He Served on Samar

Samar Map 001For a period of about two years following the end of hostilities with Spain in the Philippines, various local groups numbering perhaps five percent of the total population of the Philippine Islands (7 million, approximately) challenged the occupying Army of the United States.

The island of Samar had become the centerpiece for resistance to American occupation following the Spanish-American War.  On 28 September 1901, 36 soldiers assigned to Company C, 9th US Infantry then stationed in Balangiga, were killed during a surprise attack by Filipino insurrectos.  An additional eight soldiers died due to wounds received during the attack; 22 were wounded.  Of the total number of soldiers, only 4 escaped unharmed.

The day following the attack, Captain Edwin V. Bookmiller, the commander in Basey, sailed with Company G, 9th US Infantry for Balangiga aboard a commandeered coastal steamer, named Pittsburgh.  Upon arrival, Captain Brookmiller discovered the town abandoned.  The dead soldiers were buried and the wounded cared for as best as could be done.  This event became known as the Balangiga Massacre.

Back in the states, word of the massacre enraged the public, with US newspapers equating the massacre to that of George Armstrong Custer and the 7th US Cavalry in 1876.  Major General Adna R. Chaffee, military governor of the Philippines, received orders from President Theodore Roosevelt to pacify Samar.  To this end, he appointed Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith to Samar in order to accomplish this task.  General Smith requested reinforcements to complete his mission and it was this call for help that brought in the Marines.

On 24 October 1901, Major Littleton W. T. Waller [1], commanding a battalion of approximately 300 Marines arrived in Samar at the direction of Rear Admiral Frederick Rodgers, who commanded the Asiatic Squadron.  Although the Marines were placed under the command of Brigadier General Smith to reinforce and cooperate with the U. S. Army on Samar, it was also contemplated that Major Waller’s movements should be supported, as far as possible, by a vessel of the U. S. fleet, to which he should make reports from time to time, and through which supplies for his battalion were to be furnished.

Waller 001Major Waller disembarked at Basey with his headquarters element and two companies of Marines and relieved some elements of the 9th Infantry.  The remainder of Waller’s battalion, consisting of approximately 159 men, proceeded to Balangiga (along the southern coast of Samar) under the command of Captain David D. Porter [2], who was ordered to begin operations immediately to pacify the rebels.  Porter’s company relieved elements of the 17th US Infantry.  At this time, Waller received orders from Brigadier General Smith, as follows:  “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.”

As a consequence of this order, Smith became known as “Howling Wilderness Smith.”  He further ordered Waller to have all persons killed who were capable of bearing arms, and in actual hostilities against the United States.  Waller queried Smith further regarding the age of those persons.  General Smith replied that the limit was ten years old.

The operating area assigned to the Marines included the entire southern part of Samar.  The Marines began patrolling immediately at Basey and Balangiga—small expeditions designed to clear the country of guerillas, which were operating under the command of General Vicente Lukban who refused to surrender to US authority.  The Marines learned that General Lukban and his insurgents occupied a fortified defense on the Sohoton Cliffs, near a river of the same name.  Three columns of Marines marched into the Sohoton region to attack this stronghold in mid-November.  Major Waller, Captain Porter, and Captain Hiram I. Bearss [3] each commanded one of these three columns.  Porter and Bearss marched on shore; Waller and his Marines went up the river in boats.  The initial plan called for a combined attack on Lukban on 16 November 1901.

Captain Porter and Captain Bearss struck the enemy’s trail and soon came upon a number of bamboo guns—one of these placed to command the trail and upon discovery, had a lighted fuse.  One Marine ran forward and pulled the fuse away from the gun, thereby disarming it.  The arrival of the Marines surprised the insurgents, and they were easily driven from their initial positions.  In the second phase of the attack, the Marines had to scale 200-foot cliffs; hovering above them were large nets filled with rocks that the insurgents intended to use against the Marines.  However, withering and accurate rifle fire directed upon them by Gunnery Sergeant John H. Quick [4], prevented them from doing so.  The Marines successfully scaled the cliffs and drove the insurgents out of their defenses.  Had Major Waller’s boats not been delayed, the results for his detachment might have been disastrous.

No Marines were killed or wounded during the attack, but 40 insurgents were killed and General Lukban and his lieutenants were captured and taken into custody. Major Waller’s decision not to immediately pursue the insurgents is a lesson in logistics.  The Marines were out of rations, the men were exhausted, and some of the Marines were ill.  The volcanic rocks had cut the Marine’s shoes to pieces, many were bare footed and their feet severely damaged.

