Skip to main content

Pershing’s Island War

June 2024
18min read

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

The lean, mustached American captain pointed to the document on the table before him. Across the table were a half dozen small, brown-skinned men wearing colorful turbans and brilliant silk trousers. At his waist each carried a long, serpentine kris, razor-sharp, made from the finest German steel. A good many companions, similarly armed, stood a few yards away.

Nearby, American sentries nervously fingered their Krag-forgensen bolt-action rifles. The captain was obviously getting nowhere with his exotic visitors, who shook their heads and glared defiance.

The captain wheeled and gave a signal to two lieutenants. One of them snapped an order, and two enlisted men trotted out of the captain’s tent, one carrying a dead pig, and the other a bucket of blood. The captain knew that his turbaned adversaries regarded pigs’ blood as the ultimate defilement; he ladled some from the pail and held it under their noses. He then drew back his arm as if to fling the blood in their faces.

The visitors shrank back. Then, slowly, silently, they came forward and scratched their marks on the paper, pledging somewhat dubious allegiance to the United States of America. The dead pig and the bucket of blood vanished. Captain John J. Pershing’s frown be- came a smile. Thus, in the summer of 1902, a peace of sorts was restored to part of the Philippine island of Mindanao.

It had taken months of patient wheedling to persuade these chieftains to consider a peace conference. Less than a year before, when a well-armed American punitive force had been sent to Mindanao’s troublesome Lake Lanao district, these little men with their wavy swords and antique muskets had defied the colonel in command, daring him into a pitched battle. The Americans soon found themselves fighting for their lives. Only their superior firepower saved them from annihilation by these dark warriors, who flung themselves at the Yankee rifles in wave after reckless wave. The colonel hastily retired to the coast, and Captain Pershing, who had accompanied him on the “reconnaissance-in-force,” was left in charge of a base camp, with orders to “pacify” the area.

This was still par for the muddling course in 1902, which found America fighting a war in the Philippines —a dirty, vicious guerrilla affair, rife with assassinations and ambushes. At first the generals on the scene and the politicians in Washington had predicted that the fighting would be over in a month or two, but their optimism looked less and less justified with each successive increment in American troop commitment.

The Philippines had fallen into America’s lap when Commodore George Dewey blasted Spain’s Far Eastern Fleet into oblivion on May 1, 1898 (see “The Sham Battle of Manila” in the December, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). But the United States was not alone in its interest in the islands. European colonialism was at high tide, and the great powers were hell-bent on grabbing any loose land they could find—the better to justify the enormous funds they were pouring into their armies and navies—and both Britain and Germany had potent fleets in the area. But in December of 1898 a defeated Spain ceded the islands to the United States. America then decided to “protect” its “little brown brothers” until they were ready for self-government.

But the Filipinos did not see it that way. They had been running a fairly successful revolution against the Spanish when the Americans arrived, and in February of 1899 they started shooting up the Yanquis with equal enthusiasm.

Americans under Major General Arthur MacArthur scattered the untrained Filipino army in a nine-month campaign. But when the natives shifted to guerrilla tactics in early 1900, the situation became much more trying. To its own astonishment and the world’s, America was forced to commit some 120,000 men—two thirds of its armed forces—to pacify the country.

For a while the Filipinos received some outside encouragement; they were especially heartened by the support they won from distinguished Americans. Intellectuals like William James, John Dewey, and Mark Twain, and politicians like Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts, a member of President McKinley’s own party, formed the American Anti-Imperialist League to protest the war. They compared MacArthur and his fellow generals to Oliver Cromwell, the seventeenthcentury conqueror of Ireland, and to General Valeriano Weyler, the Spanish “Butcher” of Cuba. The league’s magazine urged American soldiers to revolt against their commanders and to refuse to fight. It was denounced as seditious propaganda and barred from the Philippines, which caused still another uproar, this one about freedom of the press.

