Share This Article

At the battles of Bud Dajo and Bud Bagsak, the U.S. Army pitted its latest weaponry against the fortified hill forts and Islamic ferocity of the Filipino Moros.

The Philippine-American War—or “Insurrection,” as the Americans called it—officially ended in 1902. However, 15 more years were to pass before it could be truly said that warfare in America’s Pacific empire was over. After the defeat of the Tagalog-speaking, predominantly Spanish Catholic Filipinos who had first bitterly opposed the American takeover of their islands, Moros—believers in the Islamic faith—formed a new opposition to American rule in the Philippines.

With the conclusion in 1902 of Filipino-American hostilities in the northern provinces of Luzon, U.S. forces moved to exercise control over the whole of the Philippines. Before long, they came to the big island of Mindanao and to the Sulu Archipelago, a string of 150 smaller islands jutting out some 80 miles in a southwesterly direction into the Sulu Sea, near present-day Malaysia. Arriving at Zamboanga on Mindanao, the Americans found that the city, its environs and nearby islands were in the hands of the Moros.

The Moros had occupied Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago for 500 years. For well over three centuries, they had battled the Spanish crown’s rule over their homeland. After the Americans ousted the Spanish from the Philippines in 1898, the Moros believed that the United States—a country they barely knew existed—would leave the Sulu territory completely in their hands. Consequently, the Moros did not involve themselves in the subsequent insurrection—nor were they present at the Treaty of Paris, which formally placed the Philippines under the dominion of the United States.

After a series of intense negotiations at Zamboanga between U.S. Army Brig. Gen. J.C. Bates, Sultan Amir, titular head of the Moros of the Sulu Archipelago, and 19 datus (chiefs), an agreement was worked out by which the Moros recognized American sovereignty, chiefly in foreign affairs and law enforcement. As in the days under Spanish suzerainty, salaries were paid to the sultan and the datus, who controlled almost all other internal matters. That treaty, however, only concerned the Moros of the Sulu Islands. When negotiations with the sultanate of Mindanao failed, the stage was set for the first of many battles between its Moro population and the Americans.

The first engagement occurred at Bayang, during which the 27th U.S. Infantry Regiment and 25th Mountain Battery experienced the full-tilt charges of 1,200 kris-wielding Moros for the first time. The kris (pronounced “creese”) is a sharp double-edged, wavy-shaped steel blade about a foot long, the favorite weapon of the juramentado, Spanish for a Moro sworn by oath to wage war to the death against the Christian infidels.

Prior to battle, the juramentado performed an elaborate ritual that included careful cleansing of the body, cutting the nails and hair and shaving the eyebrows. Additionally, he donned a white robe called a jubba and a white turban. A cloth band was wound tightly around the waist to keep the back ramrod straight, and the genitals were wrapped with heavy leather cords to protect them. He also wore a charm to ward off enemy blows. The juramentado then polished his weapon of choice (usually the kris, but sometimes a barong, a longer single-edged sword, or a campilan, a tremendous two-handed sword) and, infused with religious fervor, went into battle.

His strategy was to get as close as possible to a large group of Christians; then, shouting “La ilaha il-la’l-lahu” (“There is no God but Allah”), he made straight for the center of the group, hoping to kill as many as he could before finding a martyr’s death. The juramentado believed that upon death he would enter Paradise mounted on a white horse, accompanied by the infidels he had killed, who would be his slaves. His conception of heaven was based on the Koran: “On couches with linings of brocade shall they recline and the fruit of two gardens shall be within easy reach. Therein shall be the damsels with retiring glances who no man hath touched before.”

Aside from the rewards for martyrdom in a holy war, the Moro was fighting for his way of life and for his homeland. When General Bates described the wonders, riches and advantages of the United States in order to impress the sultan of Mindanao, the latter is reported to have replied, “If this be true, why do you come here to take my little islands?”

Pound for pound, the small, slender Moro was the fiercest— and most foolhardy—opponent the American soldier had ever faced. Extreme courage in the face of certain death was the Moro norm, and his deadly skill with his ancient blades, the kris, barong and campilan, forced the U.S. Army to abandon its .38-caliber revolver in favor of the semiautomatic .45-caliber Colt pistol—the only weapon that could stop a Moro in the close-range combat that he favored.

