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Valor: The Cliff-Scaling Captain

By Chuck Lyons
11/1/2017 • Military History Magazine

Hiram Bearss

U.S. Marine Corps

Medal of Honor

The Philippines

November 17, 1901

Hiram Bearss earned his first major decoration, the Medal of Honor, in the Philippines for leading his men down booby-trapped jungle trails, across a tropical river and up sheer volcanic cliffs to overrun a Filipino facility enemy POWs had called “impregnable.” It was the first of many decorations.

Bearss was born in Indiana in 1875, commissioned a Marine Corps second lieutenant in 1898 and served stateside during the Spanish-American War. Promoted to first lieutenant in May 1899, he was sent to serve under Major Littleton “Tony” Waller in the Philippines.

There, on the island of Samar, Filipino General Vicente Lukbán had established a resistance base atop the Sohoton Cliffs, 16 miles north of the coastal town of Basey. Filipino prisoners warned Waller the position had been years in the making and could not be taken. Commanding practically sheer 200-foot cliffs the prisoners claimed were “impossible to climb,” the position was booby-trapped, defended by bamboo cannon and honeycombed with caves and tunnels that allowed defenders to move about undetected. The Filipino defenders had also suspended tons of rock in woven nets, ready to be loosed on anyone attempting to scale the cliffs.

Nonetheless, in mid-November 1901, Waller led an amphibious assault force of 75 men with a 3-inch field gun up the Sohoton River against the position. He assigned Bearss, by then a captain, to lead a second group of Marines toting a Colt-Browning machine gun by land from Basey, while a third group under Captain David Dixon Porter marched from Balangiga to rendezvous with Bearss. The plan was for the two land columns to attack at daybreak as Waller created a diversion.

Bearss carefully led his troops from the coast along snake-infested jungle trails booby-trapped with trees rigged with poisoned spears and concealed pits embedded with poisoned stakes. Joining forces on the riverbank opposite the Filipino stronghold, Porter and Bearss’ columns surprised and overran several enemy positions. Though Waller’s column had yet to arrive, the captains decided to press their advantage and assault the clifftop stronghold.

It was Nov. 17, 1901.

Sergeant John Quick provided covering fire with the machine gun as the assault force crossed the river. The Marines negotiated another booby-trapped trail to the base of the cliffs, then began scaling its face on makeshift bamboo ladders and along narrow ledges fitted with bamboo handrails. Quick’s fire kept the Filipinos from loosing the rock-filled nets, but the defenders kept up a steady hail of musket fire, arrows and spears and fought the Marines hand to hand as they worked their way up the cliff face. Bearss led the way.

“I had blown my mouth so long to the men,” he later wrote, “that I wouldn’t order them anywhere I wouldn’t go —that I didn’t have the guts to tell the fellow behind me to go first.”

It was over quickly.

Bears and his men destroyed an enemy powder magazine, 40 small cannon and other supplies and raised the American flag to let Waller know the position had been secured. The Marines had killed 30 insurgents in the action without incurring a single casualty.

Bearss continued to serve in the Philippines and later in Latin America, reaching the rank of major in 1915 and lieutenant colonel the following year. At the outbreak of World War I, he accompanied the 5th Marines to France, trained troops in trench warfare tactics and led them into combat. After the war, Bearss served briefly in Paris and then Philadelphia and at Quantico before, bedeviled by medical problems, he retired in late November 1919 at the rank of colonel.

By that time he had earned 18 decorations including a Distinguished Service Cross, Navy and Army Distinguished Service Medals, a Silver Star, the French Légion d’honneur and Croix de guerre with two palms, and the Italian Croce di Guerra. President Franklin Roosevelt awarded Bearss his long overdue Medal of Honor in 1934, and two years later he was promoted to brigadier general.

Ironically, given the extensive combat he had survived, Bearss died in an automobile accident near Columbia City, Ind., on Aug. 27, 1938. He is buried in his hometown of Peru, Ind.

 

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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