The band of American Prisoners of War shuffled down a faint trail cut through the forested mountain terrain, pushed along by short, swarthy men armed with rifles. Existing on rice cakes and what little food they could glean from the small villages they passed through, the shoeless and ragged Americans were about used up. But to stop was to die, so they kept moving, higher and higher into the mountains.
A scene out of the Vietnam War in 1966? Maybe Korea in 1950 or the Pacific in 1942? No, though the area is about the same, being Southeast Asia–the Philippines, to be exact. However, the year was 1899, and the Americans were prisoners in a war that just barely made the history books. Leland Smith was to be starved, shot at, set up in front of a firing squad and generally almost walked to death in his three months as a POW during the Philippine Insurrection, one of the United States’ more obscure police actions. But his ordeal was a prelude to what many GIs would suffer in the following century. A few years before Smith’s death, in 1975–fittingly enough perhaps, for an American soldier, on July 4–I had the privilege of interviewing him several times. This is the story he told me.
A native of Iowa, Smith enlisted in the 24th Michigan Infantry in May 1898, hoping to see action in Cuba. but the Spanish-American War wouldn’t wait, and by March 1899, he found himself mustered out without ever leaving the States. A picture of Smith in those days shows him to be a tough, wiry-looking man of medium height with dark brown hair and sharp features…and maybe there was a little impatience in there, too.
‘I felt cheated,’ said Smith. ‘I wanted to travel and see some action, so I enlisted again in Cleveland. I had a little photography experience and they sent me to Fort Myers, Virginia, to join up with the Signal Corps.’
By the time his 18th birthday rolled around, Smith was in Manila, assigned to cover U.S. troop action against the Philippine army. The Manila water supply was polluted at the time, and Smith remembered what a soldier told him when he arrived there: ‘Boil all Manila water for 24 hours. Then throw it away and drink beer.’
The war in the Philippines had taken a strange twist. American troops supposedly sent to help the Filipinos oust the Spanish were now busy fighting Filipino soldiers. Their leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, had earlier welcomed the arrival of the U.S. troops, but friction between the two armies had broken out. Not the least of the causes was the refusal of the American authorities to allow Filipino troops, who had helped liberate Manila, into the city after the Spanish capitulation–a grave insult.
When it began to look as if the U.S. government’s plans for the Philippines didn’t include giving them immediate independence, Aquinaldo started having second thoughts. One thing led to another, and, on February 4, 1899, hostilities between American and Filipino troops broke out, and the United States found itself with a brand-new war on its hands.
At first, Smith was assigned to tag along with the telegraph section of the Signal Corps. Later, along with a Corporal Saulsbery, he was told to take his cameras and ‘go out and make contact with the enemy.’ As it turned out, he made a lot closer contact then he wanted to.
‘We had to carry three or four large cameras in haversacks on our backs,’ Smith said. ‘One was a 5×7-inch film camera, but the others were big 8x10s. We had to lug around the glass plates they used, too.
‘We stopped to eat at any Army unit we happened to be near at the time, moving along with the combat troops, taking pictures of whatever we felt like,’ he said. ‘Then we went back to Manila every week or so to develop what we had shot.’
In October 1899, Smith and Saulsbery, who was recently out of the Army hospital in Bacoor after a bout with some illness, were near San Isidro, north of Manila. ‘We were under fire from the town,’ said Smith, ‘and the weather was lousy. It rained all the time and we were constantly dodging guerrilla sharpshooters. The corporal started getting sick again and when we moved west, over toward Arayat, he decided to go back to the hospital.’
On October 18, 1899, the two soldiers, on foot, headed down a tributary of the Papanga River. They soon met a gunboat steaming upstream. It drifted to a halt opposite the two men on the bank and out stepped Maj. Gen. Harry Ware Lawton, who asked them, ‘What are you two men about?’
‘Corporal Saulsbery and Private Smith, Sir,’ Smith replied. ‘The corporal is pretty sick, General. Maybe the fever. Anyway, we’re trying to get downstream to the railroad.’
The general looked thoughtful. ‘That’s quite a walk you still have ahead of you. Why not take the banca tied to the stern?’ The general waved toward the native dugout tied to the back of the gunboat. ‘You shouldn’t have any trouble,’ Lawton went on. ‘The river’s clear downstream. No sign of the enemy.’
Lawton, a Civil War and Indian war veteran and a Medal of Honor recipient, had only a few months to live when Smith met him. In December, he was killed in action against insurgents near San Mateo.
Then two soldiers stowed their cameras and other gear in the canoe and, with Smith rowing, headed downstream. The water was low and the two men drifted along in the dugout, the gunboat now out of sight behind them. Then came an unexpected shout from the riverbank.