Among the participants in the Battle of Bayang was John J. Pershing, who would later pursue Pancho Villa into Mexico in 1916 and command the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. On April 5, 1903, Pershing was a captain and just beginning to learn what it took to defeat the Moros. But he was to be somewhat more successful than his predecessors, and he was soon promoted to the rank of general, ahead of other more senior officers.

The Americans won at Bayang, and Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood became the first governor of the Sulu province, with the unenviable task of enforcing the hated Cedula Act. Essentially that law required all inhabitants of the Philippines to purchase an annual registration card called a cedula. The Moros interpreted that as a tribute for the privilege of living in their own land, and many of them moved deep into the jungles to avoid it. In many places they constructed cottas (forts) to fight off the tax collectors, who through necessity came with Filipino constables, and frequently with American troops.

By early November 1903, the datu Panglim Hassan had arrived in the outskirts of Jolo, capital city of the island of the same name, with a force of 4,000 men,  to challenge the cedula and the American garrison there. Since the garrison did not have sufficient forces to deal with Hassan, a message was sent to General Wood in Zamboanga to come to Jolo. On arrival, Wood demanded Hassan’s surrender. His reply in effect was, “If the Americans want me, they can come out and get me.” Wood took Hassan up on his challenge, and a fierce battle was fought near Lake Seit. Over the following two weeks, Wood chased Hassan from cotta to cotta as the Moros fought a rear-guard action over 50 miles of jungle trails. Eventually, Hassan was cornered in a swamp and captured on November 15.

In approximately 10 days of combat, more than 500 Moros and a score of Americans were killed. Major Hugh L. Scott, who commanded the Jolo garrison, personally participated in Hassan’s capture and was part of the armed escort that brought him in chains back to Jolo. As the Americans reentered the city’s gates, however, a body of Moros sprang from concealment in a nearby house and with swinging krises cut a swath to their leader. The thud of American bullets slamming into Moro bodies mixed with the swishing sound of krises slicing American flesh, and within moments Hassan was freed. Major Scott was so badly cut that it was later necessary to amputate two fingers on his left hand.

In March 1904, Scott, who would later become governor of the Sulu province, took part in the campaign to recapture Panglim Hassan, cornering him in the Moro fortress of Pang-Pang. There, with 40 men at his side, Hassan stood his ground until holes were punched in the cotta walls with artillery. The shrapnel killed most of the Moros inside. Again, the wily Hassan escaped and with two of his men fled to make what was to be his last stand in the heights of an extinct volcano. In that fight, two of his followers were killed by sniper fire, and Hassan, badly wounded, rose up and charged in a last attempt to engage the Americans at close quarters; he was riddled with bullets and pitched forward down the slope, dead at last.

That was not the end of the Moro resistance. New leaders emerged, including Pala, who encountered Wood at the Tambang Pass in 1905. Pala, who was wanted for murder by British authorities in north Borneo, resisted troopers who tried to arrest him. In the resulting gunfire, Pala, several of his cohorts and a U.S. soldier were killed. Pala’s death only raised tensions and led to what came to be called either a battle or massacre, depending on one’s viewpoint, at Bud Dajo on the island of Jolo in 1906.

Atrocities by both sides had, in fact, gone on long enough to become an acceptable consequence of guerrilla warfare in the Philippines. And in truth, mass murder and mayhem had been going on since time immemorial, as men of all colors, races and beliefs fought to conquer and control the islands. The Moros had a well-deserved cutthroat reputation stemming from their piratical traditions and the practice known as amuk, in which generalized anger and individual grievances were relieved by the wanton slaughter of anyone in a deranged Moro’s path.

Nevertheless, the massacre that took place inside the crater of Bud Dajo, an extinct 2,100-foot volcano on Jolo Island some 600 miles due south of Manila, would be shocking by any standards. There, a small band of Moros built a cotta as a base from which to launch attacks on the Americans and Filipinos who enforced the hated cedula tax. When rumors spread that an American force was coming, they called on the general Moro population to help defend them.

