Waller of Samar -- Part I

By Capt Robert B. Asprey - Originally Published May 1961

He was tried by General Court-Martial. The charge: murder. Waller's defense was typical of him. "I do not beg for mercy or plead extenuation," he said. "I was either right or wrong ... If I was right then I am entitled to the most honorable acquittal."

The general court-martial of a distinguished Marine Corps officer, Major Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller, began on the morning of 17 March 1902, in an American Army barracks on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Tried under the convening authority of Maj Gen Ira Chaffee, USA, commanding the Division of the Philippines, Maj Waller was charged with "murder, in violation of the fifty-eighth article of war." Specifically, on or about 20 January 1902, while in command of a battalion of Marines at Basey, Island of Samar, Major Waller did,

"in time of war, willfully and feloniously and with malice aforethought, murder and kill eleven men, names unknown, natives of the Philippine Islands, by ordering and causing his subordinate officer ... and a firing detail of enlisted men under his said command, to take out said eleven men and shoot them to death which said order was then and there carried into execution ..."

Waller pleaded "not guilty" to the charge, "guilty" to the specification except for the words, "willfully and feloniously and with malice aforethought, murder." In other words, he denied having murdered the natives, but admitted he had ordered their execution. Now he would attempt to exonerate himself under the laws of warfare, which he hoped to prove would justify his action as necessary to the successful prosecution of his mission.

His unequivocal position was set forth in the first paragraph of a written statement submitted to the Court:

"... I do not beg for mercy or plead extenuation I was either right or wrong. If J was wrong give me the whole, full complete sentence required by law. If I was right then I am entitled to the most honorable acquittal."

Several weeks were to pass before the Court decided the question of right or wrong. The trial itself was to end in one of the most dramatic denouements possible and was to draw a vigorous reaction from the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

But now, on the morning of 17 March 1902, Maj Waller knew nothing of this. He knew only that he was about to defend himself against what he considered "the most serious charge which can be brought against a person whether in military or civil life."

His career, possibly his life, would depend on the validity of his defense-on what actually had happened during his time in Samar.

The events which would so directly affect Maj Waller's life had been set in motion by Dewey's victory against the Spanish in 1898. That spring, inspired Filipino insurgent leaders returned from exile in Hong Kong and, months before the end of the war, proclaimed independent government under the dictatorship of one Aguinaldo.

When in December, 1898, the Treaty of Paris ceded the Philippine Islands to America, which promptly established sovereignty, Aguinaldo led his people in a fierce, bloody revolt against America that by no means ended with the rebel leader's capture in March, 1901. Supported by numerous influential Filipinos, the Philippine Insurrection continued to boil throughout Luzon, Leyte, and Samar. The revolt was a source of embarrassment to the civil government of William Howard Taft, who wanted peace, a source of frustration to the military government of MajGen Ira Chaffee, who could find no victory.

Army Maintained Outposts
To counter the insurgents-and there were many the American Army planted outposts in strategic locations, usually infantry companies in small villages on the coasts of the islands. These units were to prevent supplies being smuggled to insurgents who normally operated from island strongholds; they were to prevent insurgents from intimidating, more often killing, fellow Filipinos who wished to be Americans; and they were to administer the oath of allegiance to insurgents who voluntarily gave themselves up.

Such an outpost was Company "C" of the 9th Regular United States Infantry. Stationed at Balangiga on the southern coast of Samar, the third largest island in the Philippines, this company was commanded by Capt Connell and consisted of two other officers and 66 enlisted men.

On the morning of 28 October 1901, Capt Connell, at breakfast with Lt Rumpus and Surgeon Griswold, had reason to be pleased with himself. A sensitive, intelligent officer, Connell had administered his area of Samar with persuasion rather than intimidation. He had done just about everything possible to effect a peaceful conversion of the 3,000 natives of Balangiga to American rule. Most of them had sworn allegiance and most of them seemed to be taking seriously the wider-than-usual scope of self-government allowed them by the American captain. Too, this policy of kindness and confidence appeared to be paying off militarily. Recent patrols had discovered neither rebel arm caches nor suspicious activity from the main insurgent force believed hidden inland in the wild Sojoton Mountains.

To Capt Connell, the answer to the native problem was mutual trust. On his part he trusted the natives. Himself a Catholic, he worshipped with them in their church. Mainly for this reason neither he nor his officers nor his troops carried arms to breakfast on this Sunday morning.

So it was that as Connell and his officers sat at breakfast in officer quarters and his 66 men sat at breakfast in troop mess, the neighboring church bells began to ring.

And so it was that at this instant 450 insanely shrieking savages wielding razor sharp bolos came through the church to attack the troop and officers messes of Company "C." About 250 bolomen hit the troop mess; 200 more attacked the officers' mess. Some insurgents got as far as the barracks, to the rows of neatly slacked rifles, but somehow a Sgt Betron collected a few weapone and fought a rearguard action to the boats. Twenty-six American soldiers survived.

A relief party from Headquarters of the Sixth Separate Brigade on neighboring Leyte arrived at Balangiga the next day. The cuartel presented a hideous picture. Capt Connell's head was found slow-roasting in a fire. A bolo slash across the lace of Lt Bumpus had been filled with jam; one of the men "had his abdomen cut open and flour had been put on the wound." The bodies of the dead were stripped and that of a sentinel "stabbed full of holes." In the words of Elihu Root, Secretary of War, to President Theodore Roosevelt, the rest of the dead "had been mutilated and treated with indescribable indignities." More, most of the garrison's rifles had been stolen along with 25,000 rounds of ammunition. The attack had been led by Balangiga officials: a native witness later testified that a town policeman had killed one of the officers, a boy of 15 another. Lads ten to 15 years old had participated in the attack.

