Looking Back

The Philippines during World War I

Sometimes I wish I were born 50 years earlier, if only to have the opportunity to meet and interview people who went through the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the Filipino-American War.

Perhaps it would have been better if my area of specialization was not the Spanish period but World War II or the martial law years, noting that up to this day there are still many people who can tell me their stories from those periods and thus help us rethink history as we know it.


World War II is mentioned in our history books, but the boring fact-filled text needs to be supplemented by eyewitness accounts of veterans who could make the stench of death and the sound of gunfire in battlefields real to us. Some textbooks still ignore the stories of the comfort women or the graphic accounts of rape, murder and pillage committed by the cornered Japanese soldiers in Manila. These stories still make your stomach turn. I can only hope young historians are collecting oral history of these periods before the voices of and memories from those major events of the past fade away.

World War II remains current in our memory because of official commemorations in Bataan, Corregidor, Leyte and other historic sites. With the earlier wars, we only have history.


I have long wondered why the Spanish-American War did not leap out of my textbooks, when the first shot in that war, on May 1, 1898, did not happen anywhere close to Washington or Madrid but right here in the Philippines where George Dewey blasted the Spanish fleet out of Manila Bay. Many people are not told that after it lost the war, Spain sold the Philippines to the United States for $20 million, which at the time translated into Uncle Sam buying all the Filipinos at roughly 50 cents per head, with the archipelago thrown in as a bonus.

Reading the annual reports of the governors-general of the Philippine Islands to the US secretary of war beginning with the one  for 1917, I realized that the Philippines was dragged into World War I because it was then a US colony. Yet expressions of Filipino loyalty included: subscribing to Liberty Loans, raising funds to construct a destroyer and submarine for the US Navy, and volunteering to serve in the US Army and Red Cross. When the US Congress enacted a law for the federalization of the Philippine militia, the US War Department required 15,000 volunteers.  The Philippines produced 25,000.

“Alien enemy residents” in the Philippines were put under surveillance, and 22 German merchant vessels in Philippine harbors were confiscated following reports that their crews had damaged and made the ships useless in February 1917. Stating that these ships were a typhoon hazard, the governor ordered the Philippine Constabulary to place an armed force on each vessel. He also ordered the arrest of their crews who were subsequently brought to a Baguio internment camp. After their repair, the 22 captured vessels were turned over to the US Shipping Board, which allowed the Philippines to keep seven small vessels for interisland trade and for transport of sugar and other goods to China and Japan. On their return to the country, these ships carried coal, ordered by the government and the Manila Railroad Co., from the Kailan Mining Co. in Chingwangtao.

In November 1917, the German sailors together with “alien enemies guilty of propaganda in behalf of the German cause and utterances against the Government of the US; also several Germans out of employment whose presence here was thought to be a source of possible inconvenience to the community” were shipped to a US internment camp. While the war was felt in the islands, the Philippines was far from its battlefields. Yet Philippine Independence was put on hold:

“Politically, it is generally conceded that the world conflict renders discussion of the immediate independence of the islands inopportune, and there is general consensus of opinion that the Philippine question, so long the topic of almost exclusive interest at all public gatherings, should not be taken up actively again until the termination of the war, when it is hoped that the US will present the claims of the Philippines to an independent existence to the congress of nations.”

The following year, in the 1918 report, Francis Burton Harrison wrote:

“With notable self-restraint, the people (Filipinos) during the war ceased all expression of their desire for independence, until after the signing of the armistice, when the national sentiment of the Filipinos again took form with the appointment by the legislature of a commission of leading citizens of the islands to present to the US Congress their request for independence. The undersigned concurs in the belief of the Filipino people that they have now established the stable government demanded by Congress as a prerequisite for their independence, and has so reported to Congress together with an expression of his hope that early independence will be conceded.”


The main concern related to the World War I was rising prices, which prompted a demonstration in front of the Ayuntamiento in August 1918, but as Interior Secretary Rafael Palma reported, “Such a manifestation carried on in the most peaceful and orderly manner had no parallel in any other war-afflicted country.”

How come I was never taught that the first Filipino casualty of WWI was Tomas Claudio, who died in a battlefield in France in 1918?

We often leave the debate over what goes in or what is left out of our textbooks to historians, but we must look into what history our youth are learning today.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: featured column, Filipino-American war, Philippine revolution against spain, tomas claudio, World War II
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