The 1895 Balangiga bell in Korea. This artifact is presently displayed inside the main entrance of the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment, a new building at Camp Hovey in Tongduchon, South Korea.

The Balangiga Conflict:
Its Causes, Impact and Meaning

Prof. Rolando O. Borrinaga
School of Health Sciences
University of the Philippines
Palo, Leyte

(Popular readers’ version summarizing the doctoral dissertation titled “The Balangiga Conflict Revisited,” Leyte Normal University, Tacloban City, 2002. The research and writing of this dissertation received a grant from Prof. Tomoe Shitaba and his seminar students from the School of International Relations, Tokyo International University in Kawagoe, Saitama, Japan, through Peace Development Fund (PDF).)

In the morning of Saturday, September 28, 1901, hundreds of native fighters mostly armed with bolos staged a successful surprise attack on U.S. troops who were mostly eating or lining up for breakfast in their garrison in Balangiga town, at the southern coast of Samar Island.

The result was the "worst single defeat" of the U.S. Army in the Philippines, an event known in U.S. official reports and publications as the “Balangiga Massacre.”

The attack was the culmination of an entire episode that is properly labeled the “Balangiga Conflict.” It was a suspense-filled real life drama, a running conflict in beliefs and perceptions between two peoples from different races and cultures, with many related developments and cause-and-effect factors both within and outside the town.

The attacked troops

The ill-fated U.S. troops belonged to Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment, who were stationed in Balangiga to keep its small port closed and prevent any trading. Their mission was to deprive the Filipino revolutionary forces of supplies during the Philippine-American War, which had spread to the Visayas.

A glamour unit, Company C was assigned provost duty and guarded the captured President Emilio Aguinaldo upon their return to the Philippines in June 1901, after fighting Boxer rebels and helping capture Peking in China. They also performed as honor guard during the historic July 4, 1901 inauguration of the American civil government in the Philippines and the installation as first civil governor of William Howard Taft, later president of the U.S.

Company C, commanded by Captain Thomas W. Connell, a West Point graduate, arrived in Balangiga a few weeks later on August 11.

Peaceful coexistence

A state of friendly and peaceful coexistence with the local residents marked the first month of Company C’s presence in Balangiga. This period, covered up by a strange “code of silence” imposed afterwards on both sides of the conflict, was characterized by extensive fraternization between the U.S. soldiers and the local residents.

The friendly activities included tuba drinking among the soldiers and native males, baseball games and arnis (stick fighting) demonstrations in the town plaza, and even a romantic link between an American sergeant and a native woman church leader.

However, the peaceful coexistence was disturbed by external impositions before the month was over. An expected visit of the U.S. Army’s inspector-general prompted Capt. Connell to issue orders to clean up the town. But by heeding Connell’s orders, the townspeople had apparently cut down some vegetation with food value, and thus violated stern orders related to food security (punishable at first infraction) of General Vicente R. Lukban, the military-political governor of Samar appointed by Pres. Aguinaldo.

In the evening of September 18, 1901, about 400 guerrillas, presumably sent over from Lukban’s headquarters, appeared in the vicinity of Balangiga. Although their presence had been explained as part of an aborted attempt to attack the U.S. garrison in the town, it appears that they came around to mete sanctions on the Balangiga officials and local residents for violations of Lukban’s orders related to food security and for fraternizing with the Americans.

The guerrilla threat was probably defused by Captain Eugenio Daza, Lukban’s area commander for southeastern Samar who had blood relatives in Balangiga, and by Father Donato Guimbaolibot, the local parish priest.

But the conditions in Balangiga would never be the same again.

The Balangiga people’s revolt

The events in Balangiga around the time of the attack in 1901 remind us of recent “people power” phenomena in Metro Manila in 1986 and 2001, respectively.

The Balangiga people’s revolt was triggered by a tuba store incident in the afternoon of Sunday, September 22, 1901. Two drunken American soldiers tried to molest the girl tending the store. The girl shouted for help and was rescued by her two brothers, who mauled the soldiers.

In reflex reaction to the incident, Capt. Connell ordered his soldiers to round up and detain the town’s male residents for the purpose of hastening up his cleanup preparations for the expected visit of his superiors.