‘Look! Over there! Gu-gus!’ Smith said excitedly, using the name American troops had pinned on the Filipino soldiers. ‘Must be 60 of them!’
The soldiers on the bank beckoned to the Americans and Smith started to head the boat toward shore, since the .38-caliber Colt pistol he had strapped to his waist was no match for the soldiers’ rifles. Suddenly, without warning, the soldiers on shore raised their weapons.
‘They’re going to shoot! We ain’t got a chance!’ yelled Saulsbery, as geysers of water sprung up around them and wood splinters flew from the banca. Smith’s hat was shot off, along with a little hair, and both men and all the equipment went into the water as the dugout capsized.
Smith could never figure out how the Filipinos missed them. ‘I could feel the wind of the brass bullets pass my face,’ he recalled. ‘It was just our luck to run into a bunch of guerrillas out doing a little looting.’
The corporal stayed with the overturned dugout, to be fished out by the Filipinos, while Smith swam to the shore. ‘They took my Colt, two gold rings and my shoes,’ he said. The soldiers were armed primarily with Remington rolling-block rifles and some Spanish Mausers. The soldiers may have been armed with FMJ rounds, which would explain the ‘brass bullets’ Smith mentioned.
The two men were marched off to nearby La Paz, though Smith had to carry Saulsbery much of the way. There, they were put in an old stone building with 18 other American prisoners.
‘Hey, new faces!’ someone called out.
‘Welcome to the La Paz Soldier’s Club!’ said another.
And a third shouted, ‘Hey! It’s Smith and Saulsbery!’
Smith peered into the darkness of the old company. ‘Desmond,’ he said, ‘is that you?’ It turned out that Desmond and Stone, two men from Smith’s old company, had been captured outside Manila some time before.
Smith and the others were held at La Paz for about a week. At one point Saulsbery and Smith were taken to Aguinaldo’s headquarters at Tarlac and questioned.
The prisoners were allowed four-and-a-half cents a day, American, to buy their food with. If they couldn’t buy the food themselves, they had to pay some local to go to the market for them, which further cut into what little money they had to spend for food. As a result, they ate mostly sugar cane and rice cakes. Finally the prisoners were put on the road, heading toward Dagupan, except for Saulsbery, who was too sick to travel. Smith never saw him again though he later heard that he was rescued.
The men marched through the tropical heat, most without shoes, their feet sore and bleeding. ‘At San Carlos, not far from the coast,’ Smith recalled, ‘five sailors were added to our band. Then they divided us into groups of four and sent us off in different directions, though generally still heading for Dagupan. We didn’t know it, but the Army was aware of our situation and had sent troops out to try and overtake us. The Insurrectos were attempting to avoid them.’
Finally the bands straggled into Dagupan on the west coast of Luzon. ‘We were able to rest here and even had some freedom to occasionally bathe in a small creek. We saw Aguinaldo again, and some of his family.’ Smith also said they could hear the U.S. fleet bombarding San Fabian, a few miles up the coast, and there was talk going around of U.S. troops pressing from the south. ‘This made the gu-gus move us out again and into the mountains to the north,’ Smith said.
As they moved toward the interior, towns gave way to villages and those in turn gave way to rude collections of native huts. Once up into the mountains, they met the people of that area–not Malaysian but a shorter race, with dark brown skin and straight black hair. These were the Igorots.
‘Every now and then,’ said Smith, ‘we’d enter a village and see the rotting heads of men stuck on the ends of poles placed around the camp. Fortunately, the Filipinos had guns and the Igorots didn’t.’
The Igorots wore little but a G-string. The women went bare-breasted, tattoos often covering their arms to the shoulders. They were true headhunters, the taking of human heads being an integral and necessary part of their culture. As the POWs moved through the mountains, they would see many of these grisly symbols of native handiwork.
In the interior, sometimes at altitudes of 6,000 feet, the nights were very cold. ‘All we had to cover ourselves with were banana and palm leaves,’ Smith said. ‘We did get to add a little corn to our ration, and the Igorots made a beer that wasn’t half bad.’
‘The natives never bothered us,’ said Smith. ‘Of course, the soldiers did their best to keep them from having any guns. Just bolos and short, iron-tipped spears. Often the Igorots would simply leave a village until we’d moved on. We would just help ourselves to what they had. But it was a rough march, going from Baqiuo, through Bontoc to Bangued. Took 27 days to cover 100 trails, and we often marched all day and half the night on two meals of rice.’
