The Samar Campaign of 1900-1902 is one of the most notorious campaigns of the Philippine War. Anti-imperialists continue to point to the infamous orders to turn the interior of the island into a “howling wilderness” as typifying American pacification policies throughout the Philippines. In contrast, the Marines took such pride in the famous march across the island by Major Littleton W. T. Waller that for years afterwards veterans were greeted in mess halls with the toast: “Stand gentlemen, he served on Samar.” The Samar Campaign, however, should be interesting to the military historian for reasons other than its atrocities and individual heroism. The operations of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps offer an excellent example of early joint operations and the problems of interservice cooperation in a small guerrilla war.
Located in the Visayas island chain, Samar’s 5,200 square miles are divided into a narrow coastal region and a rugged series of steep, jungle-covered mountains, which cover most of the interior and run down to the ocean. As a result, there is almost no cross-island land communication; virtually all transportation from the interior is along the tumultuous rivers. The seas around Samar are only slightly less daunting—submerged islands, shoals, strong tides and currents, and high seas combine to make the coast a navigator’s nightmare. Moreover, the island is subject to the full fury of the Asian monsoon, and for much of the year suffers from torrential rains and typhoons.
The Filipino resistance movement on Samar was led by Brigadier General Vicente Lukban, a 47-year-old native of southeastern Luzon, who arrived at the capital city of Catbalogan on 21 January 1899. The new political-military governor quickly moved to consolidate the insurrectos hold on the island. Although he possessed fewer than 1,000 rifles, he raised a local militia armed with bolos, the long machetes carried by Samareno laborers. Lukban made up for the poor armament of his forces by having them fight from entrenchments; he also used terrain to good advantage to approach the enemy so that his men could attack at close quarters with bolos. In addition, Lukban paid careful attention to winning popular support. He established close connections with local political leaders, married a Samareno woman, and kept up a constant flow of largely false reports on extensive Filipino victories, American atrocities, foreign intervention, and domestic turmoil in the United States.
The American presence was first felt in Samar shortly after the outbreak of war on 4 February 1899. In an effort to isolate the main Filipino forces on Luzon, the U.S. Army commander in the Philippines, Major General El- well S. Otis, requested a naval blockade to prevent the inter-island transport of money, men, and supplies. The few ancient gunboats assigned to this task had an immediate effect in the Visayas. By July, Lukban complained that the blockade prevented him from sending thousands of pesos he had collected in taxes to Luzon and frustrated his attempts to exert control over the nearby island of Leyte. He also noted bitterly that he was reduced to eating sweet potatoes and boiled rice.1
The Navy’s early presence and control of the surrounding waters made its cooperation absolutely necessary when Otis decided to occupy Samar. In January 1900, in an effort to forestall a crisis in the U.S. cordage industry, a joint Army-Navy expedition steamed towards the Visayas to open up the “hemp ports.” Under cover of gunfire from the USS Nashville and the USS Helena, a battalion of the 43rd U.S. Volunteer Infantry seized Catbalogan and Calbayog. His forces driven into the mountain, his key armory and headquarters overrun, and his men demoralized, Lukban considered surrender. He was saved chiefly by the lack of American manpower. The Army high command decided to concentrate on pacifying Luzon and for over a year. United States troop strength on Samar rarely exceeded 1,000 men.
Fortunately for the soldiers, the Navy gave “the Army a band to the limit.”2 Its gunboats often made a critical difference by repelling guerrilla attacks, ferrying Army expeditions up the island’s rivers, and bringing in supplies. Captain Frederick R. Payne of the gunboat USS Pampanga, praised by Samar’s military commander as “most eager and ready to help in every way possible,” exemplifies this close cooperation. Besides aiding Army expeditions and providing protection for isolated garrisons, Payne loaned one of the Pampanga's quick-firing one-pounders and provided a machine gun and crew for amphibious raids against guerrilla strongholds.3
Despite Navy support, the U.S. military forces on Samar were soon engaged in one of the most bitter struggles in the Philippines. To prevent the Americans from imposing civil government or winning popular support, ’be guerrillas burned many of the coastal towns and forced ’be population to flee to the mountains. Lukban’s men surrounded the Army-occupied towns with hordes of pickets, snipers, and bolomen who fired on patrols, attacked Entries, and assaulted Filipinos aiding the Americans. In April 1900, the guerrillas cut off the Catubig garrison and billed 19 soldiers before a relief column broke through. Using Samar’s dense vegetation, the insurrectos would establish ambushes only a few feet from an outpost or patrol. At a signal, they would rise suddenly and charge, slashing madly with their heavy bolo knives. In a few cases, these bolo rushes overran unwary troops and cut isolated detachments to pieces. When the soldiers attempted to strike back, they exhausted themselves in the high grass, swamps, mountains, and jungles, steadily losing men to disease, fatigue, and a variety of insidious booby traps.
