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The Bolomen of the Battle of Balangiga

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.

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The Battle of Balangiga, which took place in Samar on the 28th of September 1901 was often compared to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The said battle happened years earlier before the Philippine-American War, in 1876, between the US forces and the American Natives. The combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and the Arapaho tribes annihilated the companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. And its leader, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer perished in the battle.

The engagement dealt a devastating defeat to the American forces, and a national monument (Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument) was erected to honor the people who fought on both sides, from American soldiers to American Natives. Years later, the Philippine-American War broke, and the US forces again suffered another defeat. This time however to the hands of the Filipinos.

As was mentioned before, the place was in the town called Balangiga on Samar Island. In the morning of September 28, 1901, irregular Filipino forces ambushed the US 9th Infantry Division, resulting in 54 dead American soldiers. And they inflicted such a loss armed only with traditional Bolo knives.

How It Started

The soldiers of the US Army Company C.

The soldiers of the US Army Company C.

The relationship between Filipinos and Americans during the conflict was not always stormy. The Company C of the 9th US Infantry Regiment arrived in Balangiga on August 11, 1901, and they often drank and played baseball with the locals in the first months of their stay. The US forces were there to prevent the supplies from reaching the Philippine force headed by Vicente Lukban. But things went sour due to the actions of the commanding officer of the US forces in Balangiga, Captain Thomas W. Cowell. Upon his orders to clean the town for the visit of the US Army Inspector General, vegetations with food values were also cut down, angering Lukban due to what he perceived as violation of food security. He then sent 400 guerillas in the town’s vicinity to mete sanctions on the town’s people due to fraternizing with the American enemy. It took a parish priest Fr. Donato Guimbaolibot and a member of Lukban’s staff Captain Eugenio Daza to deescalate the tension.

Nevertheless, the townspeople lost the guerilla’s sympathy, but Connell is not through yet. To speed up the cleaning operation, he detained the town’s male residents, around eighty of them, though there are reports that the numbers are 143 men. They were kept overnight in tow tents unfed and forced to do labors.

There were also accounts that the forced labors were a retaliation by Cowell when two of his soldiers were mauled by two brothers who came to the aid of their sister. The drunken soldiers were molesting their sister, and the brothers fought back. But in the end upon Cowell’s orders, the detained men’s stored rice was destroyed, and their bolos confiscated, an action that insulted the townspeople.

Because of this, the people plotted against the Americans.

The problem here is that the people of Balangiga is on their own. They lost the sympathy of Lukban’s forces after the tension during the cleanup. What is more, they lacked fire power with only their blades as their weapon, but the town’s police chief, Valeriano Abanador devised a somewhat bold plan.

The Bolo

The Bolo knife, presented to the USS Beneica Commander, Lewis A. Kimberly.

The Bolo knife, presented to the USS Beneica Commander, Lewis A. Kimberly.

With their works in the fields, the bolo is the everyday carry knife of the townspeople. Being a part of their livelihood, this was another reason why the confiscation of their valued tool offended the townspeople. And during the raid, it will become their primary weapon.

A typical bolo profile has a blade the curves and widens at its tip. The shape helps with the chopping action, as it moves the center of gravity far forward. The knife is full tang, and the handle could be made from hardwood or horn.

Technically, due to its utilitarian nature, the bolo is classified as a knife despite of its long blade. In fact, a good-sized bolo knife has a blade length of 18 inches, the size of a short sword. And when a bladed implement approaches the length of a sword, it could be used as one.

The bolo Is capable of hard cutting, and it is a common knowledge that it could hack open a coconut. This made it an ideal improvised weapon for peasants and revolutionaries who had no access to firearms.

And there are also indications that the townspeople of Balangiga knew how to use their bolos in combat.

Record of Stick Fighting in Balangiga

Filipino soldiers doing bolo drills with American servicemen.

Filipino soldiers doing bolo drills with American servicemen.

Going back to the earlier months of the American forces’ stay on Balangiga, part of the goodwill acts of the townspeople was the demonstration of their fighting style. It was reported that the townspeople exhibited their stick fighting in the town plaza, the local combat style known in many names, like Eskrima, or Arnis.