When the Democratic party backed the anti-imperialists, the Republican administration became keenly aware of the political tiger it was riding. President McKinley issued a directive, effective July 4, 1901, ending military rule in the islands except “in those districts in which insurrection … continues to exist or in which public order is not sufficiently restored to enable the Provisional Civil Government to be established.” But the guerrilla warfare continued unabated; before it was over, Americans would fight 2,811 separate battles and actions.

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.

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.

For the rest of the night the Moro fort was shrouded in silence. When dawn filtered through the thick jungle at their backs, Pershing’s men shouted with surprise and delight. The red battle flags were gone. The Moros had decamped by water. In the torn and ripped grass before them the Americans counted twenty bodies, proof that the enemy had retreated in disarray. Traditionally the Moros were careful to retrieve their dead.

But Pershing knew better than to let anyone into the fort. As dawn brightened into day, he insisted on maintaining his lines intact. Within minutes the men saw why. Out of the ditch sprang a half dozen white-robed juramentados, their eyebrows shaved and their hair cut short. Whirling their krises above their heads, they flung themselves at the American lines, only to be met point-blank by volleys that no amount of fanaticism could survive. They toppled in their tracks, and Pershing pronounced the fort of Maciu safe to enter.

After burning as much of it as would take fire, Pershing marched his men through numerous villages along the southern shore of Lake Lanao, where he made it clear that he and not the sultan was now the man in charge. But he reiterated to all the minor datus the assurances he had given to his visitors at Camp Vicars. The Americans wanted only one thing: to see an end to cattle stealing, slave trading, and piracy. To substantiate his word, Pershing kept his men under perfect discipline. Not a Moro woman was touched, nothing was so much as “borrowed” from a native hut.

Elsewhere in the islands the war was not going as well. On Samar, a sixty-man native constabulary unit and its American commanding officer were wiped out in an ambush. Back home the anti-imperialists wrote a letter to President Roosevelt demanding the immediate withdrawal of American forces from the Philippines. When Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a report on the war, he was savagely attacked as a liar and a criminal. The anti-imperialists continued to hold protest meetings around the nation and distributed printed matter attacking government policy.

Meanwhile at Camp Vicars Pershing had another opportunity to show his good intentions. A cholera epidemic broke out in the district, and the Americans were quick to respond with medicine and medical advice. The policy paid off handsomely in good will.

At about the same time Pershing received a visit from the sultan of Bayan, a powerful local war lord, who came to talk peace. Surrounded by attendants, the sultan strutted into Vicars in his fanciest purple vest and red pants. Pershing treated him like a king. He played music for him on a phonograph, gave him an honor guard, feasted him royally, and all but drowned him in effusive flattery. The sultan responded by swearing eternal friendship and fidelity to the Americans.

“Your Honor,” said Pershing when the sultan was about to leave, “I’m going to return your compliment by visiting you.” The sultan looked dismayed, but was too proud to tell Pershing that he did not care to have American soldiers on his doorstep.

A month later, then, a heavily escorted Pershing appeared before the sultan’s imposing fort, high on a mountainside. Up the ladders, which were the only

access to the place, climbed Pershing and his men—who then raised the American flag. Coolly eyeing the sultan and his swarm of followers, with the inevitable carving knives on their hips, Pershing said: “Your Honor will, I hope, permit us to fire a salute to our flag.”


Once more the sultan could only agree, and at a nod from Pershing the gunners cut loose with twentyone blasts. They fired live ammunition into the jungle, and the Moros were properly impressed. This was Pershing’s way of making sure that the sultan’s retainers would be “courteous and friendly.” The sultan now became so enthusiastic about Pershing that he pronounced himself prepared to consecrate the Christian American chief a datu. This was truly an unprecedented honor and Pershing accepted it with utter seriousness; he knew that it would give him tremendous influence with Moros everywhere.