They hit Bangued on Thanksgiving Day. ‘We hadn’t eaten all day,’ Smith said, ‘and our Thanksgiving meal consisted of some squash and a little meat some captured sailors had left.’ The sailors included 12 men and a Lieutenant Gilmore, captured off the coast of Luzon that April.
Shortly after meeting up with the sailors, some of the men devised a plan to overpower a few guards, take their guns and hole up in a nearby building. While they weren’t aware there was an American rescue column pressing on the Filipinos, they must have suspected that U.S. troops might be near from the way they were being pushed on. Smith still scowled as he recalled the incident, 71 years later:
‘One man, by the name of Brown, was suspected of being in with the guards. A big bosun’s mate balled up his fist and threatened to kill him if word got out of our plans. But then Gilmore nixed the idea. As senior officer, we had to obey him. The general opinion was that he was scared for his own neck and figured it would be safer to stay prisoners than try and fight our way out.’
‘Up to now the soldiers hadn’t really mistreated us,’ Smith continued. ‘They were Regulars and they pretty much left us alone as long as we didn’t make trouble. But here we were put under the command of a General Tino and his Irregulars. From here on out the treatment got a lot rougher.’ Smith didn’t know it at the time, but the POWs had just become expendable.
Now numbering nearly 40 men, the weary column of POWs was placed back on the road on December 7, heading again in the general direction of Luzon’s west coast. ‘The third day after leaving Bangued, three of our party escaped,’ said Smith. ‘Others didn’t know they planned any such thing or more would have tried it.
‘From here we walked to mountains whose summits seemed so high it looked like we would never reach the top. We camped by small streamlets and cooked what little rice we had.’ And horseflesh. The soldiers had begun to slaughter their animals for food.
The soldiers and their prisoners finally topped the mountains and started to move down the other side, toward Vigan and the coast. ‘We had to start out early the next morning as the officer in charge wanted to keep ahead of the main column of the retreating Filipino Insurrectionist Army,’ Smith said. ‘By marching all day and night over rocks and through raging rivers, we were able to make a valley the next day at noon. Here we stopped at a farmer’s place and got a little more rice. Then all the rest of the day and that night we kept marching through marshes and rivers. Gilmore was about done up and they were talking about shooting us because he wanted to stop and rest.’
At Vigan the party reached the sea again and turned northward. There, one POW named Charlie Baker, sick with fever and unable to keep up, was killed by soldiers using bayonets and bolos. Now the POWs knew they were expendable.
Four days later, still along the Luzon coast, the column was halted for a rest near a small schoolhouse. ‘We knew some of the Filipino officers were grousing about how we were slowing up the march,’ said Smith. ‘Suddenly, one of them walked out and ordered us into a long column along one side of the road. A rank of soldiers with rifles was quickly formed and I damn near fainted when I heard the officer call out the ‘ready’ command. And then he yelled ‘aim.’ The man next to me said, ‘This is it!’ and I looked around for someplace to run to. But there wasn’t any place.
‘Just then another officer came galloping up on horseback and stopped the whole thing.’ Smith continued. ‘He and the first officer had a quick talk. Then they placed us back on the march again. We learned later that U.S. troops weren’t too far behind and they were afraid of reprisals if they killed us and were found out. But morale hit bottom because now we knew they would kill us anytime they thought they could get away with it.’
By this time, the POWs were going without food for days at a time. At Laoag they turned east, the pace quickening as they headed back into the mountains. What little the POWs ate was mostly what they could glean from the villages along the way–sugar cane and occasionally, bassi, a fermented drink made from the cane. The soldiers were almost as desperate for food as the POWs, and an officer finally killed his horse. The beast was hacked apart and eaten raw, brute hunger not waiting for the niceties of a cook fire.
‘We were pushed up some awfully steep canyon trails,’ Smith said. ‘I was pretty weak from lack of food and I’d go about 50 feet and then fall down. Everything would get black, my heart would race like a triphammer and I could hardly breathe.’
At that point, however, the feeling that God was with him came to Smith. He thought, ‘God is my life. He will see me through this trial.’ Gospel hymns began to come to him and he sang them to himself, softly. Before long he was able to get up and go on a little farther. And, of course, in the back of every POW’s mind, was the memory of little Charlie Baker. To stop for long was to die.
‘At one point, an officer told Lieutenant Gilmore that he was under orders to kill us as soon as he felt it was safe to do so,’ said Smith. ‘But he also said he didn’t have the heart to do it. Gilmore tried to talk him into giving us a few rifles to hunt food with and letting us go, but the officer refused.
‘On the night of December 15, the Filipino officers held a pow-wow,’ Smith continued. ‘That really had us worried. But the next morning when we awoke, they were all gone. During the night they had all pulled out.’
