Like his legendary ancestor, Captain Cary Crockett made a name for himself as a fighting man, tasked with taming the Philippine frontier.
Clouds of malarial mosquitoes swarmed and the air hung heavy with humidity that evening in 1904. It was typical August weather in the Philippines. Captain Cary Ingram Crockett was resting in his hammock, perhaps recalling the relative comfort of the barracks in Manila where his company had been posted. Now on the island of Samar, along the Gandara River, Crockett and his men were a long way from the hustle and bustle of the capital city, but they were used to life in the jungle. For the past two years they had spent most of their time in the field fighting bandits and pulahan religious fanatics. Crockett’s company was one of the most disciplined and well trained in the ranks of the young Philippine Constabulary.
The jungle at night has its own unique natural sounds: the buzz of insects and the cries of animals. Yet, not all the sounds on this particular evening were normal; Crockett’s sentries heard swirling water and clapping paddles as they rubbed against wooden hulls. Since the river was closed to all traffic, those sounds meant one of two things: soldiers on their way upriver, or pulahanes on a raid. Sentries shouted out a challenge, and the call turned out the guard.
Tennessee-born Crockett, a distant relative of the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, had come to the Philippines in 1899 as a civilian contract wagon master, scout and guide for the U.S. Army. In those early days, soon after the 1898 Spanish cession of the islands, Crockett scouted routes and transported men and supplies across Luzon as American troops fought to put down insurrectionists. Two years in the field provided Crockett with a firsthand view of the battles and tactics used by both sides. As a wagon master of the 1st Division train under Maj. Gen. Henry Ware Lawton, Crockett was credited with rescuing a drowning trooper from the 4th Cavalry— exactly the sort of “Kipling adventure” he had sought when he initially signed on to go to the Philippines.
In 1901 Crockett and his brother, Eugene, joined the newly formed Philippine Constabulary. The organization had been established on Aug. 8, 1901, as a paramilitary police force under the general supervision of the islands’ civil governor general. The constabulary’s role was to maintain peace across the Philippines and help complete the pacification of the islands. Crockett quickly demonstrated his natural leadership skills as a soldier and his ever-fearless approach to taking on the enemy. By 1904 he’d risen to the rank of captain.
Brigadier General Henry Tureman Allen, commander of the constabulary, and Gov. Gen. Luke Edward Wright sent Crockett and his men to the island of Samar to reinforce and resupply the garrison and take command of the constabulary station at San Pelayo, a small fort adjacent to the Gandara River and surrounded by a cluster of thatch nipa huts, mangrove swamps and thick jungle. Crockett’s company added muscle to the existing station and patrolled the upper reaches of the Gandara, where they would engage the pulahanes, who had executed their murderous raids across Samar.
Members of an extremist religious movement and warrior cult, the pulahanes (Tagalog for “those wearing red”) were concentrated on the islands of Leyte and Samar. The latter acquired the nickname “Bloody Samar” when pulahanes in the town of Balangiga massacred Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry.
These native warriors were steeped in traditional mythology and practiced fanatical combat. Dressed in bright red shirts, flowing white capes and baggy pants, they were led by priest-warlords who stirred their followers into a frenzy. Notorious fighters, the pulahanes’ weapon of choice was the crescent-shaped, razor-sharp talibong (bolo knife), which they used to deadly effect in close-quarters fighting. The pulahanes also made good use of captured weapons, and in many a battle they were better armed than the constabulary troops chasing them.
What made the pulahanes truly dangerous was their belief that death in battle guaranteed an eternity in paradise. Their battle tactics were simple: advance in mass, fire a volley, draw their talibongs and rush toward foes in a frenzy, screaming, “Tad! Tad!” (“Chop! Chop!”).
On that August night on Samar, peering into the darkness, Crockett and his men made out three large dugout canoes—each carrying four constabulary barrotas— soldiers and a number of native porters. The sergeant commanding the expedition told Crockett he was transporting rations and dispatches to Blanca Aurora, at the head of the south fork of the Gandara, where he was to meet up with his company before joining an expedition tasked with reconnoitering pulahan strongholds.
Since arriving at San Pelayo, Crockett and his men had limited their patrolling. In the vegetation-choked jungle, such forays were time consuming and prone to ambush; in contrast, boat patrols upriver allowed for speed and stealth. With five small wooden canoes at his disposal, Crockett could only transport 17 men and supplies—wholly inadequate for an extended expedition to the interior of Samar. The sergeant let his men rest before setting out in the morning. Crockett and two squads of Company A accompanied the visitors.