It was not until May 1901, with most of the archipelago already pacified, that the Americans began increasing their forces on Samar. The new commander. Brigadier General Robert P. Hughes, found “it was evidently the intention of our enemy to make the coast untenable for our troops and to withdraw to the interior of the island which is filled with beautiful small valleys where they can secure the necessities of life except salt. That being the case, it was determined to attack the interior, if possible, and drive the enemy to the coast for his food supplies.”4 Hughes closed Samar’s ports, declared “no trade with the island from outside ports will be permitted,” and urged the Navy to enforce an even more stringent blockade on guerrilla food supplies.5
Within a few months, Hughes’s operations succeeded in destroying much of the island’s food supply and scattering the guerrillas, but at the cost of much hardship and resentment among the Samarenos. Army expeditions swept through the countryside burning crops, homes, and live-stock with little distinction between guerrilla and civilian property. Filipino civilians found in the interior were deported to the coast. Too often, these refugees arrived at towns that had been reduced to little more than blackened ruins, where they huddled in misery as harassed officers tried to find food and shelter for them. At Balangiga the commanding officer convinced many of the inhabitants he intended to starve them to death and forced the men to work cleaning the streets. Lukban’s followers infiltrated the refugee camps, renewing old supply and intelligence networks and kindling civilian resentment against the Americans into active revolt.
On 28 September, townspeople and guerrillas executed a sudden attack on Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry, stationed at Balangiga. Surprising the soldiers at breakfast' the Filipinos killed 48 soldiers and horribly mutilated the dead. Lukban called on the Samarenos to follow the example of the townspeople of Balangiga and rise against the Americans. On 16 October, Company E was almost over-run by a bolo rush on the Gandara River, suffering ten killed and eight wounded in a few desperate minutes of hand-to-hand fighting. At Dap Dap, another patrol was attacked at such close range that soldiers “did not have time to reload but used their guns for clubs.”6 Eight Americans were boloed to death and six more wounded.
The “Balangiga Massacre” focused the Army’s full attention on Samar. Major General Adna R. Chaffee, who had assumed command of the Philippines, increased the island’s forces to over 4,000 men and sent a new commander to “start a few cemeteries for hombres in Southern Samar.”7 Not to be outdone. Rear Admiral Frederick Rodgers, commanding the U.S. naval forces in the Philippines, ordered all his available gunboats to Samar and offered the Army the use of a 300-man Marine battalion under Major Waller. Waller’s Marines had a personal interest in going to Samar—they had served with the 9th Infantry during the Boxer Rebellion. Private Harold Kin- man spoke for many, including Waller, when he wrote, "We will go heavily armed and longing to avenge our comrades who fought side by side with us in China.”8
Chaffee’s choice to coordinate operations on Samar was Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith, a Civil War veteran known as “Hell Roaring Jake” for both his voice and his temper. Smith faced a delicate situation. Assigned to the newly created Sixth Separate Brigade comprising Samar and Leyte, he soon ran into problems with Hughes, who remained as departmental commander and viewed Smith’s appointment as a personal affront. Hughes often interfered in the disposition of forces on the island and questioned Smith’s demands for reinforcements. Smith was also hampered because Leyte, the source of much of Lukban’s supplies, was under a civilian governor who tolerated no military interference. To compound his problems, he began “Perations just as the monsoon struck, flooding Samar’s trails and turning its streams into impassable torrents.
