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Funston Captures Aguinaldo
In the wily, elusive leader of the Philippine Insurrection a bedeviled Uncle Sam almost met his match.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
On February 8, 1901, Funston was at his headquarters at San Isidro on Luzon Island when a detachment of American troops reported the surrender of some rebels in a nearby village. To be sure, rebels drifted into the American lines daily, offering to take the oath of allegiance; but this particular party happened to be commanded by Cecilio Segismundo, Aguinaldo’s trusted messenger. Furthermore, Segismundo was reported to be carrying some important dispatches.
Suspecting that this might be a significant development. Funston ordered Segismundo and the dispatches rushed to San Isidro. Under questioning the Filipino admitted that he was connected with Aguinaldo and identified the village of Palanan, in the mountainous northern reaches of Luzon, as the rebel headquarters. Segismundo told Funston that there were no more than fifty guards at Palanan, adding that even the villagers were unaware that the famous leader was in their midst. Aguinaldo was known to them simply as “Captain Emilio.”
Delaying judgment as to whether or not Segismundo was telling the truth, Funston then turned to the dispatches, many of which were in code. A closer examination revealed that some were signed with the names “Pastor” and “Colon Magdalo,” which were pseudonyms often used by Aguinaldo. The handwriting of the signatures was unmistakably his, so there could be no doubt that the dispatches were genuine.
Funston, another American officer, and Lazaro Segovia, a trusted intelligence agent who understood English, Spanish, and the Tagalog dialect of the islands, labored all night over the code. By morning, the messages were deciphered. Unfortunately they did not mention the location of Aguinaldo’s headquarters but indicated that this information was known by the bearer. Funston concluded that Segismundo had been telling the truth.
One of Funston’s first plans was to land a military force close to Palanan from a gunboat and march overland to the capital; but Segismundo warned that such an operation would be instantly detected. Actually an American column had entered Palanan some months before but had found nothing. Segismundo’s explanation was that the approach of the Americans had been reported and that the dictator had fled to the hills with his staff and archives.
Some other method would have to be found. At length, Funston concluded that Aguinaldo’s dispatches provided him with the method whereby the capture could be effected. The most important message was an order to Baldomero Aguinaldo, the dictator’s cousin, instructing him to assume command of all guerrilla operations in central Luzon. He was further ordered to have his subordinate commanders send some companies of crack troops to headquarters for Aguinaldo’s personal service.
Funston decided to disguise some loyal Filipinos and send them to Palanan posing as the men Aguinaldo had requested. Funston and a few other American officers, disguised as prisoners of war, would accompany the column. The plan was submitted to American Headquarters, where it was approved by General Arthur MacArthur (father of General Douglas MacArthur). Later, when the expedition was ready to depart, MacArthur voiced his misgivings as he seized the brigadier’s hand and said, “Funston, this is a desperate undertaking. I fear that I shall never see you again.”
The plan was prepared with care. Funston handpicked 81 Macabebes, whose loyalty to the United States was intensified by their traditional hatred of Aguinaldo’s Tagalogs. These Little Macs, as Funston dubbed his charges, were chosen because they spoke Tagalog in addition to their own dialect. They were armed with captured rebel rifles, and most of them were dressed as peasants, since few insurgents wore uniforms.
Since Funston was supposed to be a prisoner, the column would have to be under the command of Filipino officers. In addition to Segismundo, Funston picked Hilario Tal Placido, Lazaro Segovia, Dionisio Bató, and Gregorio Cadhit. Placido had been an officer in the rebel army before taking the oath of allegiance to the United States, and he knew Aguinaldo personally. To join him in acting as American prisoners (all the Americans were to be disguised as privates), Funston chose Captains Harry W. Newton and R.T. Hazzard, and Lieutenants Burton J. Mitchell and O.P.M. Hazzard. Newton knew something about the country through which the expedition would pass.
After sundown on March 6, 1901, the gunboat Vicksburg steamed out of Manila Bay with the expedition aboard. Once at sea, Funston revealed the nature of the adventure to his men. The ex-insurgent officers were visibly perturbed at being asked to go into the lion’s den, but the Macabebes were enthusiastic about the project. Pedro Bustos, a sergeant who wore decorations conferred by the Spanish, spoke up proudly, “My General, I cannot speak for the others; but for myself, I am a soldier of the United States.” Funston would have no difficulty with his Little Macs.