That rumor, which proved to be true, sparked a desperate 36- hour battle that began on the afternoon of March 6, 1906, and ended on the afternoon of March 8. At its conclusion, 900 Moros, 15 U.S. soldiers and three members of the native constabulary lay dead. The magnitude of the battle and the circumstances surrounding the massacre of the Moro band, which included men, women and children, shocked America.

In overall command of the force was General Wood, a former Army surgeon and White House physician. Wood preferred the rigors of combat to those of an Army doctor and had received the Medal of Honor for his courage during the Indian wars. He gained additional honors in the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War, serving as the colonel in command of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders. His second-in-command, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, acted as though he were in charge, but that did not seem to bother Wood. He and TR were men of action, kindred souls, and they got along famously. After assuming the presidency following William McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt eventually appointed Wood governor general of the Philippines.

When he took that post, one of Wood’s first tasks was to see to it that the Moros of Jolo, who were most resistant to the cedula and had been stirring up trouble on the island, were brought under control. On March 2, 1906, Colonel J.W. Duncan, in charge of the Zamboanga military district, received the following message: “Dear Colonel: I wish you would get two of your companies together and go to Jolo at once. Nothing but blanket rolls, field mess outfit, 200 rounds per man, seven days field ration, in haste. Regular orders will reach you later. Yours truly, Leonard Wood.”

Shortly thereafter, Duncan assembled K and M companies of the 6th Infantry and departed from Zamboanga aboard the transport Wright. At Jolo he met with the governor of the Sulu province, Major Scott, who told him that negotiations with the Moro leaders to surrender and have their followers and families return to their homes had failed. Scott—acting with Wood’s concurrence and that of Wood’s deputy, Brig. Gen. Tasker H. Bliss—then ordered Duncan to assault and take Bud Dajo.

In addition to Companies M and K, which had a total of 272 men, Duncan was given 211 men of the 4th Cavalry, 68 men of the 28th Artillery, 110 men of the 19th Infantry, 51 men of the Sulu Constabulary and six seamen from the gunboat Pampanga. Those enlisted men were commanded by 31 noncommissioned officers and eight officers, for a total of 790 in the assault force. Early on the morning of March 5, 1906, artillery was brought up near the base of the volcano, and 40 rounds of shrapnel were lobbed into the crater. According to later reports, the shelling was done to induce the Moros to let their women and children leave the crater, but it produced no such result. At daylight the following morning, American forces formed at the approaches to Bud Dajo and began moving up the slopes to the crest along steep, narrow trails located on three sides of the mountain.

It was slow going for the men under Major Omar Bundy and Captains Tyree R. Rivers and K.P. Lawton as each of the columns began their ascent. At 7 a.m. Major Bundy of the 6th Infantry found the trail blocked by a palisade constructed of heavy timber at a point some 500 feet below the rim of the crater. While trying to negotiate that obstacle, Bundy and his men came under attack by Moros, who sallied from behind the barricade armed with krises and spears. As they did, Bundy’s men opened fire with their Krag-Jörgensen rifles and grenades, and when that failed to stop the Moro charge, hand-to-hand combat followed. Two hundred Moros fell dead in that engagement, while the men of the 6th suffered only a few casualties, mostly in the last rush of the Moros. Captain John R. White was severely wounded leading the charge that cleared the wall of its Moro defenders.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain, Captain Rivers was facing a similar barricade, and it took several hours of hard fighting to take it and reach the other side. Captain Lawton’s men faced no such obstacle, but their advance was slowed down considerably by the Moros, who at regular intervals rushed his forces and harassed them by hurling huge stones down on his men.

By late afternoon, the Americans had literally clawed their way up to positions just 50 feet below the rim of the volcano. Most of the way up, they had climbed up a 2,100-foot, 60-degree slope in debilitating tropical heat and humidity—and if that was not enough to kill a man, they had to do it while fighting the Moros all the way. They were ready to make the last assault of the day. To do that, the Americans had to clamber up the last 50 feet to the summit, which was at an almost perpendicular angle, on their hands and knees, and assault the trenches that the Moros had dug on the rim. By sunset, however, the Americans were in firm command of the summit.