A total of 143 males were not fed overnight and detained under two conical Sibley tents in the town plaza, each of which could only accommodate 16 persons. About 78 of the detainees remained the next morning, after more than 60 others were released due to factors such as age (minors or elderly) and physical infirmity.

In addition to the forced detention of the male residents, Connell ordered the confiscation from their houses of all sharp bolos, the men’s treasured extensions of their anatomy in the rural setting, and the confiscation and destruction of the stored rice for their tables, the fundamental symbol of their dignity.

Any or all of these acts apparently caused the entire community to be sufficiently shamed and insulted by Connell’s arrogance and insensitivity. As a consequence, the Balangigans decided to fight for their sense of honor by plotting revenge and self-defense in the most public manner possible.

But because they had also been alienated from Lukban’s guerrillas, the Balangigans were left to their own devices and creativity to defend themselves.

The plot

The plot against Company C, which was strategized by Valeriano Abanador, the local chief of police, was woven around a local fiesta, the 42nd anniversary of the founding of the Balangiga parish on September 27, 1859.

The physical preparations for this fiesta, especially the cleanup of the town through communal labor, addressed both Connell’s preparations for his superiors’ visit and the tactical congregation of sufficient native manpower to stage the attack.

Abanador brought in two batches of “tax evaders” from the surrounding villages on September 26 and 27, 1901 to replace the 78 detained town residents, who were still required to report for the next day’s communal work.

To offset the superior fighting capacity of the U.S. soldiers, lots of tuba, the native wine, were brought in for the fiesta reception, enough to drown the entire company with drinks into the night.

Meanwhile, the natives sought divine help and intervention for the success of their plot through an afternoon procession and marathon evening novena prayers to their protector saints inside the church. They also ensured the safety of the women and children by having them leave the town after midnight, hours before the attack.

To mask the disappearance of the women from the dawn service inside the church, 34 attackers from Barrio Lawaan cross-dressed as women worshippers.

With the soldiers of Company C mostly drunk the night before and expected to suffer terrible hangover in the morning, the attack was all set around breakfast time.

The attackers

The attacking force, commanded by Valeriano Abanador, the local chief of police, comprised of around 500 men in seven different units. Only the members of two units, including the detained laborers, were visible around the town plaza.

The members of five other units hid behind thickets around the town, waiting for the church bell to signal the rush to attack.

The attackers represented virtually all families of Balangiga, whose outlying villages then included the present towns of Lawaan and Giporlos, and of Quinapundan, a town served by the priest in Balangiga.

For almost a century, the cited mastermind of the attack on Company C was Major (at the time Captain) Eugenio Daza, the former teacher who became the area commander for tax collection and food security in southeastern Samar under Lukban.

However, the preponderance of primary sources from both sides of the conflict suggests that the attack was essentially an all-Balangigan plot fashioned by Abanador, a Letran college dropout who played chess opposite Company C's surgeon, Major Richard Sill Griswold, and a tournament caliber arnis (stick fighting) master.

It was Major-General Adna R. Chaffee, the military governor for the “unpacified” areas of the Philippines including Samar, who singled out Daza as a mastermind of the Balangiga Attack. But this opinion was his alone; it was not shared by any of his field commanders in Samar.

Gen. Chaffee’s attempt to assign a more organized official enemy for Company C in Balangiga was demanded to uphold U.S. military honor and prestige. This also covered up the issue of military negligence and arrogance of Capt. Connell, and skirted the “indignity” of having to accept a U.S. combat loss due to the creativity and valor of the Balangigans, who were similarly beleaguered by their supposed guerrilla allies.

The Filipino attack

Abanador’s deft move to neutralize the moving armed guard, Pvt. Adolph Gamlin, by grabbing his rifle from behind and stunning him with its butt on the head, served as the cue for the communal laborers positioned in and around the town plaza to make the rush at the two other stationary armed guards and the unarmed men of Company C.

Abanador then yelled, “Atake, mga Balangigan-on! (Attack, men of Balangiga!),” and fired the rifle he had grabbed at a group of U.S. soldiers eating under one of the barracks, hitting one of them. He probably also picked up his famous cane afterwards and waved it above his head to coordinate the attack.