The eight boats left San Pelayo with the incoming tide and headed upriver, arriving two hours later at the bamboo stockade known as Camp Gandara. The Army officer commanding a company of Visayan Scouts and a medical officer met them over breakfast; the scouts briefed Crockett and his men on pulahan movements and attacks in the region.
Eager to arrive at their rendezvous point before dark, Crockett decided to proceed, regardless of the risk. The trip was uneventful. After hours of paddling the group arrived at Blanca Aurora and were greeted by a Visayan Constabulary unit of nearly 100 men camped near the river’s edge.
Lieutenant George Bowers, commander of the Samar Constabulary in Tarangnan, and Lieutenant Charles Schreiner had spent the previous nine days looking for the pulahanes’ main stronghold on the Magpagpao mountain range north of Cagtotoy. It was there in Samar’s interior that Bowers and his company captured 35 pulahan women and children. He planned to send his prisoners back to his headquarters in Tarangnan.
Bowers asked Crockett to join forces and campaign together, but, having left San Pelayo without an officer in command, Crockett needed to return without delay. The next morning, August 21, as the sun rose, Crockett and his men readied for their departure. Bowers had selected his best sergeants to take the supplies and prisoners downriver to Tarangnan in the barrotas.
Crockett and his men prepared their smaller and faster dugouts for the trip downriver. They planned to stop at Bulao, a burned-out village on the left bank of the Gandara they had passed on the way upriver and where they had noted fresh tracks in the tall grass. Bulao stood on a strategic bluff, a vantage point that offered a commanding view of the river and jungle below. It was one of the few large villages and centers of commerce in the region, making it a prime target of the red-shirted pulahan fanatics for both supplies and hostages.
Reaching the village, Crockett and his men jumped from their dugouts and made their way through the tall grass, passing numerous skeletons of adults and children. Back on the river the sergeants and porters in the fully loaded barrotas set out downriver toward Tarangnan. It was a quiet day, the sun glaring down and the steam of the jungle building. As the boats rounded a bend a short distance from Bulao, one of the sergeants spotted a band of pulahanes swimming across the river. The sergeant and his soldiers opened fire. At that instant a red-clad figure waving a bolo rose from the tall grass on the north shore and yelled to the captive women to overturn the soldiers’ barrotas and swim for shore. In an instant the constabulary soldiers were struggling in the water, weighed down by rifles, ammunition and field gear. Some tried to hang on to the sides of the boats and fight the current. Both riverbanks came alive with pulahanes.
On the north bank pulahan leader Antonio Anugar’s best riflemen took aim and fired, while a large force of bolomen lay in wait. On the south shore a mass of bolomen chased the overturned canoes full of supplies.
Those constabulary troops able to find their footing and fight the current returned fire, but within minutes seven had been shot and were drifting lifelessly downriver. An eighth soldier, taking aim at a pulahan bandit, was shot in the chest and, with his rifle held in a death grip, slowly sank below the surface.
Five surviving soldiers made it to the south bank but were met by shrieking bolomen. Private 2nd Class Ynocencio Delao, the first to reach the shore, saw a pulahan captain named Lucas seize a barrota and head downriver in pursuit of 15 helpless porters adrift in the current. Delao leapt into another barrota along the shore and went in pursuit. Well ahead, Lucas began hacking at the helpless porters with his bolo. As Delao’s barrota drew near he took aim at Lucas and fired a single shot, killing the pulahan captain. Delao saved the lives of five porters, though he arrived too late for the others butchered by Lucas.
Delao made his way to the shoreline and scrambled up the slippery and muddy bank on his hands and knees to rejoin his squad. While doing so, he lost his grip on his rifle and could only watch helplessly as it slid into the river. Private Valentine Buna, now the only armed squad member, formed the remaining soldiers into a compact spearhead, with the hope of fighting off the pulahanes. Drawing upon their training and discipline, Buna with his single rifle and four other privates with bolos fought their way through a mass of fanatics to gain the safety of the dense jungle.
Crockett’s force had just begun its reconnaissance of Bulao when the gunfire erupted downriver. Any shot heard in the jungle was a bad sign, so Crockett ordered his troops back to their canoes. As they rounded the bend in the river, they could see the water erupting all around the barrotas. Crockett and his men beached their canoes on the north shore and ran into the thick conga grass lining river’s edge. The pulahanes hadn’t noticed their approach, and the soldiers deployed in a skirmish line, their left flank along the river.