Despite these difficulties. Smith must bear much of the blame for subsequent events on Samar. His soldiers were burning to avenge Balangiga, and Smith clearly had a duty to restrain his men from striking back at the population. Instead, he publicly encouraged retaliation and punished officers who counseled moderation. When one officer expressed concern that the destruction of crops would lead to starvation for the inhabitants. Smith stated he felt “no Empathy for those in the mountains of Samar and wishfed] no such sympathy expressed by others.”9 On another occasion, he responded to a similar request with the remark, “Let them die, the sooner they are all dead the sooner we will have peace.”10 On 23 October, when the Marines arrived in Samar, Smith instructed Waller to take no prisoners, to regard every male over ten years old as a combatant, and to “kill and burn—kill and bum. The more you kill and the more you bum the better you will please me.”11 Not surprisingly, one officer wrote, “From the writing for publication of General Smith some idea may be found of his utterances, and from both it is difficult to believe in his sanity.”12
Smith’s primary objective was to separate the guerrillas from the civilian population that supplied them. His efforts included a naval blockade, the occupation of towns, battalion-size sweeps of the countryside, and the concentration of the civilian population into camps along the coast. Whatever the merits of this plan, he soon proved incapable of putting it into operation. He exercised his authority sporadically, often abandoning direction of the campaign to lead expeditions. For the first months of the campaign, his orders were confined to instructions to view all Filipino civilians with suspicion, impress natives as bearers, clear areas around garrisons, destroy guerrilla food supplies, and capture guerrilla leaders. Under Smith’s erratic control, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps units were generally left to develop and implement pacification policies on their own. Not surprisingly, a number of serious difficulties soon emerged in the area of joint operations.
One of the first and most serious of these difficulties was widespread misunderstanding between Navy officers ordered to maintain a strict blockade and Army officers charged with caring for refugee camps. Smith’s policy of turning the interior into a “howling wilderness” raised a real fear of starvation among garrison officers. To feed their charges. Army officers issued passes for trusted Filipinos to buy food in Leyte and licensed boats to fish in local waters. Naval officers complained that “it was impossible for the officers who issued the passes to exercise any supervision over them and consequently the pass became a most convenient cloak under which to pursue contraband traffic.” In January 1902, Commander William Swift took Smith on a three-day cruise that captured numerous boats that had passes signed by Army officers, but which were “obviously engaged in smuggling.”13
For their part, garrison officers were frustrated when Navy officers disregarded legitimate passes and seized boats bearing badly needed food. They complained that the Navy did not understand the situation in the towns, that gunboats fired on friendly Filipinos, and that in one instance the gunboat Arayat had shelled a pro-American rally. Smith’s failure to clearly delineate the responsibilities of each service led to steadily worsening relations. By January, Rodgers was claiming, unfairly, “It may safely be said that if the military operations on shore were conducted by the Army with the same unflagging zeal, energy, and unity of purpose that characterized the movements afloat, the termination of hostilities on Samar would be a matter of weeks instead of months.”14
There was a second problem—the Navy never had enough ships to carry out all its missions. Because Samar had no roads, the Navy’s ships were essential to transport Army expeditions up rivers and along the coast. In addition, scattered Army garrisons needed gunboats to provide protection from guerrilla attacks. Smith made extensive use of Navy transport and Major Edwin V. Glenn, assigned to uproot the guerrillas’ supply and taxation infrastructure, constantly required the use of gunboats and landing parties in his investigations. Although the Americans enjoyed undisputed command of Samar’s waters, the blockading squadron’s forces were dissipated and gun boats shifted from assignment to assignment with little coordination or planning.
Smith also failed to exert control over the other service assigned to combined operations, the Marine battalion. To Prevent friction, the Marines took up station at Basey and Balangiga in southern Samar, where they could “operate in territory unmixed with the army for a couple of months.’’15 Waller’s instructions from Smith were limited to the infamous “kill and bum” orders and a vague reference to General Order 100, a document drawn up during the Civil War, which could be interpreted to justify the harshest forms of retaliation. For all intents and purposes. Smith allowed Waller to develop his own counterinsurgency plans.
Although the Navy gave both Marines and soldiers an amphibious capability, once the troops moved away from Water it was virtually impossible to supply them. The successful Marine assault on a guerrilla camp 15 miles up the Sohoton River on 17 November, for example, succeeded in killing 30 guerrillas and driving the rest from their entrenchments. The Marines, however, had to withdraw almost immediately; their rations were gone and many of the men were in rags and without shoes. The ten-day campaign left most of the battalion incapacitated for six days because of exhaustion and sore feet.16 By December, the Marines were in poor shape. Private Kinman wrote,
Sometimes we do not have any thing to eat for 48 hours and never more than 2 meals per day. Our feet are sore, our shoes worn out and our clothes tom. It rains [and] half of the time we sleep on the ground with nothing but a rubber poncho to cover us.”17
Waller’s famous march across the island between 28 December and 19 January offers even more convincing evidence of both the hellish conditions on the island and his logistical difficulties. Although the expedition did not encounter a single guerrilla, of its six officers and 50 men, 11 died en route and most of the survivors required immediate hospitalization.
