Balangiga: A great victory
Each year we spend time and resources preparing to celebrate “Araw ng Kagitingan” in April. We remember and honor the valiant stand of Filipino soldiers fighting alongside American GIs in Bataan during the early days of the Pacific War.
It is a national holiday, with the President in attendance along with representatives of the United States and Japan, in a singular display of friendship and reconciliation among former foes.
May I also add that perhaps we are the only nation on this earth that commemorates on a grand scale a day of defeat, suffering and surrender.
For some reason, we are shy about remembering and celebrating the battles we fought against American colonizers who came after the end of Spanish rule.
Officially, the Philippine-American War covered the period from 1899 to 1902 — some three and a half years. The Americans lost over 4,200 men killed in action, roughly the same losses they suffered in the invasion of Iraq almost a century later.
One of the most significant actions that took place during the war was in the town of Balangiga in Samar. Gen. Vicente Lukban, a native of Camarines Sur, led the resistance movement in the region. A detailed account of what took place is found in “The Ordeal of Samar” by Joseph L. Schott.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 28, 1901, some 500 Filipino freedom fighters gathered inside the town church, some dressed in women’s clothing, waiting for a signal to attack.
The US garrison force of Company C, Ninth Infantry, occupying the town center was led by Capt. Thomas Connell, a graduate of West Point, class of 1894. When mess call was sounded the troops leisurely moved toward the mess tents, leaving their arms behind.
As the soldiers were having breakfast, police chief Pedro Sanchez grabbed a sentry’s rifle and fired it. Immediately the church bells started ringing. The church doors opened and out came rebels brandishing bolos and other improvised weapons such as picks and shovels.
It was combat at close quarters — bolo against Krag rifles. The only advantage held by the rebels was the element of surprise coupled with complacency on the part of the enemy.
An hour later, the town plaza was a scene of spilled blood and scattered body parts. Of the 76 members of Company C, 48 officers and men were slain in the attack.
In no other single action during the Philippine-American War did US forces suffer so many casualties. US press reports called the Balangiga engagement “one of the worst tragedies in American military annals.” The Minneapolis Journal of Sept. 30, 1901, carried a front-page story: “Butchered with bolos. Company of US troops almost annihilated. Over 40 slaughtered.” The Salt Lake Herald of the same date had “Terrible defeat at hand of Filipinos” as one of its headlines.
Reprisal was swift, and after the Samar campaign US troops took away the church bells of Balangiga and shipped them home. Americans argue that the bells were part of the spoils of war, paid for with the blood of American soldiers. We, too, paid a terrible price for a war not of our making. Theirs was a war of conquest; ours was a fight for freedom.
There are reports about the possible return of the bells. It was President Duterte who came out strongly on the issue during his 2017 State of the Nation Address. Should the bells finally come home, he deserves the credit.
If we are to honor the sacrifices of our heroes, the battle of Balangiga, our greatest victory in the Philippine-American War, deserves prominence and attention in our history books, and in the remembrance by our people of the heroism and love of country showed by our freedom fighters. We yearn for the return of the church bells; we must also keep Balangiga in our hearts as the symbol of a great victory.
Some 70 years after the US Congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946 denying Filipino veterans of World War II the full benefits of veterans as earlier ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US Congress passed the “Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.”
Two weeks ago in a ceremony at the US Embassy, some of those veterans, now in their late 90s, received their medals from US Ambassador Sung Kim. Some of them were in wheelchairs; some were represented by next of kin.
One of them, Lt. Commander Bienvenido Alano Sr., 97, was a UP engineering student at the outbreak of the war. He joined the Offshore Patrol of the Philippine Army as an enlisted man, fought in Bataan and Corregidor, and participated in the Death March.
With the help of farmers in Lubao, Pampanga, he was able to escape and joined Lapham’s guerrillas operating in Central Luzon. When the war ended, he rejoined what is now the Philippine Navy.
He is the father of Bienvenido Alano Jr., a 1971 graduate of the US Naval Academy, who served with me in the government for a number of years and is now president of the Center for Economic Policy Research.
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