Kneeling in the tall grass, the constabulary troops took careful aim with their Springfield rifles. At Crockett’s command the men fired a volley that killed or wounded a number of bandits. The pulahanes returned fire, but their aim was off, and their salvo fell short, wounding five of Crockett’s men in the feet and legs. The captain ordered a charge, the bugle notes ringing out as the soldiers rushed their enemy. The pulahanes drew their bolos and charged toward the blue-shirted soldiers. As the pulahanes moved to outflank his small command, Crockett gave the order to form a battle circle, which his men executed in one flawless movement. Facing outward in two ranks, the soldiers fired steadily at the advancing enemy.
Crockett’s company included some of the most skilled fighters in the Philippines—men trained to make every shot count. Each knew that to survive the day he must drop four or five pulahanes before they could get close enough to use their bolos, and every volley tore holes in the pulahan ranks.
In his campaign hat and sweat-stained khaki uniform with crimson epaulets, Crockett stood out as the officer in command. The pulahanes centered their attack on him, hoping to break the constabulary ranks and discipline. Crockett fired round after round from his 12- gauge Winchester shotgun, and five pulahanes soon lay dead or dying at his feet. As one of the red-shirted fanatics leapt forward swinging his bolo, Crockett parried with the shotgun, catching the heavy bolo blade in the gun’s stock and dispatching the pulahan with a blow to his skull.
His shotgun empty, Crockett drew and fired away with his Colt revolver. Pulahan captain Francisco Banaldie, singling out Crockett, drew his bolo and crawled toward the American, then rose and charged from just feet away. Though Crockett emptied his revolver into his attacker, the rounds seemed to have little effect, as Banaldie pressed on without faltering. The pulahan towered over the kneeling officer and brought down his bolo blade with sweeping blows, striking Crockett across the shoulders and chest. Before Banaldie could muster a fatal blow, he dropped dead.
Other pulahanes closed in on the severely wounded Crockett, who lay partially covered by dead insurgents. Sergeant Tranquilino Pajara, though having been shot and slashed, placed his body between his captain and the attackers. Pajara and the bodies of the slain pulahanes shielded Crockett from further bolo thrusts in the throes of hand-to-hand combat. While Pajara helped Crockett extricate himself from beneath the corpses, Privates Serefin Fortunato, Cosme Bravo and Santos Figueroa rallied their company and sent volley after volley of lead into the enemy, killing those who persisted with their bolos or the butts of their Springfields. The enemy’s eventual retreat into the jungle signaled the end of the battle at Bulao, in which Crockett and his 16 constabulary soldiers had held off some 300 pulahanes and killed at least 40. It was a fight that truly embodied the motto of the Philippine Constabulary: “Always Outnumbered, But Never Outfought.”
At Camp Gandara, doctors treated Crockett and the other wounded constabulary troops, and the next day a steam-powered launch headed upriver to recover captured weapons, including four Krag rifles taken from 9th Infantry soldiers massacred at Balangiga.
For their bravery against overwhelming odds and at the risk of their own lives on that August day, Captain Crockett, Sergeant Pajara and Privates Fortunato, Bravo, Figuroa and Delao were each awarded the Insular Government’s highest honor, the Philippine Medal of Valor.
Crockett would fight in several more battles on Samar and elsewhere in the Philippines before being posted to the newly opened Constabulary Officers’ School at the Santa Lucia Barracks in Intramuros in February 1905. There he drew upon his expertise as a combat-hardened jungle fighter, developing a curriculum to help ensure that officers would be well prepared for their future postings, able to balance their responsibilities as both the military and civil authority in their new commands.
Crockett remained in the constabulary until 1908, when he resigned and accepted a lieutenant’s commission in the U.S. Army. He served in the 28th Infantry as an intelligence officer during the 1916–17 Punitive Expedition in Mexico and during World War I as a member of the headquarters staff of the 88th Division in France. Following the war he was one of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing’s military advisers in Nicaragua. Crockett returned to the Philippines in 1932 as aide-de-camp to Gov. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. He ended his professional career heading up an American Red Cross commission in Spain. Crockett’s adventurous life came to an end in 1947.
Joseph T.N. Suarez is a historian and author of the folio Philippine Air Service, 1920–1921. He serves as an executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton and is a former director of the National Air & Space Society, Smithsonian Institution. For further reading he recommends Jungle Patrol, by Vic Hurley, and Bullets and Bolos, by John R. White.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.