On or about 5 December 1901, Brigadier General Smith directed Major Waller to march his Marines from Basey, across the island of Samar to Hernani, for the purpose of selecting a route for constructing a telegraph system connecting the east and west coast.  Three days later, two columns of Marines left Basey for Balangiga—one under the command of Major Waller, and the other under Captain Bearss.  Stores were sent ahead by naval vessel.  Although the Marines did not encounter armed resistance, the natural obstacles proved deadly.  The March across Samar had begun.

Waller decided to begin his march from Lanang, work his way up the Lanang River as far as possible, and then march to the vicinity of the Sohoton Cliffs.  Before beginning his trek, Waller was cautioned not to make the attempt, but he later recalled in his report, “Remembering General Smith’s several talks on the subject and his evident desire to know the terrain, and run wires across … I decided to make the trial with 50 men and necessary carriers.”

This journey began on 8 December 1901 and included Waller, Porter, Bearss, three lieutenants (including an Army aide to Smith), 50 Marines, and 33 native porters.  The boats were abandoned at Lagitao due to the fact that they could not penetrate the rapids, so the remainder of the trip was made on foot.  The Marines soon found it necessary to cross, and re-cross swollen rivers and dangerous rapids.  Within a scant few days, it became necessary to reduce rations; Waller was not yet aware that the native carriers were stealing food rations.

Within a week, the Marines were becoming ill, food rations were critically short, their clothing in tatters, their feet were swollen and bleeding, and the trail was lost.  After some conference with his officers, Waller decided to take Lieutenant Halford and 13 Marines who were in the best condition, and push forward as rapidly as possible.  They would send back a relief party for the main column, which was placed under the command of Captain Porter.  Porter’s instructions were to follow in trace slowly.

On January 4, Major Waller’s party rushed a shack and captured five natives, including a man and a boy who stated that they knew the way to Basey.  After crossing the Sohoton River, the famous Spanish trail leading from the Sohoton caves to the Suribao River was discovered and followed.  The party crossed the Loog River and proceeded through the valley to Banglay, on the Cadacan River.  Near this point the party came upon the camp, which Captain Dunlap had established to await their arrival.  Major Waller’s party went aboard Captain Dunlap’s cutter and set off for Basey, where they arrived on January 6, 1902.  Concerning the condition of the men of his party, Major Waller wrote:

“The men, realizing that all was over and that they were safe and once more near home, gave up.  Some quietly wept; others laughed hysterically —most of them had no shoes.  Cut, torn, bruised and dilapidated, they had marched without murmur for twenty-nine days.”

Immediately after the arrival of the detachment at Basey, Major Waller led a relief party back to locate Captain Porter’s party.  After nine days of searching, there was no sign of Captain Porter.  The floods were terrific and Waller discovered that several of the former campsites several feet under water.  The members of the relief party began to break down, due to the many hardships and the lack of food, forcing the party to return to Basey.  Upon arrival, Major Waller was taken sick with fever.

Meanwhile Captain Porter had decided to retrace the trail to Lanang and ask for a relief party to be sent out for his men, most of who were unable to march.  He chose seven Marines who were in the best condition and with six natives, set out January 3 for Lanang.  He left behind Lieutenant Williams in charge of the remainder of the detachment with orders to follow, as the condition of the men would permit.  Captain Porter’s return to Lanang was made under difficulties many times greater than those encountered during the march to the interior.  Food was almost totally lacking, and heavy rains filled the streams making it almost impossible to follow down their banks or cross them as was so often necessary.

On January 11, Captain Porter reached Lanang and reported the situation to Captain Pickering, the Army Commander at that place.  A relief expedition was organized to go for the remainder of the Marines but it was unable to start for several days because of the swollen Lanang River.  Without food, yet realizing that starvation was certain if they remained in camp, Lieutenant Williams and his men slowly followed Captain Porter’s trail, leaving men behind one by one to die beside the trail when it was no longer possible for them to continue.  One man went insane; the native carriers became mutinous and some of them attacked and wounded Lieutenant Williams with bolos.  After having left ten marines to die along the trail, Lieutenant Williams was finally met by the relief party on the morning of January 18 and taken back to Lanang.

Williams later testified that the mutinous behavior of the natives left the Marines in daily fear of their lives; the porters were hiding food and supplies from the Marines and keeping themselves nourished from the jungle while the Marines starved.  As a result, 11 porters were placed under arrest following Williams’ testimony.

After an investigation of the facts and circumstances of these events, Waller ordered the summary execution of the eleven Filipino porters for treason, theft, disobedience, and general mutiny.  Ten were shot in groups of three (one had been gunned down in the water attempting to escape).  Waller later reported the executions to General Smith, as he had reported every other event.  “It became necessary to expend eleven prisoners; ten who were implicated in the attack on Lt. Williams and one who plotted against me.”

