- 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
Early in 1903, Pershing decided to take a gamble. He would march his command all the way around the lake, punishing the rebel bands one by one. His first target was the sultan of Bacolod and his warriors. They greeted the Americans with the usual clangor of gongs and unfurling of battle flags. The sultan contemptuously ignored Pershing’s demand for an immediate surrender. He thought he could afford to be arrogant. His fort was considered impregnable. Like the stronghold of Maciu, it was on the lake shore, with a moat forty feet deep and thirty-five feet wide; its earthen and bamboo walls were twenty feet thick. The bambooreinforced mud roof was practically bomb-proof. Just behind the parapet, there was a covered subway that ran all the way around the fort. And these Moros had modern weapons: Mauser and Remington bullets sang past the head of any American who showed himself. This time Pershing could not afford a siege. He had to strike hard and fast before other sultans in the neighborhood caught war fever and started hacking away at his rear.
For two days, Pershing softened up the fort with artillery. Firing from ridges above the lake, the gunners were able to drop shells accurately into the well between the outer parapet and the rest of the fort. But they did little or no damage to the roof except to demolish the huge war flags—which sent the Moros into frenzies of rage.
Then suddenly, without warning, the Americans found themselves facing another formidable enemy. Behind the lines, one, two, three, a half dozen men were prostrate in their tents, retching and fouling their bedding. It was cholera. Pershing enforced the most stringent sanitary procedures; all water had to be boiled, no food whatsoever was to be bought from a native. But more men sickened, and two died on successive days. Now an assault became an absolute necessity: with cholera at their backs, the men’s morale would disintegrate in a long siege.
On the afternoon of the third day, the Americans moved forward behind a curtain of cannon and machine-gun fire. Suddenly there was a cry of anguish from the first skirmish line. The long grass was thick with pointed bamboo stakes. Then came a crash (and a string of profanity): someone had fallen into a camouflaged pit. Bleeding, bruised, and fighting mad, the Americans finally reached the edge of the moat. The Moros blazed away through the crenels in the parapet, but their aim was atrocious.
Behind the assault companies came detachments lugging several huge trees, which they toppled across the ditch, creating shaky, makeshift bridges. The engineers threw brush and branches into the ditch under them for those who lost their balance. Two sergeants, a corporal, and a lieutenant tightroped across, followed by a company of the 27th Infantry. At least a half dozen men wound up flat on their backs on the brush below. But, said Arnold Henry Savage Landor, an English reporter on the scene, they “climbed like cats up the steep wall” and joined in the wild brawl that was developing on the parapet.
Moros came rushing to meet the Americans, swinging campilans —huge, two-handed swords. Sergeant Samuel Hafer, the third man up on the wall, had his arm lopped off. The huge parapet was like a small mountain, and the Moros had burrowed all sorts of secret passageways through it. A private named Cosser was attacked from behind by two natives who sprang out of one of these holes. He knocked one into the ditch with the butt of his rifle and shot the other, but in ten flashing seconds Cosser was bleeding in six places. As the regimental surgeon bent over the bleeding Hafer, the chief priest of Bacolod leaped from another secret tunnel, waving a campilan. The doctor clouted him in the chest with his fist, and sent him spinning into the ditch. According to Landor, he was shot full of holes before he hit the bottom. Meanwhile, up and down the parapet Americans were proving that a bayonet in the hands of a well-trained soldier was more than equal to a Moro’s kris. In five minutes there was not a living Moro left on the parapet.
The troops swarmed forward, over the subway and up onto the roof of the fort. The Moros inside were howling war cries. To clean them out man by man would have cost Pershing dozens of casualties. Instead, he ordered brush shoved through an opening in the roof; kerosene was applied, and it was ignited. In five minutes the fort was an inferno. Pershing pulled back his men and sat on the safe side of the ditch until a tremendous explosion blew the roof off Bacolod.
A quick body count taken in the still-burning fort showed thirty Moro soldiers dead on the top floor. Pershing had smashed the strongest fort on Mindanao in a frontal assault that cost him just three men wounded and none killed.
If Pershing was pleased by the results of the battle, others were not. The hostile Manila American headlined: “ BACOLOD MOROS SLAUGHTERED WITH KRAGS .” But Pershing and his fellow officers were under orders to make no reply to such criticism. He simply pushed his weary men forward, determined to complete his march around the lake. At another trouble spot, Calahui, he earned a dividend from his swift reduction of Bacolod. Instead of slugging it out, the Calahui fort surrendered after a brief bombardment, and the Calahui sultans and datus met the Americans with smiles and escorts.