American Prologue

Basey, Island of Samar, Philippines

On the night of September 28, 1901, Captain Edwin Bookmiller made a last tour of the perimeter of the U.S. Army garrison in the town of Basey on the wild southern coast of Samar in the Philippines, speaking briefly to the sentries and ensuring that all was well before returning to his bunk where he slept fitfully through another hot, sticky night.

At 4:00 AM he was awakened from fitful sleep by an agitated guard who reported that minutes earlier he had spotted shadowy shapes on the sand bar in the bay and, upon challenging them, had discovered two boats containing  24 men from Company C, Ninth U.S. Infantry, which until that day had been occupying the next town down the coast, Balangiga, thirty-five miles to the east.

“How many men?”

“Twenty-four, sir.”

“Why are they here?”

“They were attacked sire.  They’re all that’s left of Company C.”

“Are the officers among them?”

“They say they’re all dead, sir.”

Bookmiller quickly assessed the situation, taking statements from several of the men in the boats, then telegraphed his superiors in Tanau-an, Leyte,  7 miles away, regimental Headquarters in Calbayog a hundred miles to the north:

24 men, 11 wounded  just arrived here from Balangiga. Remainder of Co. killed. Insgnts  secured all company supplies & all rifles except 36. Company were attacked during breakfast yesterday morning.

He then requisitioned a coastal steamer, the Pittsburg, which was dispatched from Tanauan to pick up Bookmiller and men from Basey to conduct rescue and recovery operations.

Waiting for the Pittsburg, Bookmiller learned more.

Of the 74 officers and men of Company C, only five had escaped wholly uninjured. Of the remaining 69,  twelve had relatively light wounds, nineteen were severely wounded,  more than forty were dead. 

What had happened?

How had this happened?

Why had it happened?

American troops had been occupying towns throughout the Philippines for three years since defeating Spain in the Spanish American war in 1898 — a conflict that had thrust America onto the world stage as an emerging superpower in the unexpected and unlikely role of colonial master of the Philippines.  Filipinos who had been fighting the Spanish for decades, and who had helped America defeat the Spanish, were caught by surprise by the purchase of the Philippines by America as part of the terms of Spanish surrender in December 1898.  Two months later war had broken out between America and its new colony, and now, three years later, most of the country was sullenly peaceful after a bloody guerrilla conflict that would foreshadow future American conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

But peace had not yet come to Samar, the second largest island in the archipelago, more than a hundred miles long and fifty miles across and consisting of coastal towns encircling an  interior consisting of rainforest and mountains.  That interior was virtually impenetrable — and it was here that that insurgents under the command of Vicente Lukban held sway.   American soldiers occupied the coastal towns, trying to choke off supplies to the insurgents in the interior, while the insurgents moved freely within the interior and received support from the coastal towns in spite of American efforts to isolate them.

But while contact with insurgents on jungle patrols was one thing, it was another matter altogether for townsfolk to rise up against the Americans.  The attack on Company C in Balangiga was unprecedented.

The Pittsburg finally arrived in Basey a few minutes before 9:00 AM, and as it was loading word came that a third boat with two of the missing men had turned up in Taunauan.  That left two boats and eight men unaccounted for. 

Halfway to Balangiga the Pittsburg they spotted a drifting native baloto and investigated, discovering that it contained two of the missing men, who were taken on board.   The two survivors confirmed that fifth missing boat and its occupants had been killed — and with that, the rescue operations were over and the mission became one of recovery and investigation.

Bookmiller sailed on, with the steamer chugging through the deep sapphire blue waters in the muggy tropical heat,  natives running along the shore ahead of them, the sound of conch horns raising the alarm.

As the steamer reached within 500 yards of Balangiga, Bookmiller gave orders to fire warning shots into the town.   Samarenos who were busy recovering their dead and collecting subsistence and other stores left behind by the Americans retreated into the surrounding jungle.

