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Revisiting Balangiga

In 1901, the small town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar became famous overnight in America.

Describing the US debacle in Balangiga which transpired the previous day, The Salt Lake Herald in its issue of September 30, 1901 (September 29 in the Philippines} reported “Terrible Defeat at Hands of Filipinos”.

The Evening World described what happened at Balangiga as “the most overwhelming defeat encountered in the Orient”.

Other reports compared the US debacle at Balangiga to the annihilation of General George Armstrong Custer and his men by the unified tribes of American Indians at Little Big Horn.

About a month earlier, the US Commander in the Visayas moved troops to seal off three Samar key ports – namely, Basey, Balangiga and Guiuan. The objective was to force the end of Filipino resistance by cutting off their flow of supplies.

Company C of the 9th Infantry was assigned to guard Balangiga. The 11th Infantry took up position in Basey.

At around 6 oclock in the morning of September 28, as soldiers of Company C were about to have breakfast, the town folks, led by the chief of police Valeriano Abanador, attacked the Americans with boloes.

Earlier, men, dressed as women, pre-positioned themselves at the nearby church. They gained entry at the church by carrying coffins of children who died of cholera. Unknown to the Americans, the coffins also concealed bolos.

According to eyewitness accounts, the full-scale attack was signaled by the pealing of the Balangiga church bells and the blowing of conch shells.

Company C suffered 48 dead and scores were wounded. Only 4 survived unscathed. The survivors fled to Basey.

The Filipinos suffered 28 killed and 22 wounded but were able to capture 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition.

American retalation was swift. An American gunboat bombarded Balangiga the following day (September 29). Then, the 11th Infantry in Basey, guided by the American survivors of Balangiga, rushed to the town. They caught and executed 8 Filipinos on the spot at the town plaza. The 11th Infantry then put the church and the whole town of Balangiga to the torch.

The soldiers also took back as “war booty” 3 bells from Balangiga church as well as a 400-year-old British Falcon cannon. One bell, the smallest, is now kept at the 9th Infantry Regiment headquarters in Camp Red Cloud, South Korea.

The two other bells and the cannon are now at the 11th Infantry Regiment headquarters at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

What happened during the succeeding months may have been the pre-cursor of My Lai in South Vietnam decades later.

Gen. Jacob H. Smith ordered his men to reduce Samar to a “howling wilderness” and to kill all Filipino males capable of bearing arms, including children above 10 years old. Smith’s troops even went further by shooting all farm animals on sight.

American historians place the Filipino casualties at 2,500. Some historians place the death toll at 50,000. The latter figure, however, appears severely bloated because the 1904 census showed Balangiga’s population at a little less than 5,000. At no time between 1904 and the present did the town’s population exceed 21,000.

Regardless of the true casualty count, the brutality with which the retaliation was waged by the Americans was enough to raise an outcry in the United States.

Smith and his top officers were court martialed. But just like what happened to the perpetrators of the