This week will mark the 36th anniversary of the My Lai massacre in which more than 560 men, women and children, all Vietnamese civilians, were murdered by soldiers of Company C of the U.S. Army 20th Division.
The slaughter was a watershed in the history of modern American combat, and a turning point in the public perception of the Vietnam War.
But this was not the first time American soldiers ran amok. Some 60 years before America entered Vietnam, a far larger but now forgotten bloodbath took place on the remote Philippine island of Samar. And, by eerie coincidence, the military unit involved was also Company C—but this time they were the first victims.
Facing directly into the Pacific and unprotected by coral reefs, Samar suffers the worse weather in the 7,000-island archipelago. Lashing rains and typhoons regularly sweep in from the sea. The poorest and probably least developed island in the Philippines, Samar is a place where people come from rather than go to.
Its tragic story begins in August 1901, at the end of the Spanish-American War, which began a world away in sunny Havana. The United States had quickly defeated Spain’s force in the Philippine capital of Manila, then proceeded to claim the Philippines, betraying its ally, the anti-Spanish Filipino independence movement. Filipino resistance continued throughout the far-flung islands for almost four years. Thousands of Americans and Filipinos were killed in the bloody jungle fighting of what became know to Filipinos as the Philippine-American war, and to Americans as the “Filipino Insurrection.”
But by mid-1901, the Americans believed they had finally crushed Filipino resistance. In fact, thousands of peasants vowed to fight on.
On Aug. 11, 1901, 74 soldiers of the Ninth U.S. Infantry Division, Company C, landed at a remote village in southern Samar, called Balangiga. Aside from a crumbling old Spanish plaza, a church, a convent and town hall, Balangiga was a mere collection of 200 thatched-roof huts standing on a rain-swept shore, accessible only by boat.
Balangiga’s Spanish mayor had specifically petitioned the U.S. government in Manila to send American troops to protect the town from what he called “bandits and pirates.”
As their transport ship lifted anchor and sailed back to Manila, Company C was billeted in the town plaza. They were exceedingly well armed. But to encourage trust among the locals, the company commander ordered that only sentries carry weapons.
Eight weeks after arriving, the troops settled in into local life feeling safe.
Then, on the evening of Oct. 6, a score of battle-hardened Filipino resistance fighters—dressed as old women to attend a child’s funeral—quietly slipped into Balangiga at dusk. At dawn the following day, a Sunday, amid the ringing of church bells, the disguised rebels and several hundred townspeople rose up against the U.S. troops. Only three of the 74 soldiers were carrying arms as they ate their breakfasts.
The Filipinos used native razor-sharp machetes called bolos. The Americans wielded shovels, knives or whatever was at hand. In the ensuing massacre, only 26 of Company C’s original contingent survived long enough to reach the beach, most of them suffering ghastly wounds. The bloodied Americans staggered onto native boats and headed north for reinforcements.
One surviving soldier was overheard quoting the Bible: “They have sown the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
The massacre surprised and appalled the U.S. colonial government in Manila. The first U.S. governor of the Philippines, Howard Taft (later to become president) wrote his wife: “It comes like a clap of thunder on a clear day.”
Despite his shock, Taft insisted that a civilian government must still rule in the Philippines.
For its part, the U.S. Army was determined to crush further resistance in Samar by sending a veteran of the savage Plains Wars against the American Indians, General “Roaring Jake” Smith.
Arriving on Samar, Smith, 66, tells his men: “I want no prisoners. I want you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the more it will please me.”
Asked the age limit, the general replies: “Ten years and older. The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.”
In the ensuring months, hundreds of villages are burned, all crops and livestock destroyed. Thousands of Filipinos are shot as suspected rebels. Other civilians are rounded up and put in “concentration camps”—so called because they are “concentrated” into a small area making it easier to guard.
Word of Smith’s murderous methods later hits Washington like a bombshell. The disgraced general is dismissed from the army amid great controversy regarding the U.S. presence in the Philippines—strikingly similar to later arguments about American involvement in Indochina.
The U.S. campaign in the Philippines was vicious on both sides; neither Americans nor Filipinos gave, or expected, mercy. But in the end, as in most wars, it was the non-combatants who paid the highest price. Exact figures of how many Filipinos were killed in Samar were never made public. But it is estimated that 10,000 were killed or starved to death over a two-year period following the massacre, the majority women and children.
And even today, more than a century after the fighting ended in the summer of 1902, Samar is still a forlorn place. The wild, uninhabited interior never recovered from the whirlwind of war; it remains, as Smith wanted, a howling wilderness.
Steven Knipp is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the South China Morning Post. He visited Samar in 2003.