It is 1901, the last full year of a war of independence fought by Filipinos against the United States, which had bought the territory from Spain in 1898 for $20 million at the end of the Spanish-American conflict. The sale came six months after Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence from Spain1.
For the Filipinos, the war was not going well. Aguinaldo had been captured and was under house arrest. Now only Batangas, where the Filipino General Miguel Malvar face the American General Franklin Bell, and Samar, where General Vicente Lukban faced Brigadier-General Robert P. Hughes, remained outside American control.
For Company C., 9th US Infantry, the dawn of September 28th, 1901, began much as the other forty-five sunrises they’d seen since arriving at the town of Balangiga on the southern coast of Samar in the Philippines. As the officers – a Captain, a First Lieutenant and a Major – slept soundly or read letters from home in the stone convento beside the church, six sergeants, eight corporals, two musicians, an artificer, 54 privates and a hospital corpsman rose, washed in night-chilled water and carbolic, relieved themselves of night waste at the latrines to the east of the kitchen and assembled in ranks in the town plaza.
Their every movement was watched from the tall grass and the underbrush around the town. Within the greenery some one hundred men waited for a signal, as did around three hundred others.
Heavy cloud made it too dark for Acting First Sergeant James Randles to read the Company role without the help of a bull’s-eye lamp: “Allen. Armani J, Armani L, Aydelotte…” Some of the men seemed unsteady on their feet, a few had participated in a fiesta to celebrate the founding of the Parish of Balangiga the previous day and were still under the weather thanks to the local brew, tuba.
Morning is a busy time for an infantry company and few of them gave much notice to what else was going on around them. Or, rather, what wasn’t going on around them. Other than some local townsmen in the Plaza apparently sleeping off the heavy tuba session of the night before, and the detritus of the fiesta, there was little happening.
There was none of the growing bustle of a town of 2,000 people coming to life. No cooking fire smoke filtered through the surrounding coconut palms. No fishermen mended their nets on the beach, or repaired or prepared their boats for the day’s catch. No children cried or played. No lolas or lolos grumbled about their aching aged bones or reminisced about the past. No vendors chattered as they set up their stalls in the market. No women laughed, giggled or swapped tsimis at the town wells.
No fresh eggs had been delivered, as they usually were, to the officer’s kitchen in the Convent.
Beneath the bustle of an infantry company getting its act together, the bark and snuffle ofof Company’s two adopted dogs sniffing appreciatively at the corned beef hash breakfast stirred by Cook Melvin Walls, lay a literally deadly silence.
In the church waited a little more than a hundred men, a third of them in the women’s clothes they’d used as a disguise when entering the building the previous night. As the sun moved resolutely above the trees, they checked the leather thongs, kulili, that bound sharp machete-like weapons, bolos, and knives to their wrists.
Some prayed quietly and perhaps kissed the paper triangles tied around their necks, anting-anting – makeshift equivalents of a St Christopher medal, a talisman for protection. Someone drew a rudimentary image of St. Michael in charcoal on the church wall and scrawled ‘Salve mi’ beneath it, others prayed the rosary.
For a moment, suppressed laughter broke the tension as the Samarenos embarrassed their lone Tagalog companion as he struggled to fit inside his wife’s dress.
Tall, gaunt and dour-faced Balangiga police chief Valeriano Abanador and his sixteen-man police unit marshalled the able-bodied men of the town towards Company C.’s mess tent, blocking the road just behind the municipal hall. There, silently, they would stand in line beside a pile of round-ended work bolos. Usually they grumbled about the working day to come, working through the heat of the mid-day sun, working under the baleful gaze of Company C’s Krag-Jorgensen rifles. This morning they did not grumble.
As Company C made its way to the mess tents and squeezed themselves into the uncomfortable trestle benches and tables, a group of women moved across the plaza carrying palm-wrapped handfuls of rice, fish and sticky-sweet rice tubes called suman. Over some of their shoulders were tall bamboo tubes that normally carried water. This morning the tubes were a little heavier, even though they contained no water.
The women moved toward two conical Sibley tents outside the municipal hall. Inside the tents, quietly murmuring, were some eighty-four Filipino men in a space for less then half that number. The men no longer complained about not being able to lay down to sleep in these canvas cells. Nor did they complain about the lack of matting or bedding to protect them from the damp earth.
They no longer asked when they would be released, for this morning they knew the answer.
Meanwhile, outside the town, in Barrio Amenlara, mothers, daughters, children and the old folk waited tensely. Each wondered whether they would see their husbands, sons, grandsons, lovers, alive again.
At the Company C. mess tent the soldiers swapped tales from the letters they’d finally received the night before, letters that had taken months to reach them. They talked about the death of President William McKinley, finally proven true after days of rumour. They talked about going home, about the women who waited for them.
A message reached the men in the church – get ready. Those dressed as women gathered up bamboo water tubes and bundles of coconuts and moved to the door between the church and the second storey of the convent, the officers’ quarters, as women had done each morning for the past six weeks.
At the Municipal Hall, Private Adolph Gamlin grabbed his rifle and dutifully began another two hours-on-two-hours-off duty, walking a line from beside the mess tent in the road east of the municipal hall, past the sergeants’ mess on the north of the plaza, to the convento and back again.
Gamlin’s comrades took little notice of him, but eyes around the plaza watched his every step, and every move of Police Chief Valeriano Abanador who now lounged against a tent post, exchanging pleasantries in a mixture of Spanish, the local Binisaya and newly minted English, with the sergeants at their mess tent.
Smoothly, as Gamlin passed him, Abanador excused himself from the sergeants, took a couple of steps, grabbed the barrel of Gamlin’s rifle and brought the rifle butt hard down on the private’s head.
And hell came to Balangiga.
1The first shot of the Philippine War of Independence, also known as the Philippine-Americann War, was fired on 4 February 1899 by Private Willy Grayson of the Nebraska Volunteers at a Philippine Army patrol he believed was in the American sector. No-one was killed or injured on either side in that encounter. Shooting began from the American side while the Filipinos held their fire. Despite appeals from Aguinaldo, General Elwell Otis declined to cease fire.