On September 28, 1901, some 150 natives of the town of Balangiga, on the island of Samar, staged a dawn attack on Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry. In ten nightmarish minutes, all but twelve of the Americans were hacked to death with bolos. The survivors managed a near-miraculous retreat by sea. General MacArthur said plaintively in a report: “Each little command has had to provide his own service of security and information by never ceasing patrols, explorations, outposts, escorts and regular guards.”

Soon the troops were singing some rather quaint songs. The favorite, sung to the tune of “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” began:

Damn, damn, damn llie Filipino, Pock-marked Kodiac ladrone [bandit]; Underneath the starry flag Civilize him with a Krag And return us to our beloved home.

None of this highly charged background made Pershing’s task simpler at Camp Vicars, on Mindanao. From the high ground on which the camp was built he could look down on beautiful, 450-square-mile Lake Lanao. Around its placid shores were an estimated eighty thousand turbulent tribesmen; Pershing had only about seven hundred men. Compounding his problems was the fact that the natives were Moros, tribesmen who, long since converted to Mohammedanism, were fortified by the warrior doctrines of the Koran. They had evolved their own culture, which encouraged piracy, slavery, multiple marriage, and a fierce fondness for death in battle.

Moro society was still highly feudal; hundreds of local chiefs, called datus , each governed anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand subjects according to the precepts of the Koran. These less-than-amicable characters were not about to surrender their authority to American military men who came announcing that slavery and piracy must cease.

Unlike many of his brother officers, however, Pershing had given some serious thought and preparation to his job. During his first year in the Philippines he had served as a staff officer of the general in command of the Department of Mindanao and JoIo. He had plenty of spare time, and he spent it studying the Moros. Twelve years earlier he had done much the same thing when he led Negro troops of the 10th Cavalry into Apache country. (That tour of duty later inspired West Point cadets to call him “Nigger Jack” in retaliation for his hard-nosed discipline as an Academy instructor. Softened to “Blackjack,” the sobriquet stuck with him throughout his Army career.) His tour with Negro Americans fighting the last rebel redmen in America apparently destroyed any racial prejudice Pershing might have picked up in his Missouri boyhood. Although languages were not his forte—a West Point classmate said the only time he had ever seen Pershing frightened was before French recitations—he had become conversant in some of the Moro dialects. He even learned to read Arabic, and studied the Koran. The swift acquisition of these skills, and his obvious enthusiasm, won Pershing the command at Camp Vicars.

Behind Pershing’s efforts lay a clear-cut sense of mission. His attitude is evident in a letter, previously unpublished, that he wrote to a West Point classmate on September 12, 1900: It seems a pity that the Archipelago has been for centuries in practical possession of people separated into tribes that are so distinct as to have little or nothing in common, and also that no strong hand has been at the head of affairs to guide them by example and by education towards unity of purpose and towards eventual self government. …

A government by force is the only one these people have ever known. Those of them who seek official preferment among their own people usually do so by force and principally for personal gain. You know the leaders of the insurrectos and of the roving bands of ladrones are of every blood,—a French mestizo here, a Chinese mestizo there, and so on, nearly all being adventurers whose previous lives would not make very good models to follow. These marauders terrorize the peaceably inclined inhabitants and are followed by a crowd whom they inspire by glibly talking of independence, which means to that same crowd a right to steal, pillage and kill to their heart’s content. …

It has been urged by some people at home that the Filipinos should be given their independence. Such a thing would result in anarchy. To whom would we turn over the government? Tagalog, Viscayan, Igorrote, Maccabebee or Moro? No one can answer that any one of these tribes represents the people in any sense, any more than the Sioux represents all the Indians in America. There is no national spirit, and except the few agitators, these people do not want to try independence. They will have to be educated up to it and to self government as we understand it, and their education will take time and patience. It is a grand work cut out for us from which there should be no shirking.

In this spirit, Pershing set out to convince the local datus that he was the Moros’ friend. He made it clear that unlike the Spanish, the Americans had no desire to convert them to Christianity. While other officers were applying the “civilize ‘em with a Krag” philosophy elsewhere in the islands, Pershing urged the datus to take up farming.