Sunday, October 28, 2007

Balangiga Massacre and the Bells of Freedom

In the morning of Saturday, September 28, 1901, hundreds of native fighters mostly armed with bolos staged a successful surprise attack on soldiers of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, who were mostly eating breakfast in the garrisoned town of Balangiga, at the southern coast of Samar Island in the Philippines.

The natives plotted to resist forced starvation on a famine season due to the destruction or confiscation of their food stocks, to free about 80 male residents who had been rounded up for forced labor and detained for days in crowded conditions with little food and water, and to fight for honor after having been publicly shamed and provoked by these two military impositions.

The event, known in history as the Balangiga Massacre, was described by the US military as its "worst single defeat" in the Philippines and among the worst defeats in its entire history.
The Filipino victory in Balangiga was followed by a shameful episode that the US government has not yet regretted nor apologized for. American military authorities retaliated with a "kill and burn" policy to take back Samar, deliberately equating a victorious small town with an entire island, from October 1901 to January 1902.

The Balangiga Massacre is popularly associated with three church bells of varying sizes, all taken as "war trophies" and brought to the US. The smallest bell is on permanent display at the traveling museum of the 9th US Infantry, now stationed in Korea. The two bigger bells are displayed at the Trophy Park at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The return of these bells to the Philippines remains the last issue of contention between the US and Philippine governments related to the Philippine-American War.

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.

The text of the marker was written in Tagalog. The nearest English translation is as follows:


In this town, on the 28th of September 1901, Filipinos armed with bolos attacked Company "C", Ninth Infantry of U.S. They killed almost all the American soldiers. In revenge the Americans launched a six-month "kill-and-burn" [campaign]. The town became like a "howling wilderness."Because of their cruelty, Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smithand Major Littleton W.T. Waller were tried by court martial and cashiered.

In 1993 the National Historical Institute installed a historical marker in front of the Balangiga church. The nearest English translation of the Tagalog inscription is as follows:

Built out of stone inside a fortified patio with four turrets by the Jesuit priests inthe 17th century under the patronageof San Lorenzo. Rebuilt by Fr.Cristobal Miralles, 1653. Extension church (visita) ofGuiuan, 1773. Repaired by Fr. ManuelValverde, 1850. Became a town, April3, 1854; parish, September 27, 1859. Here, the revolutionists gatheredto await the ringing of the bell as signal tostart the strike (pag-aaklas) in Balangigaagainst the Americans, September28, 1901. Rebuilt, 1927 ; repairedand beautified, 1962-1993.


At Balangiga, on October 23, 1901, Brigadier General Jacob Smith ordered a battalion of 300 U.S. Marines, under the command of then Major Littleton W. Waller, to make Samar "a howling wilderness".
" I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, and the more you kill and burn the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States," declared Smith. He set the minimum age limit at ten.

For the next five months, the 6th Separate Brigade killed and burned, fighting several major skirmishes against guerilla bands led by Brig. General Vicente Lukban. The U.S. soldiers also systematically burned villages in the interior, destroying food, slaughtering work animals and killing many of the civilian inhabitants. Samar's population dropped from 312,192 to 257,715. Major Waller's campaign of blood ended with the unwarranted execution of 11 Filipinos, whom he accused of treachery.

This action was the result of was what was to be known as the Balangiga Massacre. The massacre shocked the U.S. public and many newspaper editors noted that it was the worst disaster suffered by the U.S. Army since Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn. Some editors criticized Gen. Arthur MacArthur for hoodwinking the public that the war in the Philippines was over. MacArthur, however pointed out that he had never made that claim. On the contrary, he warned Adna R. Chafee that trouble was brewing in Samar. The Balangiga Massacre infuriated Chafee who assured the press that "the situation calls for shot, shells and bayonets as the natives are not to be trusted."Chafee informed his officers that it was his intention "to give the Filipinos 'bayonet rule' for years to come."

President Roosevelt ordered Chafee to adopt "in no unmistakable terms," the "most stern measures to pacify Samar."

The Balangiga Massacre and the corresponding reprisal was only part of the many years of struggle, heroism and betrayal. History records the Filipinos' constant and bloody fight for freedom. History also exposes the machinations and treachery of the colonial "masters" of the period as money changed hands and the United States paid the "defeated"Spaniards $20 million for the Philippines. A purchase that would disprove itself a bargain, for the U.S. would spend over $200 million in trying to suppress and pacify the islands. In one year alone, the U.S. would have more hostile contacts with Filipino guerillas and suffer as many casualties as it had during the Indian wars from 1865 to 1890.

