The Burning of Samar

The Balangiga Massacre on September 28, 1901 shook the complacency of the American forces, previously confident that their superior arms and training would win over their ill-equipped foes in the Philippine-American War. This incident, which resulted in the death of 48 American soldiers, was written up as the "worst American defeat since Custer", and drummed up support back home for a quick end to the Philippine Insurrection.

This incident marked a shift in American strategy for the pacification of the islands; where before they had followed President William McKinley's policy of "benevolent assimilation", now Governor Chafee told the press "the situation calls for shot, shells and bayonets as the natives are not to be trusted." President Theodore Roosevelt, no stranger to war, told Chafee in no uncertain terms to use "the most stern measures to pacify Samar".

On October 23, 1901, Brigadier General Jacob Smith ordered Major Littleton Waller to take his battalion of 300 Marines and turn the island of Samar into "a howling wilderness". "I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, and the more you kill and burn the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States." Apparently, Waller took "capable of bearing arms" to mean all native males above the age of ten.

What followed was probably standard procedure to veterans of the Indian Wars. The 6th Separate Brigade tore a bloody swath through the island, seeking out the rebel bands led by General Vicente Lukban, who originally ordered the ambush at Balangiga. While the Marines and General Lukban's rebels met in several large skirmishes, the US troops also destroyed villages, killing livestock and setting fire to crops, in an attempt to starve out the enemy. Shipments of food and medicine to Samar was stopped by a naval blockade of gunships.

This was all part of General Smith's "scorched earth" policy, to cause widespread destruction until the inhabitants ceased supporting the guerillas and submitted to American rule. Unfortunately, while his troops sought out and fought Lukban's men, he did nothing to prevent contact between the increasingly hostile civilians and the rebel movement. The Filipinos, hardened by over 400 years of guerilla warfare against the Spanish, were no strangers to privation; while numerous families fled the island, still more joined the rebels, setting up slash-and-burn farms in the mountains.

Major Waller reported that in an eleven-day span, his battalion had set fire to over 250 houses, killed 13 carabaos and executed 39 "rebels". Other units operating in the area also submitted reports with similar results. The exact number of civilian deaths are unknown, but sources give figures ranging from ten thousand to a hundred thousand dead. Lukban held out until February 18, 1902, where his force was overwhelmed by superior numbers - he readily surrendered, although he was later released when President Roosevelt officially declared an end to the war.

Although many of General Smith's subordinates showed enough restraint and honor to keep from killing civilians, enough atrocities were committed to cause outrage back home, especially among members of the Anti-Imperialism League. Waller in particular was accused of summarily executing 11 native guides who he claimed had conspired to keep knowledge of edible roots from his hungry men.

Public outcry against the atrocities in Samar led to court-martial proceedings against General Smith and Major Waller by the Secretary of Defense. While General Smith was convicted, Major Waller was acquitted on the grounds that he was "merely following orders". Although General Jacob "Howling" Smith retired in disgrace, many historians state that he was a hero to most of the US armed forces, and was met by cheering crowds on his arrival at San Francisco.

While the Balangiga Massacre was utilized by American propagandists to drum up support for the war, to a lesser degree, the Samar killings were also used by the revolutionary Katipunan to gain support; similar destruction was also employed by the US armed forces in Batangas and Bohol, although on a smaller scale.

It is telling that almost a hundred years later, Samar remains one of the most sparsely populated, poor and depressed provinces in the Philippines.

Many websites quote The Ordeal of Samar (1964) by Joseph L. Schott, but some of the facts from this book are still subject to controversy.
  • The Burning of Samar by Reynaldo S. Galang,
  • The Balangiga Massacre: Getting Even by Victor Nebrida
  • Massacres and Retaliation

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