Frustrated by their physical exertions and the refusal of Mikban’s men to stand and fight, Smith’s men turned more and more towards retaliation. Accounts of fanatical bolo rushes, assassinations, and the horrible mutilation inflicted on the dead soldiers at Balangiga led Waller to counsel his Marines: “The natives are treacherous, brave and savage. No trust, no confidence can be placed in them... we must do our part of the work, and with the sure knowledge that we are not to expect quarter.”18 Unfortunately, many soldiers and Marines concluded that neither should quarter be given. The record of Waller’s own battalion, which between 1 and 10 November, killed 39 Filipinos but captured only 18 men and 17 bolos, indicates that Americans on Samar were shooting first and asking questions later.19
Ultimately, the Americans achieved an almost pyrrhic victory on Samar. Lukban was captured on 18 February in a daring raid by Philippine Scouts, but his subordinate, general Guevarra, assumed command and held out until 28 April. The cost of the American victory was high. The destruction of crops, boats, and houses, the deportation of civilians to the coast, and the interdiction of outside food supplies by the naval blockade came close to creating a true “howling wasteland” of Samar. Anti-imperialist journalists and editors seized upon the revelation of American atrocities, including the execution of 11 Filipino guides by Waller, to denounce United States involvement in the Philippines. Even the pacification of the island was illusory, for within a year Army and Philippine Constabulary forces were fighting bandits and religious fanatics.
As with any historical event, it would be foolish to draw too many parallels between modem joint operations, with their supporting fleets, amphibious vessels, air cover, and mechanized forces and the scattered gunboats and ragged infantry who fought nearly a century ago on Samar. Yet many of the campaign’s characteristics are all too familiar in the present day: an isolated American garrison massacred by a sudden attack, naval and ground forces landed with unclear objectives and orders, tangled service relations, geographical and logistical difficulties, journalistic exposes, and uncertain victory. If all that students can learn from Samar is what to avoid, the study of this bloody little campaign will be more than worth it.
1. Vicente Lukban to Antonio Luna, cited in John R. M. Taylor, The Philippine Insurrection Against the United States, 1899-1903 (unpublished galley proof). Exhibit 1321, pp. 58-59 HK.
2. Frederick Sawyer, Sons of Gunboats, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1941), p. 52.
3. Major John C. Gilmore to Adjutant General, 24 June 1900, Records of the Adjutant Generals’ Office, National Archives Record Group 94, entry 117, 43rd Infantry, U.S. Volunteers’ Letters Sent Books.
4. Brigadier General Robert P. Hughes to Adjutant General, 30 November 1901, Records of U.S. Army Overseas Operations and Commands, 1898-1942, National Archives Record Group 395, entry 2483 [hereafter cited as 395/entry number].
5. Captain A. B. Buffington to Captain Leslie F. Cornish, 14 June 1901, 395/3447.
6. Lieutenant George W. Wallace to Adjutant, 28 February 1902, 395/3503.
7. Major General Adna R. Chaffee to Major General Henry C. Corbin, 2 September 1901, Henry C. Corbin Papers, Library of Congress.
8. Harold Kinman to Sister, 18 October 1901, Harold Kinman Papers, USMC Historical Center. Compare this sentiment with Waller’s own orders to his command of October 23, 1901, in typescript of Samar correspondence. Waller file, USMC Historical Center [hereafter referred to as Waller Typescript].
9. Adjutant General, 6th Separate Brigade to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Robe, 21 November 1901, 395/2573, Box 1.
10. Captain William M. Swaine testimony. Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General, National Archives Record Group 153, Court-Martial No. 34401, Edwin F. Glenn, p. 132.
11. Captain David D. Porter testimony, Record Group 153, Court-Martial No. 30739, Jacob H. Smith, p. 7
12. Henry T. Allen to William H. Taft, 7 February 1902, Henry T. Allen Papers, Library of Congress.
13. Commander William Swift to Senior Squadron Commander, Commanding Southern Squadron, 8 January 1902, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, National Archives Record Group 45, Area File 10, Roll 391.
14. Rear Admiral Frederick Rodgers to Commander in Chief U.S. Naval Forces, Asiatic Station, 14 January 1902, Ibid.
15. Robert Hall to Hughes, 19 October 1901, Record Group 153, “Court Martial #30313, Littleton, W. T. Waller,” p. 16
16. Ibid, p. 33, John H. Clifford, History of the Pioneer Marine Battalion, (Portsmouth, NH, the author, 1941), p. 34.
17. Harold Kinman to Sister, 23 December 1901.
18. Waller Typescript, p. 6.
19. Ibid, p. 21.