The Arrival of the Americans

Near dusk on the afternoon of August 10, 1901, an American warship, the Liscum, dropped anchor in the Balangiga harbor.  Word spread through the town like a bolt of lightning that the Americans had arrived.  It was the fiesta of St. Lawrence Martyr, so the town was filled with visitors,  and within minutes of the ship dropping anchor, crowds gathered at the harbor and watched as the sun set over the own.  They could see soldiers lining the deck of the ship, and a buzz of excitement went through the crowd.  But no one on board the ship made an effort to come ashore, and night fell.  Evidently the Americans intended to wait at least until morning before coming ashore.

Warm and humid, the morning came and with it came a buzz of excitement, some apprehension and a certain degree of relief.  The Americans had finally come.  The long wait was over.  For most, this would be the first time they had seen a European foreigner who was not a Spanish priest. 

What would these Americans be like?

Curiosity reigned.

It was Sunday, and many of the visitors who had attended the previous day’s fiesta had stayed over, and now they were arrayed in their Sunday best after attending Sunday morning mass. 

Among those gathered at the waterfront were the town’s principalia, who were gathered in a group that included Mayor Abayan, Police Chief Abanador, and Father Donato.  There was  vice-mayor Andronico Belaez, town cuadricillo Pedro Duran, Mariano Valdemor, and two leaders of the Salazar clan — Custodio and Juan.  Other leaders of the town were there.

There was no turning the Americans away — the question was, how to receive them, and what sort of hospitality to offer?  The discussions had actually begun the night before, and in those discussions, it had been decided to be treat the Americans in the traditional way, offering as much accommodation to their needs as possible as a sign of goodwill while still maintaining some degree of reserve.  Striking this balance would be largely the responsibility of Abayan, who as mayor would take the lead in interfacing with the Americans — but who would be acting in a way that had been thoroughly vetted by the the full leadership of the town.

From the shore, movement on board the ship was spotted.  Officers in bright blue uniforms could be seen addressing men who had assembled.

It was time.

Abayan then moved to the wharf and boarded father Donato’s baloto,  the largest available with a capacity of sixteen.  With him went Father Donato and Police Chief Abanador and the boatman.   The rest of the principalia, along with the general population of the town, waited at the docks.

They glided across the water of the harbor which was deep emerald near shore, and quickly turned to a cobalt blue as deep water was reached. Ten minutes later they were alongside the Liscum.   Abayan and Abanador eyed each other, then with the slightest of shrugs boarded the ironclad warship to meet the first Americans they had ever seen, under the intense, curious eyes of the 74 men of Company C, 9th US Infantry.

Lieutenant Edward Bumpus, second in command, watched as his commanding officer, Captain Thomas Connell, accepted the leaders of the town on board.  As he watched,  Bumpus, a Bostonian and Mayflower descendant,  was struck by how dignified the town contingent was. The mayor, Abayan, carried a silver topped cane that was quite finely wrought.  All three of the town officials were wearing more layers than seemed advisable in the heat — but the clothes themselves were finely woven and freshly cleaned.  He had been warned to expect savages, but outwardly at least,  the town leadership seemed to have as much dignity as the Manila elite — and that was considerable.    

This was not Bumpus’s first deployment. 

Like most of Company C, Bumpus had been deployed for more than two years, arriving in the Philippines in mid 1899.  He had seen months of violent action against Filipino insurgents in Cavite south of Manila, San Fernando and Tarlac north of Manila, and had then been  dispatched to China where he had participated in the harrowing battles of Tsientsin and Peking in the Boxer Rebellion, only to be returned to Manila in the spring of 1901 and now, finally, more than two years since sailing from San Francisco, to the distant island of Samar.  He and the rest of Company C — except for a few recent replacements added in Manila — were as savvy and battle hardened as could be.  Yet Bumpus, for all that he had seen, remained curious and generally respectful of the natives in his many letters home to his father.

Connell began to speak in English to the Samarenos before him.  A Spanish-speaking crew member was standing by ready to translate, but Abanador, the police chief, began translating and Connell silenced his own translator with a look and continued his presentation.

Connell was 26, the sturdily built son of Irish immigrants, a graduate of West Point.  He was a Catholic which, Bumpus thought, should be helpful in dealing with the priest and townsfolk.  It was a significant achievement that Connell had been accepted into West Point at a time when Catholics were a minority and not likely to be given any breaks in the selection process.  Bumpus gave him credit for that, just as he gave him credit for his courage, which had demonstrated in Cuba and in China, in battles in Tsientsin, Pictsang, Yangtuan and Peking. 

Speaking carefully and formally, Connell spoke in terms that Bumpus recognized had largely been extracted from the Benevolent Assimilation Proclamatioin which had governed US military rule in the Philippines since its inception.  Bumpus couldn’t tell if it was word for word taken from the proclamation – but it was certainly close.  He informed that Company C came “not as conquerors but as friends” and that the local government officials would be allowed to continue in their roles as long as they took an oath of supremacy of the United States, and did not undertake actions that were unacceptable to Connell.  Property ownership would be respected except in matters directly relating to security or illegal support for the rebels.  He informed them that the company would protect them from any insurgent threats, and then asked if there were any insurgents in the town.

