Johnson: Smuggler or Spy?
There is no mention in Johnson’s account of the 12 June signing of the Declaration of Independence but his presence was reported by a San Francisco Chronicle correspondent, reprinted in a Hawaii newspaper”
“Leading natives made patriotic speeches, the Insurgent flag was cheered and Aguinaldo’s only regimental band played martial music. The reading of the proclamation declaring the Philippines to be free from Spanish tyranny was greeted with wild cheering. The strange battle-cry of the rebels rang out above the din and the truest enthusiasm was general.
The last speech of the day was made by Colonel L. M. Johnson, Chief of Ordnance on the staff of Agulnaldo, who is an American. He first declined to make a speech, but was carried to the platform. He likened the cause of the Filipinos to that of the American colonies in 1776, and said their liberation was as certain. When his stirring sentences were interpreted to the pleased crowd the cheering was louder than ever.”
Johnson’s service to Aguinaldo would explain why he was given the honour of being a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. By the time Johnson wrote his account the relations between Aguinaldo and the Americans was collapsing. Then, in early December, Johnson hit the Hawaii press headlines again, for a different reason:
His loyalty to the US, which formally annexed Hawaii during the Spanish-American War, was in question, and he had more to lose than his liberty.
After August 13, business opportunities bloomed. Real Estate prices bottomed out, Spaniards and Insulares were happy to lease out their properties at rock bottom prices. Manila was full of American soldiers with few places to go for R&R. There were few saloons, only two on the Escolta, when the Americans entered Manila. By 1902 there would be 13 bars on Escolta and 800 throughout Manila. Two Americans, Thomas E. Evans and Walter Jackson. secured a lease on the Alhambra in August 1898 from a Senor Roca and set up a saloon and theatre.
Hispanic Manila had its equivalent of bar girls, called ballerinas, but where you get military personnel you get prostitution, and the more military personnel the more prostitution there is. Where there is a demand for food, booze and women, entrepreneurs will fill that need.
Military personnel found opportunities for business, from bars to ice plants. American Hawaiian residents did rather well, including Johnson:
He had expected things to change in the islands, and he was an entrepreneur. He was doing well. One report says he had business interests in Iloilo, not yet under American control.
There is no reason to assume that he expected America to colonise the Philippines. He was building ‘utang na loob’ with Aguinaldo and maximising his advantage.
Troopship China arrived in mid-July, apparently carrying friends of his from Hawaii. The Commercial Advertiser for 28 October 1898 carried the following report:
“Johnson in Clover
Further news from Manila confirms the ascendancy of L. M. Johnson. formerly of this city and now aide of Aguinaldo. In full regimentals be visited the troopship China when she was in Manila Bay and some of his old friends on board that vessel were quite astonished at his magnificence. He has acquired with his prosperity a blase air corresponding to his condition but is however most pleasant to all old acquaintances. He has already many interests in Manila outside of his high military position and bids fair to become one of that city’s American nabobs under the new regime.”
The Americans controlled Manila, Aguinaldo controlled everything outside its environs so the term ‘new regime’ is ambiguous.
Shortly afterwards came reports that Johnson had been arrested for involvement in smuggling arms into the Philippines through Batangas aboard a US-flagged ship, the SS Abbie. Reports say a CE Smith from Hawaii was on a cargo ship which entered the port of Batangas and spotted Krag-Jorgensen rifles in the hold of the SS Abbie. The arms supposedly included four machine guns and other arms valued at a whopping $3 million. Smith reported the matter to Otis and Johnson was arrested, detained in Manila and scheduled for court-martial for treason in January. Or was he?
That Johnson had necessary connections in Shanghai to smugglers is certain, and almost certainly to arms providers. It is possible that he was involved in smuggling arms to Philippine Republican forces. But was this smuggling? The US had given no indication that the archipelago would not be given back to Spain, as it was by the British at the end of the Seven Year War in the 1700s so Aguinaldo was preparing to continue to prosecute hostilities against the Spanish. Batangas was not yet American territory and it does appear that the arms were brought in quite openly, although they may have been illicitly smuggled out of their port of origin.
Upon landing the arms, Filipino troops were trained in their use. Since Johnson was then Aguinaldo’s chief of ordnance it would make sense that he would oversee the unloading, inspection, and training in the use of the arms.
CE Smith returned to Hawaii, where he denied that Johnson was in detention or that he had any involvement, blaming it on two army officers aboard the SS China. His denial, as the sole supposed witness, certainly made the chances of a court-martial very slim. Johnson’s friends commented that there was no doubt about his loyalty to the US.
Johnson resigned his commission with Aguinaldo probably in December. He says he did so because Aguinaldo started ‘talking ugly’ about the Americans, and presented himself to American authorities in Manila.
Johnson’s daughter, Marcella, told his grandson, David Auringer, that he had served under Arthur McArthur in the Philippines and became brigadier general. There is nothing to suggest the latter is true but McArthur was certainly in the Philippines at the time.She also said that he was involved in secret work, and there does seem to be some substance to that suggestion.
On 3 March, 1899, the Hawaiian Star published this report. Later that year, the same newspaper published this account by Johnson himself, sent from Iloilo.
“Letters were received here yesterday from L. M. Johnson. who is known to all older residents of Honolulu and all members of the National Guard. It will be remembered that he was chief on the staff of Aguinaldo, with the rank of Colonel during the Spanish war but resigned his post when the Filipino leader began to talk and act ugly. In submitting his resignation, commission and sword, Johnson informed Aguinaldo quite plainly that he would serve no people and no purpose at variance with the interests of the United States.
“The office paid him $2.0 a month and expenses. He left it and went into Manila with the American army as a plain citizen. Iiip advice later has been of inestimable value to United States arms. In the matter Johnson was placed in a most awkward position. on the one side was his own chief and his army; on the other was his country and his countrymen. The Hawaiian soldier did not hesitate long. At the risk of being assassinated, even his home at Manila or on the streets, he bade farewell to the Filipino army and linked his fortunes with the men of his own blood.
“In his letters, speaking of the new volunteer regiments enlisted from the State troops in the Philippines, Colonel Johnson says: ‘The idea of enlisting these men is a good one, as the government will secure the services of men who are seasoned to the climate and who have already seen a year’s service In the Philippines. Both of the commanding officers have seen the hardest of the fighting since February 4 and there is no doubt but that the two new regiments will give a good account of themselves when the campaign opens in November.”
It is fair to point out that Johnson was a self-promoter with his own agenda, and a need to present himself as a loyal American, and one should treat unverified parts of his accounts with some caution.
His claim that he was sent to Iloilo in advance of Miller’s expedition is certainly intriguing. The Spanish surrendered to Filipino forces on 23 December 1898, Miller was dispatched there on 25 December and arrived on the 29th. Iloilo was taken on 11 February with no casualties and little damage despite Filipino forces setting fire to the town. Foreign businessmen had appealed to Miller not to bombard the town, quite he had been given permission to do.
Did Johnson really play a role in that fairly peaceful occupation? Did he play other roles as a go-between? We cannot know until, or unless there is documentary confirmation.
Whatever the truth he certainly played a bigger role in the Philippines than the signing of the Philippine Declaration of independence, a role that may have been known to, but suppressed by, Taylor in his dismissive comments. That’s however, is speculation.
What happened next?
7. Johnson: Smuggler or Spy?