Shortly after the defeat of the Spaniards - long before the presence of American garrisons throughout the Philippine Islands - Brig. General Vicente Lukban was sent by General Emilio Aguinaldo to Camarines Sur, Lukban's home province. Later he would move to Catbalogan, provincial capital of Samar, where he arrived with 100 riflemen to organize resistance against the American invaders. Aguinaldo had previously given orders, after experiencing defeat in frontal resistance against American advances, to engage exclusively in guerilla warfare. As a result, American casualties doubled.

Gov. William Howard Taft created the Philippine constabulary, composed of nine companies of armed Filipinos with U.S. officers. He believed that a Filipino constabulary would be more effective in countering guerillas than the U.S. Army. Taft's position was seriously undercut when a company of U.S. troops at the village of Balangiga in Samar was massacred.

During the early hours of September 27, 1901, a Filipino force under the command of General Lukban launched a surprise attack on Company C of the 9th Infantry, stationed at the small barrio of Balangiga. Lukban achieved a stunning and dramatic victory.

Prior to this date, there were several incidents that were already shaping up the events of this bloody day. Early in the month of September, Lt. Wallace of the 9th infantry led a platoon up the Gandara Valley to provide security for the local farmers engaged in harvesting rice. In the darkness of morning while most of the soldiers were still asleep, a mob of screaming, bolo-wielding rebels fell upon them. The platoon fought bravely and managed to kill twenty of the attackers with their Krag rifles but ten American soldiers were killed and six more were severely wounded.

This raid, however, was unknown to the isolated garrison at Balangiga. News of President McKinley's death had also, at this time, not filtered through to Balangiga. finally on September 24th, the sad news of the president's death would reach the officers and would bear on their minds, distracting them from noticing developments that would culminate in one of the bloodiest ambushes against the U.S. Army.

On September 25, town presidente Abayan and police chief Sanchez, appeared in the orderly room where First Sergeant Randles, who was left in charge of running the company, was working on his morning report. The two officials presented themselves to the sergeant with their hats in hand and bowed to the officer-in-charge. They announced that it was now possible to bring in as many as eighty laborers from the surrounding countryside to work off unpaid taxes by cleaning up the plaza. The sergeant was elated at the news. His superior, Captain Connell, had always been interested in the sanitation needs of the town and had spoken favorably on several occasions of bringing in extra native laborers to get the job done. Sergeant Randles told the town officials to "Bring in as many as you can."

On September 26, Friday, forty husky laborers were brought in into Balangiga and the next day another forty more appeared. Sergeant Randles arranged for quarters for the outsiders.
On Captain Connell's return on Saturday, he found the place bustling with activity. After being informed by Randles of the arrival of the workers, the captain hurried to the local church to thank the padre for assisting in this project. The captain was certain that the priest had been instrumental in obtaining this labor force since it was the church that levied most of the taxes. This symbol of cooperation restored Connell's faith in the padre whom he had found lax in enforcing moral matters.

The captain could not find the priest at the church and the old sacristan could only shake his head and could give no idea as to the whereabouts of the priest. Annoyed, Captain Connell returned to the orderly room. Later in the afternoon, he would receive from Lieutenant Bumpus the first mail in months from Basey and with it the shocking news that President McKinley had been assassinated.

This sad news drove all thoughts of the missing priest from Connell's mind. He and two other officers sat in their quarters reading accounts of the assassination and discussing the details. Connell was the officer most upset by the assassination. His main concern was whether the "benevolent assimilation" policy of McKinley for the Filipinos would still be encouraged now that its originator and sponsor, McKinley, was dead. He was concerned for he viewed Theodore Roosevelt as a war hawk who made his reputation leading the Rough Riders in Cuba. The other officers listened as Connell's voice was tinged with contempt as he reported that a reliable source in Washington clearly stated that Roosevelt had lobbied in Congress trying to obtain the Medal of Honor for himself. Speaking as a professional soldier, Captain Connell said he was not impressed with the antics of volunteers no matter how widely publicized they were in the newspapers. He anticipated that Roosevelt will probably go back to the old bullet and bayonet policy.

Captain Connell ordered the flag to be lowered to half-staff in memory of the dead commander-in-chief and ordered all troops to report the next morning wearing black mourning bands. Sergeant Randles issued strips of black crepe to the men to sew on their left sleeves.