“There are none,” Abayan assured him.

Abayan responded by informing Connell that he and his men were welcome, and that the townsfolk would extend every means available to make them comfortable.  Near the end of this, Abayan also slipped in, diplomatically and without the slightest hint of belligerence, that it was expected that Connell and his men would, as proper guests, adhere to the laws and standards of Balangiga.  Connell bristled at this, and started to object, but evidently thought better of it and simply nodded curtly.

Bumpus winced at Connell’s stiffness. 

The Captain was undoubtedly courageous and not without intellect, but as Bumpus had observed it, he was so uncompromisingly rigid in his manner of thinking and leading his men that, his Catholicism notwithstanding, he was likely to have difficulty dealing with this foreign culture. Connell’s rigidity had been on display constantly in the time Bumpus has been around him:  The Captain followed standard procedures no matter what the situation.

The men, like Bumpus, knew that Connell had displayed bravery in battle and respected him for that.  But they viewed him as a martinet who imposed sanctions for petty infractions to a degree that went beyond the norm.  He had a Puritan, priggish attitude towards sexuality and other perceived sins and this,  together with an insistence on imposing his own moral code on all others he came in contact with, seemed to define him more than any of his other characteristics.   

Now, as the Connell interacted with the Samarenos, it was difficult to tell how they were reacting to him.  He projected a certain kind of strength — the kind that was meant to put fear into the local leaders, not the kind that would inspire confidence or affection.  There was a brusqueness in his manner that straddled the line between honest, overbearing conviction and ill-considered arrogance.  Connell wasn’t unique by any means — Bumpus had seen the same from other American officers and government officials when dealing with Filipinos so this was nothing new. 

But the circumstances here were different.

They were 74 men in a town of 2,000 cut off from the nearest garrisons by a full day’s trip along the waters of the Leyte Gulf.

Did Connell understand that?

“We need billets for 74 men, three of which are officers.  We need storage facilities for our weapons, space for a commissary and mess tent, all within the central plaza area of the town.”

“We will need an hour to make arrangements,” Abayan replied.

“Very well.   We shall disembark at noon.”

Abayan, Abanador, and Father Donato returned to shore and announced to the assembled crowd that Balangiga would be receiving the Americans an hour hence,   and that townsfolk were encouraged to assist the Americans in transferring from the Liscum to the town.  Abayan then huddled with the principalia, explaining the needs of the Americans, and it was decided that the Salazars and Belaez families would each offer up a house on the square, while Abayan and Abanador would remove themselves from the municipal hall to other quarters on the Plaza and allow the Americans to occupy the building.   The convent would be given to the Americans as quarters for the officers.

The time of the Americans had arrived in Balangiga.

* * *

From on board the Liscum, the town of Balangiga looked tiny, dwarfed by the jungle covered hills that rose gradually behind it to the north and swept up into misty, cloud-covered mountains.  All the men had heard the stories of how impenetrable the interior of Samar was, and now that it was there in front of them, it seemed the stories had not been exaggerated.  There was without doubt an almost primeval, mysterious quality about this new setting in which they found themselves, and the men were excited but subdued, talking in low tones and awaiting the moment when yet another chapter would begin for them in their long exile away from home and the comfort of loved ones.

At noon,  boats were  alongside the transport ship and began ferrying Company C. and its supplies to shore, where the Americans waded through sparkling emerald green, clear  knee-deep water, offloading rations, and supplies.  In the town square, Bumpus and senior NCO Sergeant Frank Betron, with Police Chief Abanador acting as interpreter, managed the process of transferring the men and the materials into the town and the billets which the police chief proposed, and which the Americans accepted.

Like most pueblos, Balangiga was build around a central plaza.  The deep and swift Balangiga river ran north-south and formed the western perimeter of the town.  Moving from west to East from the river, there was the great stone church of Spanish construction, with a convento on its southern wall, attached by a hallway, facing the square.  Directly across the Plaza on the east side, facing the Church,  was the tribunal or municipal hall, a two story stone building with native thatch roofing which contained the mayor’s offices, police station, a small prison, and administrative offices.  The church and tribunal were the only two stone constructed buildings in the town — the rest were of native construction.  Dense matted jungle loomed to the north and east, and across the river to the west.  Vines and undergrowth encroached the town filling, filling the spaces between the houses — Bumpus couldn’t help but think that a regiment of bolomen could be hidden there within twenty yards of the square and it would be impossible to detect them.  This was vastly different, he realized, than Tarlac, where the Company had served on Luzon. There the town had been surrounded by open plains of sugar cane fields and agricultural lands.  This was an altogether different proposition.

The faces of the people were different too, he thought.  The townsfolk showed the same mix of native, Spanish, and Chinese influence that he was accustomed to, but while they were not unfriendly, there was an element of reserve that stopped short of hostility but was distinctly different than the amigo welcome that had characterized the overt reactions of the Tagalogs of Luzon.  The people, the Waray, were reputed to be of a far more warlike disposition, and his first impression suggested to him that the reputation was not without foundation.