The full circumstances of Lieutenant Williams’ attempt to extricate his exhausted men from the midst of that wild tropical jungle is one of the most tragic, yet one of the most heroic episode in Marine Corps history.  The entire march across Samar was about 190 miles.  Major Waller’s march, including his return with the party searching for Captain Porter, totaled 250 miles.

For many years after, officers and men of the United States Marine Corps paid a traditional tribute to the indomitable courage of these Marines by rising in their presence with the following words of homage: “Stand, gentlemen: he served on Samar.”

Notes:


[1] Brevet Medal; Retired in grade of Major General

[2] Brevet Medal; Medal of Honor; Retired in grade of Major General; son of LtCol Carlisle Porter, grandson of Admiral David D. Porter, great-grandson of Commodore David Porter

[3] Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Cross, retired in grade of Colonel (1919), advanced to Brigadier General in retirement

[4] Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star; retired in grade of Sergeant Major

12 thoughts on “He Served on Samar”

  1. In Waller’s day, the father of the modern Navy, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, cautioned, “Logistics is as vital to military success as daily food is to daily work.” It would seem that in 1900, the military services were operating with rudimentary systems to provision their troops, which as this tale tells us, limits them. To me, this makes the achievement of these Marines all the greater. Courageous men, all …

    1. Courage has been the word I would use to describe most American military men. They seem to have been the genesis of the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get’s going.” Marines are not supermen at all, just regular Joes doing one hell of a job, no matter what that job is. I’m proud to claim that title.

  2. An amazing story. I had not heard about this before. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Wonderful-historical account–Thank You~!

    We have learned that the ‘native’ helpers in Afghanistan – have consistently betrayed our BEST- – as did the ‘porters’ in the Philippians–
    History is our best defense against tyranny-betrayal-
    C-CS

    1. Today the issue is onerous ROE; back then, naiveté on the part of senior officers. We seem always forced to learn important lessons the hard way.

  4. The loss of life was great if not certainly at times alone in the forbidden terrain. Not having ever served, it is impossible for me to truly feel what the Marines were going through when they could no longer move forward and were left dead or dying. I am also curious what firearms were used to lay down the accurate fire reported. Guess I’ll have to look it up. I appreciated the report as well as the historical facts behind the honor of saying, “Stand, gentlemen: he served on Samar.”

    1. Although it was Wikipedia, it apparently had a very short service life, both in actual use and production. It was interesting to note its rivalry with the Springfield/Krag combo as it pertained to the Philippines. Why did they ever retire the M14, by the way (when you have the chance)?

    2. I’m not certain how these projects get started, Koji-san. I know Eugene Stoner served in the Marines in the Pacific in World War II; I know that he began working on improvements to automatic weapons shortly after World War II. He was principally involved in the development of the ArmaLite-Fairchild technology after 1954 (AR-3 through AR-12). He went to Colt in 1961 where he developed the Stoner 63.

      Military planners wanted a lighter weapon in the jungles of Vietnam; the AR system was in development and it seems to be what the Army wanted. The Army has the lead in small arms development for DoD. By contrast, the M-14 had greater stopping power with the 7.62 mm round, but it was heavy. A grunt could carry 30 fully charged magazines for the AR-15/16, he couldn’t come close to doing that with the M-14. Plus, the M-14 flash suppressor gave battalion armorers fits.

      Marines in Iraq wanted the M-14 back because it was a high-powered weapon, while the M-16 and M-4 only manages to piss off the enemy (said one corporal). I suspect hyperbole there, but not entirely.

      That’s about all I know about it. Except that the M-14 is still around.

  5. Thank you for the correction on the M-14 not being retired and for putting you through this “project”, sir, but it is indeed interesting to this non-combatant. Weapons procured en masse for military purposes is not much different than any other politically connected project – a cluster _uck, as Clint said. Look at the silly Nambu Type 94 pistol not even its mother would love. It could fire off a round if the holder is not careful; other Nambus jammed like the M-4…but since the company’s owner was a former general, the imperfect weapons were ordered resulting in deaths of officers.

    Perhaps there isn’t a perfect carbine/weapon, but certainly the Administration needs to put our boots’ safety first. As written earlier, a couple of 442nd/100th vets energetically swore on the Garand but as you said, the clip held but eight rounds and would “twang”…but it worked well.

    1. I do think some elements still issue the M-14 as a specialty weapon (SEALs, perhaps). I can tell you that I really enjoyed my M-1, which I carried between 63-66—but it was not an automatic weapon. Squad automatic weapons were the Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), and they were heavy sons of bitches. And, if you didn’t support the weapon by holding the magazine, the weapon would jam. Back in the days of the 442nd and 100th, it was all they had. I will be willing to bet that had you offered any of those men a Stoner 63, they would have taken it in place of either the Garand or the BAR.

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