, costlier, and arguably had a greater lasting impact on the United States than did the campaign for Cuba.
Today, September 28, 2017, marks the 116th anniversary of the Balangiga Massacre (or Balangiga Uprising, depending on your perspective—more on that in a bit)—the 9-11 of its era and yet largely forgotten. Forgotten in the U.S., that is—I can’t speak for Filipinos but Balangiga figures far more prominently in their nation’s history books than it does in ours.
Most of that day’s events aren’t in dispute: while C Company, US 9th Infantry, were at their morning mess in the coastal village of Balangiga, a force of townspeople augmented by insurrectos (guerrillas operating from the island of Samar’s interior) attacked the 74-man U.S. garrison, killing 48—including all its officers—and wounding all but four. The attackers captured around 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition, and suffered 28 dead and 22 wounded. C Company’s survivors spent two days retreating by dugout and outrigger-type craft, rowing 50+ sea-miles toward an army base at Tacloban. Without food, water, or medicine and attacked at least twice more, several of the wounded died en route.
Speaking with a friend on active duty in the U.S. Military, he related his personal reaction to the loss of soldiers from his company in Iraq and the toll it took on him. The anger, guilt, and sadness—and the desire to retaliate—and all this in an era of relative openness and understanding. I can well imagine that apart from family, friends, and clergy (and presuming the veteran was willing to talk about what he’d witnessed), C Company’s Balangiga survivors would’ve had exactly none of the resources available to today’s PTSD-afflicted veterans (who by all accounts still aren’t getting all the help they need…). With nowhere to turn, most likely coped as best they could, though probably more than a few were, to put it mildly, a mess. Even among those who went on to lead productive lives, such as Pvt. Adolph Gamlin who became postmaster of the Nebraska City, NE, post office, waking nightmares continued to haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Widowmaker’s main character, Shepard Sunday, is one of those messes. I’ll admit it feels a little ghoulish, inserting a fictional character into such a fraught setting, damaging him, and then bringing him back to the States and turning him loose. Then again, that’s what historical fiction is. To quote my own disclaimer, Some of the historical persons, places, and events depicted herein have been re-imagined to serve a story, and with the exception of public figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental. That covers all manner of sins.
So why is Balangiga’s legacy so contentious? First and foremost is the ongoing nature of U.S./Philippine relations. Depending on the source, either we freed the Philippines from Spanish control, protected it from the Japanese during World War Two, and set it on a course for democracy—or else we broke it, sowing the seeds of political and social dysfunction that still fester today. Are we steadfast allies or frenemies? Depending on the day, probably both.
Second, there’s no denying the Philippine War was a profoundly racist conflict. U.S. leaders believed either Filipinos were incapable of self-governance or else our national needs overrode theirs and so ultimately it didn’t matter. With the era’s great powers carving out spheres of influence in Asia, the U.S. saw the Philippines as a useful staging area rich with natural resources (hemp in particular, crucial for making rope and other industrial uses). Spain’s 400-year control over the islands had diminished to a point that if we didn’t step in, so their logic went, surely the British, French, or Japanese would. We used Emilio Aguinaldo, first president of the Tejeros Republic, supporting him in exile against the Spaniards and discarding him once he returned to an “independent,” Spaniard-free Philippines to govern. Racist epithets toward Filipinos were also common, whether from troops in the field or William Howard Taft, the first American Governor-General of the Philippines (and later, the 27th U.S. President). Taft is widely credited with coining the phrase “our little brown brothers,” reporting to President McKinley—who would later use the phrase, himself—that “our little brown bothers would need fifty or one hundred years of close supervision to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.” 1 Nearly everything about the United States’ history (and good bits of the present, too) contains racist elements—voting, education, employment—and it’s no surprise our wars do, as well.
Third, there is a matter of church bells. That’s right: church bells. In the aftermath of the attack on C Company, U.S. forces returned to Balangiga to assess damage and recover what materiel they could. There wasn’t much left in terms of weapons and supplies, but they did take three bells from the town’s church (survivors’ accounts indicate that ringing bells were a signal to start the attack). One remains at the US 9th Infantry’s Camp Red Cloud in South Korea; two others are on display at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, WY. Some Philippine interests say the bells weren’t Filipino military property and therefore were illegally seized as war booty. The U.S. Army, backed by decades of political intransigence, believes otherwise, and so the bells remain in U.S. hands.
Fourth, Balangiga was the spark that set off a larger campaign to bring the island of Samar to heel—a campaign infamous for its brutality. If waterboarding regained notoriety during the Iraq War, it first entered the U.S. lexicon during the Philippine War and especially on Samar. U.S. forces, who’d learned the “water cure” from Filipino scouts (who in turn had learned it from the Spanish) employed this and other extra-judicial tactics to starve and terrify Samareños into submission. Brigadier General Jacob H. “Howling Mad” Smith set the tone for this campaign in his apocryphal orders to Major Littleton Waller:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me… The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness… 2
Additionally, he ordered Waller to kill not only those engaged in actual hostilities against U.S. forces but also against all persons judged capable of bearing arms. When Waller asked what age limit he should use as a guide, Smith replied that his order applied to anyone ten years or older. Although Waller countermanded these orders, over an eleven-day period his battalion nevertheless killed 39 people, burned 255 dwellings, and shot 13 carabaos (water buffalo, more or less). Thousands of more deaths would follow. American military historians’ take a uniformly dim view of Gen. Smith’s leadership during the campaign on Samar: “…the indiscriminate violence and punishment that U.S. Army and Marine forces under Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith are alleged to have unleashed on Samar have long stained the memory of the United States’ pacification of the Philippine Islands”.3 The stateside courts martial of U.S. officers implicated in war crimes on Samar captivated the American public and remain controversial to this day.
Fifth is the nature of the event itself: were C Company’s losses at Balangiga the result of a brave Filipino uprising or a deceitful sneak-attack? Depends on who you ask. Americans everywhere were thunderstruck, certainly; news accounts termed the event the U.S. Army’s worst defeat since George Armstrong Custer’s at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Many Filipinos, on the other hand, regard Balangiga the way Americans view George Washington’s pre-dawn attack on sleeping Hessian troops at Trenton, NJ, during the Revolutionary War. Both were successful surprise attacks launched against troops at rest, which, like it or not, is evidence of military pragmatism, not treachery. As well, Balangiga came after the U.S. public had been assured combat in the Philippines was over and that Filipinos were perfectly happy with their new situation. And again, racism is part of the answer as to why the U.S. public was so shocked: whether due to biased news accounts or from personal beliefs, most Americans couldn’t believe “brown” soldiers were mentally or physically capable of defeating well-armed white troops. The massacre at Balangiga was viewed not just as an accident of war, but as an affront to American exceptionalism.
Balangiga is a huge, rich topic and I have barely glossed over a fraction of it here. Regardless of your stance on the issue, possibly the best way to mark today’s anniversary is to pause a moment to remember the dead and consider how much better the world would be without the need to commemorate such events.
1 National Park Service, NPS.gov, Presidio of San Francisco, Retrieved 9-15-17, The Philippine War—Suppressing an Insurrection
2 Linn, Brian McAllister, The Philippine War 1899-1902, XXX, page 315 Smith’s most-infamous orders (many of his orders were similarly questionable) were relayed verbally to Waller, possibly distorted in subsequent accounts, and thus cannot be taken verbatim.
3 Wikipedia, Retrieved 9-06-17, Hendricks, Charles, Editor’s Journal, Army History Bulletin, PB 20-11-2 (No. 79), page 2