The Sound of the Wilderness
by Bill F. Gabay
(This story was first published in the May 28-June 3, 2017 issue of the Romblon Sun titled Howling Wilderness)
Today, Balangiga is a beautiful, peaceful and quiet coastal town in Eastern Samar. It is near the Pacific Ocean hence it is frequently visited by typhoons. PAGASA weather forecasters even use the island of Samar as reference point when tracking typhoons but the people of Balangiga have gotten used to it and life goes on for them.
More than a hundred years ago, however, Balangiga became a "howling wilderness".
The American campaign in the Philippines was heading south and has reached Samar. One day, September 22, 1901, two drunken American soldiers tried to molest a Filipina girl selling 'tuba'. The girl shouted for help and her two brothers rushed to her rescue and mauled the two soldiers.
Upon learning of the incident, Capt. Thomas W. Connell, commander of Company "C" of the 9th Infantry Regiment and a graduate of West Point, ordered his him to round up and detain all male residents of Balangiga.
Not only that. Connell ordered that all bladed weapons of the Filipinos be confiscated and their food especially rice be destroyed or removed from their tables.
This angered the Filipinos. Deprived of food and their freedom of movement restricted right in their homeland, they just could not accept the shame and insult instigated by Connell. Consequently, they plotted revenge.
The morning of September 28, 1901, a Sunday, was just like an ordinary day. The residents of Balangiga, especially the women wore their best clothes and went to church to hear mass. The church bells began to be heard by the townspeople.
As it turned out later, the continous ringing of church bells was actually the signal the Filipino freedom fighters were waiting to stage a surprise attack against the American soldiers.
Numbering about 500 bolo-wielding men, some armed with sharpened tools, the Filipinos led by their local police chief, Valeriano Abanador, pretended going to church. The men, some dressed like women, raided the garrison of Company "C" early morning.
At that time, 74 officers and men of Company "C" were having breakfast and were totally taken by surprise.
Hand-to-hand combat fighting ensued between the Filipinos and the unsuspecting American soldiers with a few able to grab their Krag rifles.
When fighting stopped, 48 Americans were killed, including their company commander, Capt. Connell, who was stabbed to death. 28 Filipino villagers lost their lives.
News of the incident immediately reached the United States and spread like wildfire. The Houston Daily Post' s headline read 'Terrible Defeat At Hands Of The Filipinos'. Another newspaper had the title of its story 'Insurgents Nearly Annihilate Company of American Soldiers in Samar'. Another had its headline titled 'Butchered With Bolos '.
As a retaliatory action, Company "G", also of.the 9th Infantry stationed just a few miles away, entered Balangiga with machine guns and cannons. The Americans captured twenty villagers and brought them to town to be executed.
To quell the Samar uprising, the US military sent a special unit, the 6th Separate Brigade headed by Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith. Under him was a Marine battalion led by Maj. Little Town Waller.
Smith's infamous order to his men was brutal and savage: "I want no prisoners. I want you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn, the more you will please me. I want all persons, ten years and older killed, who are capable of bearing arms against the United States".
Smith's handwritten instructions were no less terrifying: "Samar must be made a howling wilderness".
More than 2,500 Filipinos were killed as a result of Smith's orders. Balangiga became a raging inferno as all its houses were razed to the ground.
For his message alone, Smith earned the nickname 'Howling Wilderness Smith' while Waller who carried out his instructions became known as 'The Butcher of Samar'.
The US forces took with them back to the United States the three bells of the Balangiga church as war souvenirs and were later put on display in Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming while the third one was brought to Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
On March 17, 1902, about six months after the Samar massacre, Maj. Waller was court-martialled for murder in violation of the Articles of War. Although he was acquitted on an 11-2 vote, his reputation continued that cost him the position of Marine Corps Commandant.
On April 1902, Gen. Smith was court-martialled with the charge "conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline". He was convicted and was forced to retire from military service.
(Note: The three bells of the Balangiga church have been returned to the Philippine government and are now back in Balangiga.)
Sources: Gen. Ramon Farolan's article that appeared in The Daily Inquirer; Prof. Rolando Borrinaga of UP; ANC of ABS-CBN; National Historical Institute