Going ashore, Bookmiller carried a clipboard and on it he carefully sketched his observations which he would later turn into a map.  He also assigned a survivor, Clifford Mumby,  to create a detailed map of every relevant location in the town that had played a role in the occupation and the attack.   Mumby’s map, which would later become a key exhibit in the American investigation of what happened, showed the layout of the town and what was found:

A large central plaza stretched east to west.  On the west end of the plaza was a two hundred year old stone church and attached convent with a river running north-south behind it.   Opposite the church on the east end of the plaza was the two story tribunal, or municipal hall.  The church and the municipal hall were the only two stone structures — otherwise the town consisted of one and two story family dwellings made of woven bamboo, called sawali by the Samarenos.  On the north, mountain side of the town dense jungle undergrowth encroached all the way to square — or had, at least, until recently when it had been cut back at least one house deep, as was standard procedure in occupied towns, but it still grew in profusion in and among the second row of houses off the square. 

Map of Balangiga, September 29, 1901, taken from the map created by Cpl. Mumby
Map of Balangiga, September 29, 1901, taken from the map created by Cpl. Mumby

Bookmiller went first to the convent attached to the church on the west perimeter.  This had  been used as the quarters for the Company’s three officers.  The bodies of all three officers were found in and around the convent — none had survived.

He then walked east to the opposite end of the square, to the tribunal building. In normal times this building had housed the office of the mayor and other town functionaries.  Since August 11th it had been occupied by the Americans and included a squad room on the second floor annex where forty-two men slept on cots, as well as an orderly room, a prison, a store-room for weapons, and a commissary.  In front of the tribunal was a drinking well, and on the northwest corner Bookmiller saw the remains of two conical Sibley tents, which the survivors told him had been used to house native prisoners. Bookmiller counted twenty-one dead Americans in and around the municipal hall.

Directly behind the municipal hall, facing the east end of the plaza, was the mess tent and kitchen of Company C.  The men of Company C had been at breakfast when they were attacked.  A dozen or more lay dead in the mess tent, some with spoonfuls of spam and eggs in their hands.

Bookmiller found two more locations with American dead.  The first of these was a house two dozen steps north of the mess tent  at the northeast corner of the square.  Survivors told him this was the “Betron Barracks”, so called because it was under the command of Sergeant Frank Betron.   They informed him it was also referred to as the  Salazar house, after the name of its owner, from whom it had been rented. 

Fifty yards to the west of the Betron Barracks along the north perimeter road beside the square was another house, owned by Belaez family, that had been occupied by the Americans and known as the Markley  Barracks.  Four men had died here.

So in all there were five main locations:  church, tribunal, mess tent, the Betron Barracks, and the Markley Barracks.  Bookmiller sketched their locations and took notes on what he saw, while Corporal Mumby did the same in greater detail. 

As the afternoon progressed, the men gathered together the bodies of the dead, and buried them in a long grave on the plaza in front of the church.  A total of 3 officers and 29 enlisted men were buried, each with a bottle beside the body containing name, rank, and serial number.

There had been mutilations. The hair of some of the dead had been  burned away and some had been stripped. The company dog had been beheaded and stones placed in its eyes. Three bodies —  Byron Dent, Joseph Gordon and Guy Dennis — were found dumped in the well in front of the municipal hall. In the kitchen, the bodies of Sergeant Martin and the company dog were found covered with flour.  The eyes of Lieutenant Edward Bumpus, second in command, had been gouged out and the sockets smeared with preserve  and toy flags inserted into the preserve.

The private parts of many of the dead were cut off.

Near sunset, having done what he could do and worried that the force of thirty men he had left behind in Basey could be vulnerable to attack, Captain Bookmiller ordered everyone back aboard the Pittsburg for the return trip to Basey.   

On board the the Pittsburg, Bookmiller worked on his report while Corporal Mumby hunched over a table in the mess and created a detailed map that would become the an essential tool to the understanding of the riddle of what had happened in Balangiga, and how.  He carefully labeled more than sixty relevant locations and created an index that would subsequently be used in the debriefings of the survivors as they explained their personal experience of the attack.

As darkness fell and the Pittsburg steamed west, word of what would become known as the “Balangiga Massacre”spread rapidly, first throughout the American contingent in the Philippines, and then flashed across the Pacific via telegraph where it was sensational news in the United States.  Newspaper headlines blared “Butchered With Bolos,” “Terrible Defeat at the Hands of the Filipinos,” and made repeated reference to the fact that the attack was the worst American military defeat since the Battle of Little Big Horn.

How had it happened?


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