The Bloody History of Balangiga and the "Howling Wilderness" It Turned Into

Khavn De La Cruz’s film is based on the real life history of Samar at the turn of the century.
IMAGE New York Journal via Wikimedia Commons; Kamias Overground

Award-winning indie filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz is no stranger to counter-culture and controversy. Some of his previous films, including Mondomanila and Squatterpunk, show a side of the Philippines  and Filipino culture that mainstream cinema rarely shows. His latest film, Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, continues along the same thread with an unprecedented take on the events of the Philippine-American War. While most depictions of the war focus on the big personalities—Aguinaldo, Luna, del Pilar—Balangiga trains its lens on Eastern Samar, and the real events of the Balangiga Massacre.

We all know how it started: In 1899, the First Filipino Republic, under President Emilio Aguinaldo, faced imminent victory against the Spanish. Unfortunately, they found themselves struggling for independence once more, as America had bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million and was ready to assert her colonial ambitions. War between the US and the Philippines formally broke out soon after.

By 1901, the Philippines was losing the war. When conventional tactics failed, Aguinaldo and his generals resorted to guerrilla warfare, hopping from town to town to secure the loyalty and aid of their respective leaders. Most of the time, these cabezas de barangay had to perform a delicate balancing act between the occupying American forces and the Filipino revolutionary government without antagonizing either.

Attack at Dawn in Balangiga

That was what was happening in the town of Balangiga, in the US-occupied province of Samar. Mayor Pedro Abayan had written to the Filipino general Vicente Lukban, pledging his support to the revolutionary government and promising that, “When a favorable opportunity arises, the people will strategically rise against [the Americans].”


But on the American front, there was Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment, led by Captain Thomas W. Connell, who entered Balangiga to secure the port and prevent food and supplies from reaching the guerrillas in the heart of Samar.

Relations between the townspeople and the Americans started out amicably before souring come September. Some 400 guerrillas under Captain Eugenio Daza stationed themselves outside Balangiga, and in response, Connell had the men of the town rounded up and kept in tents. They also confiscated their bolos and their stored rice. Faced with this dilemma on their own, without the aid of Lukban’s guerillas, the townspeople of Balangiga were left to decide their fate.

Balangiga police chief Valeriano Abanador met with Daza to plan a coordinated attack on the Americans. Reinforcements were covertly slipped into town, under the guise of workers who were helping to prepare for a fiesta. The Americans were fed and given tuba to ensure that they would be drunk. The women were evacuated and replaced by men dressed in women's clothes. The hid their bolos and other weapons in small coffins, passed off as the coffins of children who were victims of a cholera epidemic. Everything was ready.

Early the next day, September 28, 1901, the townspeople executed their plan. Abanador, who was supervising the laborers in the plaza, surprised an American sentry and stunned him with a blow to the head—the signal of the start of the attack. The other laborers rushed the other American sentries and took the plaza, before attacking the barracks where most of Company C was having breakfast.

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The bells of Balangiga were rung and the entire town rose up to take the municipal hall and the church. The townspeople of Balangiga killed 48 American soldiers before retreating, with only four Americans surviving. The townspeople then abandoned Balangiga in fear of reprisal. The next day, American forces returned to an empty town, which they then looted and burned.


The American Reprisal

The American retaliation—which was the real massacre, according to historians, including Teodoro Agoncillo—was swift and ruthless. Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith was tasked to “pacify” Samar, which led him to issue his now infamous orders: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me…The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.”

The resulting march across Samar resulted in the deaths of thousands of Filipino civilians. None were spared. All persons over ten years old who were capable of bearing arms against the United States were sentenced to death. This was the true face of “benevolent assimilation.”

More than a century after the end of the war, many topics remain contentious. The United States has yet to issue any statement regarding the events of the war, still insisting that the American occupation was “quelling an insurrection.”

But as Khavn De La Cruz’s film notes, General Smith, who issued the “Howling Wilderness” kill order, was court-martialed in 1902, marking the first time that an American military officer was prosecuted for war crimes in the colonies. As a result, former President Theodore Roosevelt forced him to retire, saying, “Loose and violent talk by an officer of high rank is always likely to excite to wrongdoing those among his subordinates whose wills are weak or whose passions are strong.”


As for Samar, some events still remain unclear. Accounts are conflicting—the Filipino death toll ranges from 2,000 to over 50,000.

September 28 is a holiday in Samar, to commemorate the uprising in Balangiga. But for the Americans, it is a different story: The bells that were used to signal the attack were taken back to the US as a war trophy, and have yet to return. For the Americans, it remains a tribute to the war dead; the Philippine government, beginning with the administration of President Fidel Ramos, has asked for the return of the bells as a symbol of the patriotism of the people of Balangiga.


Wyoming lawmakers oppose return of Balangiga bells. Inquirer, August 15, 2018
Pentagon to return bells captured in the Philippines over 100 years ago, CNN, August 14, 2018
Bruno, Thomas (Spring 2011). “The Violent End of the Insurgency in Samar”. Army History 79: 31-44.
Borrinaga, Rolando (2001). “100 Years of Balangiga Literature: A Review”. ICHTHUS 2 (1): 59-81.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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