The chief of police Abanador was a sinewy, dark-skinned man of greater than average height with a nut-brown complexion and a subdued, almost mournful mien.  He was businesslike as he suggested that the officers be billeted in two second floor rooms of the convento which offered a commanding view of the plaza and town, but was separated by several hundred yards from the tribunal.  Bumpus examined it and in the end the relative comforts of the building convinced him that it would do not only as officers quarters, but as a clinic, and that security concerns could be met by posting an adequate guard at all times. Abanador introduced Victoriano Dado, a sacristan, and suggested that he serve as a houseboy, which Bumpus provisionally accepted on behalf of Connell.

Across the plaza, the tribunal was taken over by the Americans as their main headquarters and barracks.  Forty-six men moved into the second floor of this building where there were two rooms, one on either side of a hallway reached by interior stairs. They used a room at the north end of the building as a storeroom for guns and ammunition.  At the  south end of the building they set up a sales commissary storeroom. At the back of the building a wide ladder led to a bamboo shack, an annex to the second floor.

Because the tribunal building could not house all the men, two of the more substantial houses of the principalia — the Salazar and Belaez homes — were offered, with the Americans paying what in Balangiga passed for a handsome price as rent.  The Belaez house was on the northeast corner of the square,and the Salazar home was one block east of the Salazar home.  Both were visible from the tribunal and within easy hailing distance.  Bumpus would have preferred to have all the men in the tribunal, but there were too many.  This would have to do.

The Salazar home on a corner of the street immediately behind and to the east of the Municipal Hall became quarters for Sergeant Frank Betron, who moved in with Corporal Sylvester Burke, Musician George Meyers, Privates Cornelius Donahue, William Gibbs, Anthony Stier along with the Hospital Corpsman Harry Wright, and others totaling fifteen men.  Wright immediately set up a clinic in a tent directly beside the Salazar house.

The Salazar house was situated on the northeast corner of the plaza.  One block west along the perimeter road beside the plaza was a home owned by the Belaez family. This became a second auxiliary barracks occupied by West Virginian Sergeant George Markley, Corporal Arnold Irish, Privates Harry Wood, Carl Swanson and Frank Voybada, who, with others, came to a total of nine men.

A kitchen was set up behind the municipal hall to the east, and beside the Salazar home, just north of the kitchen, a mess for non-commissioned officers was set up. The kitchen was built inside a part-finished nipa hut on stilts, with wall tents around to provide protection from the elements.

Guard posts were set up. 

Post one was at the convento on the west perimeter of the square.  Post 2 was one block to the east of the square,  patrolling the street behind the municipal hall from the mess tent to the north to the Salazar house, then west one block to the Belaez house then back. During the day, a guard stood at the door of the convent facing the plaza.  Post 3 patrolled the front of the municipal building and its interior stairway, and Post 4 patrolled the area north of the municipal building, controlling a triangle formed by the municipal building on the south, the Salazar house on the northeast, and the Belaez house on the northwest. Additionally, at night a sentinel was placed at the head of the stairs leading from the church to the second story, adding protection for the officers who were separated from the men by three hundred yards and isolated.

Later, when Company. C had acquired prisoners, yet another guard was set up over the Sibley tents used as prisons. At its peak, there were seven guard posts, plus one supernumerary supervising all of the guards.

Additionally, anyone going more than 100 yards from his barracks, or just going to the latrines, was required to be armed, and when swimming or bathing off the beach,  there was to be one armed guard for each man in the water.

By the end of the first day, Company C was largely moved in; barracks were set; guard posts were organized; and policies designed to maintain security were in place.

For most of the day Connell kept a low profile, observing but letting the men do their jobs, answering occasional questions but not inserting himself too deeply into the process.   His work in Manila and Beijing as adjutant had earned him accolades, as had his undeniable courage as displayed in Tsient-sien and Peking, and this command was his reward. 

This type of detached command gave him substantially more autonomy than was normally the case, when companies were deployed as part of battalion or larger sized units.  Balangiga and the jungles and mountains that surrounded it would be his domain, a laboratory in which, he hoped, he would be able to win the respect of the stubborn Samarenos and prove himself worthy not simply as a warrior, for indeed he had already done that, but as a teacher and leader able to bring the benefits of American culture and civilization to these people.

Connell was nothing if not a true believer in the notion that it was America’s destiny not just to rise as a power among nations, but to spread a transcendent gospel of its special virtues beyond its own borders. He believed with utter conviction that just as destiny had granted America a unique status among nations as a model of something new and good, so too had destiny placed America  in a position of stewardship over these islands and these people.   He had been inspired when, in February 1899 as he was preparing to deploy to Manila,  there appeared in McClure’s Magazine“The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands ” by Rudyard Kipling.   He agreed with the poem’s central premise that it was the burden of enlightened, civilized America to school these “new caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child” and  at least begin to transform them into civilized beneficiaries of American virtues.  The same destiny that had given America its opportunity, now had presented Connell himself with a chance to lead the people of this dark little corner of Samar to the light.

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