Now in the darkness, the troops faced another equally daunting challenge—that of keeping the Moros, who had taken cover in the heavily wooded crater bottom, from counterattacking. In anticipation of that expected nighttime assault, they had to haul their artillery up to the volcano’s rim with block and tackle, and move it around the top so as to command the crater from all sides. When the sun rose, the Moros looked up to find themselves literally ringed by artillery and infantry.

Anyone else would have surrendered on the spot, but for the Moros such an act was spiritually impossible. As followers of Mohammed, they adhered to the teachings of the Koran and particularly to its admonition concerning the conduct of warfare: “O ye who believe, when ye meet the marshaled hosts of the infidel, turn not your back to them. Who so shall turn his back to them on that day, unless to turn aside to fight, or to rally some other troop, shall incur wrath from Allah. Hell shall be his abode and the wretched journey thither.” Consequently, when the Americans asked them once again to give up, the Moros refused.

When morning came, Colonel Duncan gave the signal to commence firing, and artillery and rifle fire poured into the crater. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, but the Moros stubbornly hunkered down in their positions, and when the Americans rushed down into the crater, the surviving Moros took kris in hand and charged the U.S. troops, while others threw hand grenades fashioned from seashells and black powder.

It was all to no avail—those Moros who had survived the shell and the bullet met their death with the bayonet. When it was all over that afternoon, not a single Moro—man, woman or child—was left alive in that deadly cauldron. The floor of the crater was strewn with bodies and body parts. In the trenches where the Moros had sought cover, the corpses were piled five deep. An examination of the cadavers showed that many of the Moros had as many as 50 wounds. Initial reports said that 600 Moros were slain, but later accounts raised the death toll to 900.

The total killed on the U.S. side, including members of the native constabulary, was 18, and 52 others were wounded. It was not a proud moment for the Americans, though. True, they had scaled a precipitous, well-defended peak under arduous conditions. They had faced a savage enemy that did not know the meaning of surrender. By sheer determination, the Americans had lifted their artillery pieces to the top of the mountain in total darkness. In the end, however, their military advantage was so great in terms of weapons, equipment, manpower and the terrain they held that their victory could rightly be called a massacre. Moreover, the fact that many of the Moros were women and children detracted considerably from Bud Dajo’s being considered an orthodox, evenly matched battle.

When news of the massacre first became known in the United States, a storm of protest followed. The Democrats, the Anti-Imperialist League and some of President Roosevelt’s Republican enemies severely castigated him and General Wood. Mark Twain’s scathing “Comments on the Moro Massacre,” and “The Charge of the Wood Brigade,” a sarcastic poem by Rep. John Sharp Williams of Mississippi in the style of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” were read into the Congressional Record and widely disseminated.

A sermon by the Rev. Charles Parkhurst of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as well as rallies organized by the Anti-Imperialist League also galvanized public opinion. There was a flurry of protest activity for many months after. A congressional hearing was held on the Jolo matter, but the public furor soon faded as the approaching presidential election of 1908 swept it off the front pages.

To the many who were later to criticize him, General Wood could say with some justification that the Moros had only themselves to blame, since they ignored repeated entreaties to surrender. Even given the fact that the Moros were not oriented toward compromise, however, it is not clear why Wood, having succeeded in completely surrounding the Moros in the bowl of the crater and in total command of the high ground, chose to fire down upon them and then ordered his troops into the pit to kill every last one.

Perhaps there was no choice. Wood was known as a soldier who took prisoners. He won fame as the man who hunted down Geronimo, and he was the one who really led the Rough Riders on the charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill. After the action on Bud Dajo, Roosevelt sent him the following cable on March 9: “I congratulate you, and the officers and men of your command upon the brave feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the flag.”