Back at Vicars, Pershing was soon so highly regarded by many Moros that he could write to a friend: “If I should say: ‘Go and kill this man or that,’ the next day they would appear in camp with his head.” He did not, of course, pursue such tactics; he continued to preach peace and prosperity. But only the Moros in the vicinity of Camp Vicars were inclined to listen. The sultan of Bacolod, commanding some six hundred warriors and a series of forts high on the western shore, remained a rambunctious rebel. He regularly sent nasty letters to Camp Vicars, insisting that the Americans convert to Mohammedanism, stop eating pork, and march in a body to Bacolod, where his chief priest “will practice circumcision upon you.” The sultan had truculent allies on those three sides of the big lake where the American presence was not immediate.

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.

But soon Pershing was in territory where no white soldier had ever marched before. Three more times he had to send his infantrymen over the walls of defiant forts. As at Bacolod, each attack was meticulously planned and flawlessly executed. Although there were times when the engineers had to corduroy a road through swamps, and mules and horses had to be all but carried through jungle mud, Pershing completed his circuit of the lake in six weeks. By then the entire region had sullenly conceded that the American datu was a fighting man more than equal to the toughest son of Allah. Back home, news of the whirlwind campaign, which cost less than twenty American lives (some were cholera victims), thrilled the entire country. Landor said that Uncle Sam owed the pacification of the Lake Lanao region “entirely to the tact, consideration and patience and strategic skill” of Captain John J. Pershing. And then the writer added: “If there is one man who deserves to be made a Brigadier General, it is this gallant officer.”


Pershing was by now showing symptoms of battle fatigue. He had been in the Philippines for almost thirty-six months, eighteen of them in the nerve-stretching tension of Camp Vicars. The doctors, against Pershing’s protests, sent him home. Theodore Roosevelt, in his annual address to Congress, singled him out as an answer to the anti-imperialists’ attempt to picture American soldiers as brainless butchers. He added: “When a man renders such service as Captain Pershing … it ought to be possible to reward him.” But the Army system of promotion by seniority, which Congress refused to change, left the President helpless.

As for the anti-imperialists, there was a strange note of defeat in the oratory at their 1903 meeting. Harvard’s great psychologist, William James, warned: “To the ordinary citizen, anti-imperialism is something petrified, a religion that means only to prophesy and denounce.” He advised them to stop protesting the war and work on a plan for Philippine independence.

The guerrilla war slowly flickered out, but not without further incident. At Zamboanga on Mindanao, Moros charged into the very heart of Army headquarters and killed the commanding general’s secretary. On one northern island, members of a native constabulary company rebelled, assassinated their American commander, and had to be hunted down.

Captain Pershing, meanwhile, was still on Roosevelt’s mind. Fuming over his defeat by the Army lobby on the promotion issue, he sent Pershing to the Army War College, kept him on duty in Washington as a military attaché for a year, and then decided to jump him—over the heads of 862 senior officers—directly to brigadier general. Although the President cannot promote officers to lower ranks, the right to appoint generals belongs exclusively to him.

Late in 1906 Pershing returned to the Philippines, where eventually he was made the military governor of Moro Province. He played a key role in the drawn-out process of final pacification. In 1913 he led his men in a last pitched battle, which crushed some five hundred rebellious Moros holed up in Mount Bagsak, an extinct volcano on the island of JoIo. When one of his captains was killed in the assault, Pershing himself joined the kris-swinging, bayonet-slashing melee with highly ungeneral-like enthusiasm.

The news of the fight brought a last flicker of protest from the anti-imperialists at home. But Pershing stood his ground and replied that the rebels were “notorious cattle thieves and murderers.” William Cameron Forbes, the U.S. governor general of the Philippines, backed him wholeheartedly, declaring that Pershing had “exercised the utmost patience in endeavoring to appeal to the reason of the Moro people and in avoiding a recourse to arms.”

Six months later Pershing sailed for home. Soon, after a frustrating chase after another guerrilla leader, Pancho Villa, in Mexico, “Black Jack” would be making history on a larger scale—as commander in chief of American doughboys in World War I. As for the now pacified Moros, they paid him the kind of tribute Pershing probably understood better than any other American: they promoted him from datu to sultan.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.