devils-causeway-book-sheds-lightThere are episodes of the bloody Philippine-American War that are being told for the first time by historians. One such historian is Matthew Westfall whose newly released book, “The Devil’s Causeway,” sheds light into this shady period of Philippine-American history.

The book, with copyright issued in 2012, is a detailed “true story of America’s first prisoners of war in the Philippines and the heroic expedition sent to their rescue.”

Westfall, the author, is a writer, urbanist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. Born in New York and raised in Massachusetts, Westfall resides in the Philippines with his family.      

Reading this history book which educates and entertains, I came to know for the first time the “hidden facts” about the heroic efforts of our forefathers to repel foreign invaders. It is also an epic story about the extremely tortuous struggle of the first American soldiers who were captured by Filipino rebels.

What triggered the Philippine-American war?

Westfall’s scholarly book provided a detailed account on how the war started. This came about in 1898 when the Spanish-American war had just ended. The indirect cause was the “Siege of Baler.”

The Spaniards in Baler, which was then a town in the Principe District, holed up in the stone church to protect themselves from the Filipino rebels who had been attacking and capturing Spaniards.

The rebels, all members of the Liberation Army of the Filipinos (also known as Katipunan) headed by General Emilio Aguinaldo, earlier took up arms against the Americans. The Filipinos felt betrayed by the Americans when they set aside an agreement that they would give independence to the Philippines after the end of the Spanish-American war. The Filipinos had helped the Americans defeat the Spaniards by waging the battle on land.     

Many Spaniards in remote places in the Philippines were not aware that Spain had already forged a peace treaty with the United States of America. They continued to wage war against the Filipinos. That’s the reason the Spaniards in Baler, who included two Civil Guard officers, took defensive positions in the church with a belfry that served as a convenient watch tower for the sentries. The church was also surrounded by a network of trenches.

The rebels led by Colonel Tecson and Kapitan Teodorico Novicio tried several times but failed to penetrate the well entrenched positions of the Spaniards. Also, attempts to make them surrender failed. They remained holed up in the church for many months.

Bernardino Nozaleda, then archbishop of Manila, appealed to Admiral George Dewey, commander of the US Navy forces and hero of the Battle of Manila Bay, to send a mission to Baler to free the Spaniards and take them to Manila.

Heeding the appeal, Admiral Dewey dispatched the naval ship Yorktown that dropped anchor at Baler Bay in the Pacific Ocean. But the Americans could not land because the town was taken over by the Filipino rebels who were regularly conducting patrol on the shore.

Seeing a white cloth fluttering in the wind near the shore, the American soldiers thought the piece of cloth was a sign of truce and that the Filipinos wanted a parley with them. But when they went ashore, they were met by angry rebels who told them to go away. It turned out that the white cloth seen by the Americans was a rebel’s laundry hang to dry in the sun.

After a few days of planning, 14 American soldiers, aboard two cutters armed with big Colt Automatics, pushed upriver in the narrow Baler River to gather information on a possible safe landing area. It was a huge mistake.

Some 100 rebels armed with Mauser rifles and bolos ambushed the Americans, immediately killing four of them and capturing their 10 companions. Among those captured was Lieutenant James Gilmore, Jr. who broke from his superior’s order not to land on the riverbank.

What followed was a U.S. expedition sent to rescue the captured soldiers who were the first American prisoners of war in the Philippines. This led to a full-scale war between the Filipinos and Americans.

The war lasted for three years, resulting in the death of at least 5,000 Americans and 20,000 Filipinos.