This rout and annihilation notwithstanding, the war between those armed with Krags and those wielding the kris continued in Mindanao, Bailen and other islands of the Sulu Archipelago. December 1911 saw another confrontation with 500 Moros at the crater of Bud Dajo, but this time, reason prevailed. Using diplomacy, Colonel “Black Jack” Pershing was able to persuade most of the Moros to evacuate. Still, a few Moros stood their ground, and the second Battle of Bud Dajo lasted five days.

The last major battle in Jolo took place at Bud Bagsak in June 1913. The crest of the mountain was formidably defended by a system of five subsidiary cottas—Pujacabao, Bunga, Mantunkup, Langunsan and Pujagan—which in turn protected the main fortress, Bagsak. A simultaneous assault on all of them was necessary to attack the main cotta.

To counter that defense Pershing, who by then was a brigadier general, divided his forces into three wings. The right wing, under Major George C. Shaw and comprising troops from the 40th Company, Philippine Scouts and Company M, 8th U.S. Infantry, was to attack Langunsan and Mantunkup. The left wing, under Captain Taylor L. Nicholls, comprised three companies of the Philippine Scouts, and was assigned to take Pujacabao, Bunga and Pujagan. The third wing was assigned to the south face of Bud Bagsak to prevent a Moro retreat from that side. Once all units were in place, on June 11, Pershing’s mountain guns bombarded the mountain, then the left and right wings each attacked their assigned objectives.

The Mantunkup cotta fell by noon of the first day, but only after Captain Nicholls’ men had scaled a sheer 100-foot cliff, pulling themselves up by vines growing from the mountainside—all in the face of Moro gunfire. Eight Americans died in that assault. Nicholls then led his force to overrun Pujacabao cotta after hand-to-hand combat with the Moros who had survived the preliminary shelling.

The Langunsan cotta was easily captured with the loss of only one man, but the Americans suffered eight more casualties in an unsuccessful Moro counterattack. With two of their five cottas held by the Americans, the Moros retreated to Bagsak, Pujagan and Bunga, and the first day of the battle came to a close.

The battle resumed on June 12, with American forces pouring continuous rifle and artillery fire on the remaining cottas. Skirmishing broke out when the Moros, led by Datu Amil, his son and Datu Jami, staged a series of rushes in 20-man groups. During one of those efforts, they killed Captain Nicholls.

All day long the Americans at Langunsan were subjected to Moro gunfire from Bunga. Despite their superior numbers and firepower, the Americans were unable to make any progress.

On the third day, a concerted effort was made to take Bunga. Captain Patrick Moylan finally took the cotta in a five-hour attack that included furious hand-to-hand fighting. When it was over, his men commanded the rim of the crater, and they spent the rest of the day hauling their mountain guns up into positions that would enable them to fire directly on the Bagsak cotta. By the next morning, June 14, the Americans were well dug in about 600 yards from Bagsak. They subsequently raked the Moro fort with rifle and machine gun fire.

At 7 the next morning, June 15, a two-hour artillery barrage drove the Moros out of their trenches, after which they were picked off by sharpshooters. Meanwhile, the main body of American troops, supported by machine gun fire, moved up to a point just short of the Bagsak cotta. The last 75 yards of that advance were the most difficult of all, and it would take the Americans eight full hours to reach their objective.

Around 4:45 p.m., with the Americans just 25 feet from the fort, the Moros made a last headlong assault. Standing up and shouting praises to Allah, they flung their campilans at their foes and then, holding their krises and barongs aloft, surged forward into a wall of lead—and, according to their beliefs, into Paradise. At 5 p.m. General Pershing, who had been present on the firing line throughout the assault, personally gave the order to cease fire.

The Battle of Bud Bagsak was over. More than 500 Moros lay dead, along with 18 Americans. Pershing would later say of the fighting at Bagsak to a New York Times reporter that “there was probably no fiercer battle since the occupation of the Philippines.” Lowlevel Moro resistance continued to bedevil U.S. forces in Mindanao and elsewhere, however, and it was not until 1917 that it could truly be said that the Krag had vanquished the kris.


Miguel J. Hernández writes from Ossining, N.Y. For further reading, see Mosque and Moro: A Study of Muslims in the Philippines, by Peter G. Gowing.

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.