Escape

1

There were 74 Americans in Balangiga at 6:30 AM on the morning of September 28, 1901.  Twenty minutes later, only 5 were uninjured (Corporal Hickman, Privates Bertholf, Clark, Stier and Wingo), 12 were slightly wounded (Sergeants Betron and Markley, Corporal Burke, Cook Walls, Privates Allen, Considine, DeGraffenreid, Gibbs, Irish, Mumby, Quia, and Swanson); all others were killed or so severely wounded as to be practically helpless, and requiring medical attention. There were 19 severely wounded, of whom 10 finally recovered (Sergeant Closson, Corporal Pickett, Musician Meyers, Privates Claas, Keller, Manire, Ralston, Uhtof, Marak. and Gamlin).  The rest, a total of 45, died in the attack or as a result of wounds received.  It was, as the American newspapers would shout when the learned about it, the single largest defeat of American forces since Little Big Horn.

Around them, the Samarenos had suffered greater casualties.  A hundred lay dead and many others were injured.   

The Americans had suffered a mortal wound, but were back in physical control of the plaza.  The question was — could they hold it?

Should they even attempt to hold it?

The hospital Corpsmen were dead, there were 19 badly wounded plus twelve more who needed attention — a total of thirty-one in need of medical assistance and only five who had emerged unscathed from the conflict.

While the Americans were the master of the plaza at the moment, dozens of Krags and thousands of rounds of ammunition had been lost, and while  the attackers had not been able to figure out how to manage the magazine cutoff during chaos of battle, while regrouping they would surely achieve mastery of the weapons now in their hands.

The senior American among the survivors was Sergeant Frank Betron, who took command.  He called the survivors togeher at the municipal hall.  There were sporadic sounds of rifle fire but the Samarenos kept their distance.   Beside the flagpole, they discussed their options. They had three choices, hold the town and send for help — or evacuate to either Basey, 35 miles to the northwest, or Guiuan, a slightly greater distance to the southeast. 

They decided to evacuate to Basey, the nearest garrison.

As they were discussing the situation, there was a sudden sound from inside the municipal hall and a moment later Corporal Pickett staggered through the door.  He was clutching his stomach and grey.  “What is it Pickett?” asked Betron. Silently, Pickett cupped his hands and a mess of his intestines fell into them from a six-inch gash in his stomach. Pickett stuffed the entrails back in and sat down.

2

Betron issued orders to secure the boats that were currently at the river landing behind and south of the Church and place a guard over them.   He ordered Walls, the officers’ cook, to secure hard tack, water, and ammunition and bring it to the landing.  Others he ordered to systematically examine all of their fallen comrades for any signs of life.  The wounded were ordered to be brought to the boat landing behind the church.  Corporal Hickman and three others were dispatched to the riverbank to secure five boats to the north of the boat landing. while Swanson rushed to the Belaez house to get some paddles for the boats.

Company records were gathered by Betron, but in the confusion were lost.

Bodies of the dead and all of the injured were initially brought into the shade of a tree in front of the municipal hall.  Included among the bodies  was that of the company dog, beheaded.

The search for survivors found Bertholf working the north end of the municipal hall, where he heard a cry: “For God’s sake help me, Wal, I am dying.”  He found Shoemaker, with whom he had enlisted,  stabbed through the lungs and abdomen. Bertholf applied first aid as best he could, then carried Shoemaker to the wounded assembly point.

Returning to search for wounded, Bertholf found Wood.  He was badly injured and had lost much blood.   Bertholf picked him up and Wood said: “That’s all” and died.

Betron gave orders to disable or destroy any weapons they could not take with them. Irish and Allen took on the task of removing all bolts of rifles around the town and in the municipal hall, which they then threw into the bay.

Hickman reached down to remove a rifle from the body of Marak, only to be jolted when Marak’s apparently dead hand refused to let go of the weapon and held it in a vise-like grip. 

Marak, it turned out,  was alive. 

Hickman poured water into Marak’s face and nose and he came to ‘like a scared rabbit’ and vomited over Hickman.

Considine appeared and tied a tourniquet on Marak’s arm.

Arnold Irish left his rifle at the door and entered the municipal hall.  As he entered, a Samareno came out of nowhere and attacked him.  They struggled, and Irish remembered the knife in his boot. He pulled it and stabbed the attacker to death.

The men tried to set fire to the municipal hall with a five gallon can of coal oil. But it wouldn’t burn and the men came under fire, and thus in the urgency to depart, the effort to fire the building was abandoned.   As a result, 52 rifles and 26,000 rounds of ammunition — a huge, potentially game-changing arsenal — fell into the hands of the Samarenos. 

Arnold Irish went to the Belaez house where he had been quartered and collected his various items including a trumpet, a revolver, a rifle, and Sergeant Martin’s Chinese watch. With the help of Bertholf and Allen he also retrieved a case of whiskey that Bumpus had brought back the previous night on his return from Tacloban.  They then found a five-gallon can of coal oil which they took to the  church and convent and tried to set fire to it, but as with the municipal hall, the fire failed to materialize.

Markley organized stretcher parties to bring the wounded to the boats at the dock behind the Church. Once loaded with wounded, the boats then were staged to the beach at the river mouth a few hundred yards away where the other men boarded them. They were balotos with outriggers.

As the loading was going on, Betron ordered Markley and Swanson into a small boat and told them to proceed ahead to alert the garrison at Basey.  They left while the loading continued. 

As the loading was nearing completion, the men realized that the American flag was still flying in front of the now-abandoned municipal hall.

Claude Wingo led an expedition that returned to the municipal hall, hauled down the flag, and returned with it to the beach.