Smith said they were still pretty worried. The area was headhunter country and in the past the Filipino soldiers had given the natives orders to kill escaped American prisoners.The POWs held a hasty conference and decided to build rafts and head down the Abulug River, whose headwaters were nearby.
‘We started building rafts out of bamboo,’ said Smith. ‘Suddenly one of the men yelled ‘Headhunters!’ and we all looked up to see a lone figure upstream. There was a general panic until someone realized that the man we saw was an American soldier. We had been caught up with by a rescue column made up of part of the 33rd and 34th Infantry Brigades.’
Many of the men wept openly. It was this column, pressing hard on the Filipino troops, that had kept the POWs from being killed. The three men who had escaped earlier were with the column. But the rescuing column wasn’t much better off than the POWs. Some were without shoes–and also without the benefit of several months of sole-toughening barefoot marches that the prisoners had been subject to. At one point a soldier, careless of where he put his foot on the trail, stepped on a sharpened stake that went through his shoe and foot. And their haversacks were almost empty of food.
The two colonels in charge of the column had expected a fight, not realizing the Filipino troops had departed. Once everyone had a chance to get acquainted, and the officers had a chance to evaluate things, it was decided the idea to float down to the coast was a good one.
‘We used poles 6 or 7 inches thick and about 18 feet long, cut and bound with vines,’ said Smith. The Abulug was a dangerous river at that elevation, almost a mile above sea level. It would drop 6,000 feet to the ocean in the next 50 miles.
‘I was a pretty good swimmer, and a few other men and I were put in charge of the rafts with the sick and injured. Each raft held about a dozen men. We ferried the disabled from sandbar to sandbar, trying not to shake them up too much.’
The nights were still frosty near the river, and the cold added to the hunger, disease and general fatigue from which almost all the troops were suffering. The two-week trip was one of constant danger, and for men already worn out by lack of food, rest and medical care, it was a nightmare. Often a raging torrent, the Abulug could suddenly narrow between sheer cliffs that rose more than 500 feet on either side. In a matter of seconds a raft would be caught by the edge of a whirlpool and swung around to smash against rocks, tearing bamboo poles from the vines. Men and equipment would slide into the foaming water, the gear never to be seen again, the men scrambling wildly toward shallow water or to another raft while others strained to reach out and pull them to safety.
Smith shook his head. ‘We lost a lot of equipment and food,’ he said. ‘Of 37 rafts we started with, only 13 made it to the coast. But,’ he added proudly, ‘not one man was lost.’
On Christmas Day, the men ate nothing. That night a little unsalted rice was passed around. The river widened as it neared the foothills, and the soldiers heard a strange new sound. It was the pounding of the surf on the northernmost coast of Luzon, still several days away. On New Year’s Day there was nothing left to eat at all, and on January 2, 1900, the weary column, 40-odd POWs and their rescuers, about 180 men in all, stumbled into the coastal town of Abulug. Almost 80 of them were virtual stretcher cases. Learning that the coastal steamer Venus was waiting for them at Aparri, a few miles east of Abulug, the little band marched on and finally had their first decent meal in three months.
The steamer stopped the next day, at Vigan, where the sailors went aboard naval vessels. The men of the 33rd and 34th Infantry went ashore while the POWs, still in their rags, went on to Manila aboard Venus, arriving on January 5. Several men from Smith’s old outfit were there, but they could hardly recognize him. The men were issued new clothes, but Smith couldn’t wear the shoes. His feet were two sizes larger from the months of marching.
It would be two months before Smith recuperated sufficiently from malaria, dengue fever, dysentery and malnutrition to be reassigned to new duties, working on a cable repair ship that worked between the islands. He later served in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion as an official photographer, covering U.S. troop action. He finally mustered out in 1907.
One thing seemed to stick out in Smith’s mind about his experience in the Philippines, something that happened after he had been rescued.
‘Shortly after getting back to Manila, Maj. Gen. Elwel S. Otis, commander of the Department of the Pacific, had all us POWs assembled before him,’ said Smith. ‘We supposed he was going to make a speech commemorating all our suffering and making note of our devotion to duty. He came out and stood before us, his retinue gathered behind him. He looked us over for a minute, then he said:
‘Well, you fellows have had a pretty good time. You’ve had a vacation and haven’t suffered any. I think you can go back to your outfits.’
‘Then the general turned on his heel and walked out,’ Smith said, a disgusted look on his face, ‘leaving us with our mouths open, speechless.’
To the day he died, I think those callous words, uttered by a high-ranking officer serving safely in the rear, hurt Leland Smith more than his blistered feet ever did.
This article was written by Brad Prowse and originally published in the February 1999 issue of Military History magazine.
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