- Historic Sites
Home-front antiwar sentiment soared as ever more troops were sent to fight a fierce guerilla enemy in the Philippine “Black Jack” was caught in the cross fire
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
On the Fourth of July, 1902, the captain astonished his men by inviting seven hundred nearby Moros to visit Camp Vicars; the fascinated guests watched the Americans play a strange game in which one man threw a ball at another who defended himself with a bat. Then the natives and soldiers shared the best supper the Army commissary could supply.
This was truly revolutionary stuff in 1902, when the British sahib attitude toward colonials—separate and unequal—was considered the apotheosis of military wisdom. It was well that Pershing blended diplomacy with soldiering to the extent he did, because back home the anti-imperialists in Congress had forced the administration to hold a series of hearings on the conduct of the war. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Henry Cabot Lodge, did his best to keep hostile witnesses at bay, opposition senators produced grisly testimony from Army court-martial records. The nation heard about such cruelties as the “water torture,” which involved pouring gallons of water down a guerrilla’s throat to make him talk, and about the foul-ups that led to the starvation of hundreds of civilians in American “reconcenlration camps” on Samar. The hearings were a source of growing embarrassment for the administration. A noted American historian, John Holladay Latanc, looked through the 3,000 pages of testimony and called it a “humiliating record.” In an emotional speech Senator Hoar predicted that the Philippines would never surrender, that the United States could not win the war, and that the conflict would last three hundred years.
On Mindanao, Pershing may have had similar thoughts. His peace preaching was failing to impress some of the more powerful datus. By night they sent their most daring warriors down to the perimeter of Camp Vicars, where they sniped at American sentries, beat tom-toms, and howled insults. “There was not a tent in the camp that had no bullet holes,” Pershing later said.
Around the camp was a network of small outposts, and these were favorite targets of the infiltrators. When a Moro got close enough to make a final rush, nothing less than a bullet in the heart or brain could stop him. This was especially true of a juramentado , as the Americans, like the Spanish before them, called a Moro who had sworn a sacred oath to kill as many Christians as possible.
Pershing put his men on maximum alert. “No fires, no lights and no smoking will be allowed by outposts,” he ordered. “Conversation will be in low tones. Outposts should be moved to a new position just after dark, and on moonlight nights after the moon goes down.” Sentries were told to shoot anything that moved at night, except along carefully prescribed trails. One corporal almost killed a lieutenant who strayed off the specified route; Pershing praised the corporal for doing his job.
Despite all these precautions, Moros got through. One night in August, a charge over- whelmed one outpost, leaving two men dead and two others slashed and bleeding. Pershing the psychologist decided to become Pershing the warrior. “It’s stupid to sit here and let these people shoot us up,” he said.
The Captain fired off a message to headquarters at Malabang, on the coast, asking permission to go into action. “Further forbearance might lead friendly Moros also to misjudge our tolerance and take up arms,” he warned. He got the go-ahead, and within two weeks he rode out of Camp Vicars at the head of a formidable column. Besides his well-armed, blue-shirted infantry in their broad-brimmed campaign hats, a train of mules carried mountain howitzers and Catling guns that gave the Americans vastly superior firepower.
Pershing’s objective was the cota of the sultan of Maciu, a fortress on a promontory on Lake Lanao. It was all but surrounded by water and a formidable swamp. Pershing made a thorough reconnaissance and then ordered his engineers to bridge the swamp.
Sweating and cursing, the Americans went to work. Huge trees came crashing down to be trimmed and pounded into the mucky earth. For two weeks the men labored, while the Moros harassed them by night. Yet the job was finally done, and Pershing swiftly pushed his skirmish lines to within a few hundred feet of the fort. His problems were far from solved. The ancient stronghold loomed above the weary Americans in the shimmering heat, its walls ten feet thick and its wide moat further discouraging a frontal assault. With the Americans in sight, the six hundred Moros inside were creating a horrendous racket by beating their war drums, pounding their gongs, and howling curses and insults—their way of whipping up courage. They were also banging away with ancient cannons and rifles. Over all flew the sultan’s long red battle flags.
Pershing called for his artillery. For the time being he was content to let his howitzers drop shell after shell inside the fort.
Toward midnight the crashing, clanging racket within the stronghold reached a kind of climax. The Americans grasped their rifles and checked their bayonets. Then there came a wild cry from the fort: La ilaha il-la’l-lahu (“There is no god but Allah”). Out swarmed the Moros, shrieking war cries, while the priests whanged gongs and exhorted them from the walls of the fort.
Pershing’s men were ready. The howitzers belched clouds of death-dealing canister. The infantrymen, firing by the volley, coolly blasted the attackers off their feet. Not a Moro reached the American lines.