Though shown as stick oriented, the said martial arts is not limited to blunt weapons. Arnis could exist in different names in the Philippines, and its origins is still up for debate. Yet there is a chance that a combination of native fighting styles, martial arts from neighboring countries, and Spanish weapons system gave birth to Arnis. Arnis is more as a weapon system rather than just a stick fight, hence the townspeople could apply their Arnis skills on their bolos.

The Battle

The Church of Balangiga.

The Church of Balangiga.

Going back to the battle, Abanador first gathered his manpower. He disguised his recruits as workforce to prepare the town for the fiesta. More palm wines were brought in, to ensure that the American forces were drunk and less battle worthy. Before the attack, women and children were evacuated, and 34 of the combatants crossed dressed to mask their disappearance. Their blades concealed in what was said as coffins for children, though some accounts suggested wooden boxes for holy images.

And in the morning of September 28, around 6:20 AM, the villagers made their move.

Abanador was supervising the communal labor in the town plaza, when he grabbed the rifle of one of the sentries, Private Adolph Gamblin. It was said that he grabbed it from behind and stunned the Private with the blow to the head using the rifle butt. He turned the captures rifle to the mess tent, wounding a soldier before waving a rattan cane to announce the attack. The communal workers then stormed the sentries in the mess tent.

Again, there were sayings that the church bells of Balangiga helped announce the attack. But as Rear Admiral Dan Mckinnon said, it was a myth. Nevertheless, the men earlier detained in Sibley tents soon broke free and made their way to the municipal hall, their bolos smuggled to them in water containers. Other combatants secured the church convents, where they killed the American officers lodging there. In the communal tent, even before the Company C troopers could grab their rifles, they were hacked to death by the bolo wielding combatants. The soldiers tried defending themselves with common objects like kitchen utensils, almost fighting bare handed before being overwhelmed.

The combatants occupied the convent and the municipal hall with success, but the Americans gained the upper hand in the mess tent. Private Adolph Gamlin recovered from his brief concussion and secured another rifle. With a firearm at hand, he dealt massive casualties among the Filipino combatants. Several American soldiers escaped from the mess tents and barracks, they armed themselves and retook the captured municipal hall. Faced with superior fire power, the attacks by the Filipino combatants degraded and Abanador retreated with the surviving men. But the fear of the rebel’s return prompted the remaining Americans led by Sgt. Frank Betron to flee the town in native canoes. After burying the dead, the people left the town deserted.

The Aftermath

Gen. Jacob H. Smith

Gen. Jacob H. Smith

The American press described the battle as the worst defeat by the US Army since the Little Bighorn. The shock of such a loss from bolo welding rebels prompted American men living in Manila to carry sidearms. Major General Adna R. Chaffee, the military governor of the Philippines then received orders from President Theodore Roosevelt to pacify Samar. Assigned to the task was Jacob H. Smith, and Smith’s orders include the infamous kill order:

“I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me... The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness..”

— Gen. Jacob H. Smith

This earned him the nickname “Howling Wilderness Smith.” In his march in Samar, he resorted to ruthless tactics like food and trade cutoff to starve the rebels. To discourage the locals from supporting the guerillas, Smith used widespread destruction. His troops marched across the island, destroying homes, and killing people and animals which resulted to massive casualties. Or at least, as some accounts suggested. Some estimated a massive 50000 dead during Smith’s march across Samar, but other sources suggested a lower death count. And there are reports that a lot of Smith’s soldiers never followed his kill order. The Balangiga Bells, the church bells said to have announced the assault were taken as war booty.

Nevertheless, the atrocities prompted anti-imperialistic sentiments in the US, and Smith was later court martialed and forced to retire.

References

1. Dumindin, Arnaldo (n.d.). "Balangiga Massacre, September 28, 1901." filipinoamericanwar.com.

2. Valderrama, Michael R. (22 June 2013). "'The Bolo." Sun star.

3. Chua, Michael Charleston (16 November, 2018). "Before the bell returns; correcting the myths on the Balangiga massacre." ABS CBN news.

4. Zulueta, Lito (29 October, 2018). "Scapegoats of history: Myths about the bells of Balangiga" inquirer.lifestyle.net.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.