A church bell rang seconds later, to announce that the attack had begun. The ringing of the bell and the sounds from blown conch shells (budyong) alerted the attackers hidden in the forested areas around the town to rush to the town plaza and join the attack.

Fierce fighting ensued, resulting in one of the biggest number of American casualties in a single encounter.

Of the 74 men of Company C, 36 were killed during the attack (including the three commissioned officers), eight of the wounded died later during the escape by bancas to Basey town, and four were missing and presumed dead.

Of the 26 American survivors, only four were not wounded.

The natives suffered 28 deaths and 22 wounded.

The Filipino attack was a qualified success. It was repulsed by the seriously wounded Pvt. Gamlin, who was presumed killed in most accounts but actually survived Abanador’s attack. During the melee, Gamlin was able to grab another rifle and fired the critical initial shots that turned the attack around and forced Abanador to call for the retreat of the attackers.

“Howling wilderness”

Considered one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history, the Filipino victory in Balangiga was followed by a shameful episode that the U.S. government has not yet regretted nor apologized for.

U.S. military authorities retaliated with a "kill and burn" policy to take back Samar, deliberately equating a victorious small town with an entire island, from October 1901 to January 1902.

Implemented by the Sixth Separate Brigade under Brigadier-General Jacob H. Smith of the U.S. Army, which included a battalion of U.S. Marines under Major Littleton T. W. Waller, the campaign was blamed for the alleged disappearance of some 15,000 people in Samar.

The general reportedly gave orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms (specifically, 10 years old and above) during the combat operations to reduce Samar into a "howling wilderness."

Aside from the population loss, the Samar Campaign resulted in massive devastation of the rural economic base in terms of hundreds of burned houses, destroyed native boats, and slaughtered carabaos, the Filipinos’ draft animals. U.S. troops likewise burned confiscated rice and food stocks and market-ready abaca (hemp) fibers, the principal source of local cash income.

Gen. Smith was eventually made the scapegoat for the shameful policy on Samar. He was forced to retire from the U.S. Army following a court martial.

Failure of adventurism and racism

The Balangiga Conflict symbolized the ultimate Filipino capacity to survive the most brutal forms of military adventurism, racial prejudice and ethnocentrism.

The Balangigans barely escaped punishment for such neutral human acts as cleaning up their town and being hospitable to the Americans from Gen. Lukban and his ethnocentric non-Visayan officer corps, who were into their third year of Samar dictatorship under the banner of national independence. And despite Balangiga’s apparently generous contribution to the revolutionary coffers, Lukban and his guerrillas were only nominally represented during the most critical days when the Balangigans had to get rid of the Americans in their midst.

As for the Americans, Gen. Chaffee quickly backtracked from and covered up the effects of his “bayonet rule” for Samar into its sixth month of implementation in January 1902, indicating it was either a shameful success or a dismal failure. Then Chaffee sacrificed his henchmen (Gen. Smith and Maj. Waller) and stained their military careers, apparently to save his own, in the face of adverse publicity in the U.S. media and political pressures from the U.S. government.

The Bells of Balangiga

The three church bells of Balangiga were taken days after the attack by men of the 11th U.S. Infantry, another U.S. Army unit that occupied the abandoned town before being relieved by U.S. Marines on October 23, 1901. These “war trophies” were shipped out of the Leyte-Samar region from the headquarters of the 11th U.S. Infantry at the former Camp Bumpus, now the Leyte Park Resort in Tacloban City.

The camp was named after First-Lieutenant Edward A. Bumpus, Harvard alumnus and second in command of Company C, who was also killed in Balangiga.

The smallest bell was turned over to the headquarters of 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment in Calbayog, Samar, around April 1902. This relic is on permanent display at the traveling museum of the 9th U.S. Infantry, now stationed in Tongduchon, South Korea.

The two bigger bells were brought to the U.S. by returning 11th Infantry soldiers to their home station at the former Fort D.A. Russell, now the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Both are now displayed at the Balangiga Memorial in its Trophy Park.

The return of the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines remains the last issue of contention between the U.S. and Philippine governments related to the Philippine-American War.