That evening the sentries on guard in the plaza area were surprised by the unusual number of women hurrying to the church. All were heavily clothed, which was unusual considering the weather, and many carried small coffins. Sergeant Charer, sergeant of the guard, suspicious of the activity, stopped one woman and pried open her coffin with a bayonet. Inside he found the body of a dead child.

"Cholera," declared the woman. "El Calenturon!"

The sergeant, taken aback at the sight of the dead child, nailed shut the coffin lid with the butt of his revolver and let the woman pass. He concluded that a cholera epidemic must be carrying off children in large numbers. He did not find it strange that news of such an epidemic had not reached the garrison. If the sergeant had further searched under the dead body, he would have found numerous sharp bolos hidden. All the coffins were loaded with them.

If the guards had disobeyed Captain Connell's orders against relationship with the native women, they might have discovered that the heavily clothed women were not women but muscular and fighting fit native men. But with Captain Connell's edict in mind against physical familiarity which could lead to a court-martial for rape, none of the guards dared to approach any of the women.

Lukban, aware of this edict, had taken advantage of the soldiers' hesitation by sending in his men disguised as women.

The soldiers walked their post unaware of the gathering storm. The officers sat up late supervising the captain's houseboy Francisco in sewing the mourning bands on their uniforms. There was no company tailor so the troops had to do their own sewing. At midnight, Captain Connell left them and went off to bed informing them that he may not get up in time for breakfast. The news of the assassination of his admired President had depressed him greatly.
The next morning most of the soldiers were awake early prior to the reveille busily reading the previous day's mail. Most had used up their monthly ration of candles and had to wait for the morning light to read their mail. Many of them walked along with their mess tins, reading letters or home town newspapers. None of the men going to breakfast were armed.

Sergeant George F. Markley stood by his squad hut and watched Pedro Sanchez, the native chief of police, line up the prisoners for work. Markley found the police chief sullen but admired his ability to control his prisoners with a mere look. Standing orders required that at least one guard remain with each squad hut and it was the sergeant's duty that morning until relieved by one of the other hut occupants. When he saw Private James L. Cain from his unit turn towards their hut, he shouted at the private to relieve him so that he could go to breakfast. Without waiting for Cain to arrive, Markley gathered his mess equipment and walked off towards Cain. Cain mentioned to the sergeant the unusual number of prisoners but Markley did not give it much though and hurried off to breakfast.

Markley passed First Sergeant Randle who was waiting to wash his mess kit in a metal barrel full of boiling water. This would be the last time Markley would see the first sergeant alive.
In Sergeant Betron's hut, police chief Sanchez, in an unusual show of sociability, walked over. Corporal Sylvester Burke, who spoke pidgin Spanish and Visayan, finished eating and went over to speak with Sanchez. They stood talking to each other in the shade of the nipa hut as Private Adolph Gamlin, the sentry of Post No. 2, approached from the direction of the mess tents. He walked stiffly erect, eyes front with his Krag on his shoulder as he passed Sanchez and Burke.
Ending his conversation with Burke, Sanchez turned and walked behind Gamlin. With practiced move, Sanchez grabbed Gamlin's rifle from off his shoulder and forcefully brought the butt down in a crushing blow to Gamlin's head. Then Sanchez fired the rifle, raised a signal and all hell broke loose.

The church bells carried the alarm and conch shells trumpeted the signal to attack. The church doors burst open and out streamed a mob of bolomen who had been waiting for the signal to attack. The native laborers working the plaza suddenly turned on the soldiers and began hacking at them with bolos, picks and shovels.

First Sergeant Randles was just about to wash his mess in the boiling water in the metal barrel. A native woodchopper in a nearby woodpile stepped up swiftly behind Randles and split the sergeant's skull with an axe. Randles pitched head first into the barrel. The native grabbed the sergeant's feet at the ankles and pushed him all the way in. Only the sergeant's wildly kicking legs protruded from the barrel.

Bugler Meyer was sitting at a table under the hut when he saw Sanchez attack the guard Gamlin. The police chief then turned and fired into the breakfast group hitting Private Donahue in the knee. The police chief then led a group of followers against the unarmed soldiers at the table, yelling and brandishing their bolos and clubs.

Hand-to-hand combat ensued as the soldiers clambered up the ladders to get at their rifles. Blood flowed in streams on the floor and dripped through the bamboo floor of the hut. Meyer had left his service pistol in a shelf behind his bunk and he fought his way towards it. Just he was about to reach it he received a crashing blow on the wrist with a club. As he tried to fend off other attacks with his other arm, he received additional cuts in his arms and body. Unable to reach his weapon, Meyer grabbed one of the attackers in a bear hug and both crashed to the floor. Holding on for dear life, Meyer felt that his life's end was near when he suddenly heard a shot beside him.