In the final minutes before the boats set off, Samarenos rushed the survivors.  Irish:  ”We lined up on the beach and gave them magazine fire and drove them back again.”

Finally, just before 8AM and only ninety minutes after the men had been comfortably enjoying breakfast and mail call, Company C abandoned Balangiga.

In all, a total of five boats — including the one that had departed an hour earlier with Markley and Swanson on board — left Balangiga and headed west for Basey, thirty-five miles distant.  Sergeant Betron took command of the  largest boat, which carried 18 men, including several who were so badly wounded that they had to lie down.  Corporal Hickman took command of a second boat which carried six men.  Bertholf took command of a third boat which carried nine, including Marak, Considine, and Francisco.   There was no room for Wingo and Powers, so they were placed in a small baloto that was tethered to the stern of Betron’s boat.

About a half mile out, as they rounded a point and headed west,  they were fired on by Samarenos on the shore and one man was killed. After that they stayed well offshore as the Samarenos continued following them along the shoreline.

For hours they continued, making slow headway.

At about noon, Ralston noticed Recard’s scalp hanging down over his face. Carefully, Ralston moved it back into place and covered it with a hat.

Moments later, Recard died.

By noon, a freshening wind brought up the sea and greatly reduced their already slow progress. As they left the cover of the bay around Capines Point the sea became even worse and Bertholf’s boat was swamped about a foot under.  Marak, in the boat with Bertholf: “About ten miles from Balangiga our boat swamped, and Shoemaker, Considine and Keller got into Sergeant Betron’s boat, and Driscoll got into Wingo’s boat, and as they could not take any more they told us they would pick us up as soon as they could send some out.  Keller, Shoemaker, and Driscoll were the worst wounded of us, and could not sit up or be of any assistance. I don’t know how Considine happened to go too. Our boat only sank a foot or so below the surface of the water, as the outriggers held it up.” The immersion in salt water added new agony to the men’s open wounds. The less injured managed to keep the heads of the worst of the wounded above water, but it was clear that something had to be done. They signalled frantically to the other boats, who worked their way back to Bertholf’s.

It was decided to transfer the most badly wounded to Betron’s boat. Ralston helped Shoemaker into Betron’s boat.  As he reached out and grabbed Shoemaker’s hand, his fingers slid into the bone-deep wounds on Shoemaker’s hand.  He shuddered inwardly but held on and pulled the uncomplaining Shoemaker on board.

Later, Betron’s boat suffered another casualty as Corporal Thomas Baird died. Along with the man killed by Samareno gunfire, this left the boat with two bodies. Ralston: “Someone spoke of throwing them  overboard to lighten our load, but when we put it to a vote not a man would say do it.”

Later in the day Betron, Walls and De Graffenreid were unable to continue paddling.  Ralston took over one of their places, and others came forward as well.  “But for the courage and fortitude of these three men, we would never have reached Basey,” said Ralston later.

3

In the rough waters the small boat with Wingo, Powers and Driscoll that was tied to the back of Betron’s boat also foundered.  Wingo shouted that the towline was pulling his bow under water: “I guess I will have a better chance paddling my own canoe.”  Closson was at the stern of the Betron boat as well: “Wingo… told me to cut his boat loose as ours was pulling his under and would swamp him. I untied it and cast him loose.”

The seas remained heavy, and the boats of Betron and Hickman moved slowly, making little headway.  Wingo’s boat dropped further and further behind.  After several hours  Clifford Mumby heard distress shots and saw Wingo’s boat in the distance foundering.  Meanwhile, a school of sharks followed the boats, evidently attracted by the copious amounts of blood from the wounded flowed into the water.

Meanwhile a small Samareno boat appeared following them and conch shells sounded along the shoreline where, every half mile or so, more boats would be launched and men armed with bolos and spears would track them.   When the pursuing boats came within range, shots were fired and the Samarenos backed off.  By sunset, the pursuing Filipinos gave up the chase.

4

Betron and Hickman’s boats continued on side by side.  By dusk, their fresh water was exhausted. With fresh coconut water tantalizingly close, they attempted to land at about 6pm, near Marabut, halfway to Basey.  But another attack and forced back out to sea.

All that remained available to drink was Bumpus’s whiskey.  Though of little value to the thirsty men, for the wounded it proved useful as a disinfectant and a crude anaesthetic .  Meyers:  “It helped save the wounded while on the water 24 hours.”

Some men tried to slake their thirst with seawater, “It made us worse, until there was not a man left who could talk,” said Irish.

The progress was desperately slow, so to lighten the load more rifles and a thousand rounds of ammunition were jettisoned, while two men in Betron’s boat used a coconut shell as a dipper to bail out the seeping water.

As the sunset, they sighted a steamer and hauled up an inverted flag, firing distress shots, but to no avail.  The steamer missed them and continued on.

By dark, they had reached today’s Marabut rocks, one of the few sandy shores along the coastline and again discussed landing and staying overnight, but the wounded were in too bad a shape and they continued on.   After rearranging some of the men among the boats, Betron and Hickman set off again in the darkness.

For eight additional hours they paddled in the darkness.  Through the night, many of the men became delirious.  Some lapsed in and out of consciousness. Those who were able paddled or bailed water. 

Finally, at around 3:30 AM,  they saw the gleam of moonlight on the corrugated iron roof of Basey cathedral.  Realizing they were almost there, the redoubled their efforts.

The boats became grounded on a sandbar at the shallow entrance to Basey.

Four men who were still able to do so climbed out of the boats and, exhausted,  started to drag them towards the shore.

A light suddenly fell on them, followed by a challenge from a sentry demanding to know who they were.

“Private Gamlin and what’s left of Company C.,” came Adolph Gamlin’s.

It was 4AM, September 29th, twenty-one hours after the attack.

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