Corporal Burke who was wriggling about on the floor on his back, kicking wildly at Sanchez and another attacker, managed to find a revolver under a cot pillow. Grimly holding the big .45 in both hands he let loose several shots. Sanchez, shot squarely in the face, catapulted backwards. He shot another attacker who had his weapon raised. Another saw the revolver in the soldier's hands and fled through a window.

The soldiers in the mess tents were one of the first prime targets of the attack. The bolomen burst in screaming and slashing. A bolo made a swishing sound through the air and a chunking sound as it hit the back of Sergeant Martin's neck, which, severed from the body , plopped into his plate of hash. As the soldiers rose up and began fighting with chairs and kitchen utensils, the attackers outside cut the tent ropes, causing the tent to collapse and envelope the struggling men. The natives ran in from all directions to slash with bolos and axes at the forms struggling under the canvas.

Captain Connell was awake and sitting near a window reading his prayer book when the rebels burst into his room. Armed with a stool, he fought bravely for his life. Forced back by the sheer weight of numbers, he leapt from his window into the street and ran. He was soon overtaken and chopped down with bolos. Later in the day, the bolomen came back and chopped off his head and threw it into a fire.
Another rebel bit off his ring finger to get his West Point ring. The survivors of the attack, some 36 men, boarded five barotos at the beach and set off for Basey. The survivors did not reach Basey until early next morning. Forty-seven men of Company C were killed in the assault, 10 severely wounded, 12 slightly wounded and only 5 uninjured. Captain Edwin V. Bookmiller, commander of Company G of the 9th Infantry at Basey, boarded a gunboat with his company and steamed to the site of the massacre. There he found the that dead of Company C had been stripped and many were horribly mutilated.

It was after this incident that Waller issued his "kill and burn" directive. Chafee also instituted harsher policies in the other remaining guerilla stronghold, located in Batangas province in southern Luzon. On November 30, 1901, he sent his best field commander, Brig. Gen. Bell, to take command of the area, directing him to use whatever means necessary to end the rebellion in the area. Similar to Samar, the army burned villages and herded the population of Batangas into the major cities or concentration camps. Noncombatants were forced and restricted into designated zones, where they were ordered to remain as long as fighting continued. All areas outside the camps were labeled "dead zones"and the U.S. Army operated under minimal restraint and pursued the enemy relentlessly.
According to Glenn May, "Freed from most of the prohibitions under which they had earlier operated and pressed by Bell to get quick results, many officers and enlisted men appeared to feel that, as long as they were successful, their actions were likely to be condoned. " The water cure as well as other forms of torture were used extensively on captured Filipinos. Death rates soared in the province of Batangas as many civilians perished in the concentration camps. Glenn May estimates that 8,344 people died in Batangas in the short period of January to April 1902.

In a testimony before the U.S. Senate, William Howard Taft denied that U.S. rule in the Philippines was harsh and cruel. He acknowledged "that cruelties have been inflicted; that people have been shot when they ought to not have been; that there have been... individual instances... of torture.. all these things are true." but despite these occasional outrages, Taft asserted that the military and civilian officials did everything in their power to prevent atrocities.

The Filipinos had lost more against the Americans that they did against the Spaniards in the number killed and property lost. Such was the price they paid and would keep on paying in their struggle to be free.

Gregorio Aglipay, the only priest member of the Malolos Congress clearly summarized the Filipino's commitment to the struggle for freedom:

"We are born with the right to govern our person, our family, home and native town; we are born with the right to do freely what we please, provided that we do not usurp the right or liberty of others... Liberty is one of the most precious gifts with which God has favored us..."

Written by Reynaldo S. Galang
The Ordeal of Samar by Joseph L. Schott
Filipinos At War by Carlos Qui

Related links :

Please sign the Petition for The Return of the Bells of Balangiga at the below link :
We endorse the The Return of the Bells of Balangiga Petition to President Bush, United States Congress and the Helsinki Commission.

The Saintly Priest of Balangiga


  1. Reading this history rekindles our fervor hope of freedom that until now we still fight.Filipinos were brave and willing to do anything to win the freedom they long awaited.The question lies ahead. "Are we really free now?

  2. Very nice, Eme. And I agree with Cheryl. This story could help serve as rallying point for the quest for genuine liberty free of imperialist _ankees....