The massacre set off a new wave of insurgent terror throughout Samar. BrigGen Jacob Smith, USA, commanding the Sixth Separate Brigade, telegraphed Chaffee in Manila for help. The Army called the Navy, the Navy called the Marines. Four companies of the First Marine Brigade at Cavite were formed hastily into a battalion under command of Maj Waller.

Waller's battalion numbered 15 officers and 300 men. David D. Porter and Hiking Hiram Bearss were his principal captains. First Lt A. S. Williams and 2ndLt Frank Halford were going to prove unusually important. So was GySgt John H. Quick. Most of the mustached Marines had served with Waller in China. A hard-drinking profane lot, they could be relied on to carry their heavy marching orders and Krag Jorgenson rifles wherever he would lead them. And if they knew Waller that would probably be to hell and back again.

At 45 years of age "Tony" Waller qualified as a veteran officer of 22 years service in the Marine Corps. A fine description of him about this time is offered by Smedley Butler, who first, met him in Cavite in 1899, then served under him as a lieutenant during the Boxer Rebellion.

He Impressed Smedley Butler
Butler initially found him "a little fellow with a fiery mustache and a distinguished bearing. No mailer about his size. He dominated the others." Butler's second impression noted Waller's "short, thick legs, but lie was very straight and military. Somehow I realized then that 1 was looking at a real soldier."

Butler wrote his final impression long after Waller's death:

"The picture of him that, stays with me is the Waller of those days of his dashing prime in the Philippines and China. His men adored him. He had a magnificent lace and carriage. On a horse he was impressive. He always took off his hat with a flourish. I can see him, straight as a ruler, his head thrown bark, his enormous nose outlined against the sky, as he sainted the flag. Waller may have liked to talk about himself, but he had plenty to talk about."

He certainly did! By 1901 he had fought the Arabs at Alexandria, the Spanish at Santiago de Cuba, and the Chinese at Tientsin and Peking. Experienced in bush warfare, nothing about the Balangiga massacre could have surprised him. At Ramleh, he remembered,

"the Arabs captured some pickets or videttes of the Bengal Cavalry, decapitated them, sticking their heads on lances and poles, planting the poles in the sand. The Arab Cavalry was never spared after that . . ."

In China,

"the fanatics would rise from the ground from behind grave mounds and other obstacles and even while the line was advancing in a triumphant charge, kill and mutilate the wounded and mutilate the dead . . . whenever a 'boxer' or fanatic was captured either in the European concessions or outside he was brought in and executed without referring the matter to the Commander-in-Chief . . ."

Waller was perfectly prepared to fight a gentleman's war. At Santiago de Cuba, where he commanded the Marine Guard aboard USS Indiana, he was decorated for his efforts in saving wounded Spanish lives. But he was quite prepared to fight the other, less pleasant type of war exemplified by the Philippine Insurrection.

And if, upon arrival at Basey, after dropping Porter and 159 men off at Balangiga, Waller held any doubts as to the type of campaign he was involved in, these were banished in a conference with his immediate superiors, BrigGen Jacob "Hell-Roaring Jake" Smith, commanding the Sixth Separate Army Brigade, and RAdm Frederick Rodgers, senior squadron commander, Asiatic Station.

The Controversial Order
Inspired by this conference the new commander of the Basey sub-district-some 600 square miles of hostility-immediately issued an operational order that later would play a major role in his trial. Besides slating the mission-to cleat the area of "the treacherous enemy" by expeditions which "in a way that are to be punitive"-and several methods of preventing food from reaching the insurgents, Waller ordered his command to "place no confidence in the natives, and punish treachery immediately with death." The order concluded, "We have also to avenge our late comrades in North China-the murdered men of the Ninth United States Infantry."

Excepting the last paragraph, nothing is amiss about this order. Precedent-wise, as Secretary Root would point out later to President Roosevelt,

"in 1779, Washington ordered General Sullivan in the campaign against the Six Nations to seek the total destruction and devastation of their settlements. He wrote, 'But you will not by any means listen to overtures for peace before the total ruin of their settlement is effected . . . our future security will lie in their inability to injure us, the distance to which they are driven, and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.' "

Although BrigGen Smith later denied seeing Waller's order, he scarcely could have contradicted its general content. He did object to the final phrase, as will be seen. But to a troop commander, and particularly to one such as Waller who used motherhood, the flag, and any other emotion which might infuse fire into his people, it does not seem unnatural. What in fact Waller intended to do in Samar had been operationally commonplace in the Philippine Islands since the beginning of the Insurrection.

His method of achieving it was something different.

In a report made to Smith a mere two days after landing at Basey, Waller described a number of local expeditions which he already had pushed out against insurgent supply points. From a prisoner he learned that most of the insurgents had gone "back to the Sojoton Mountains where they are estimated in force about. 100 to 700." Characteristically, he stated,

"I shall push in toward the Sojoton Mountains and attempt to dislodge the enemy from the overhanging rocks and drive him from his stronghold. The position is reported as practically impregnable. I believe I can dislodge them with shrapnel; I shall therefore try a gun platform of bamboo boards, which I believe can be made sufficiently stable, of very little draft and easily managed."

While the platform for the three-inch gun was being constructed, Waller kept constant pressure on the insurgents, especially on their supply points, by almost daily expeditions from Basey and Balangigi. Typical is a report made by him on 31 October:

"On the 26th [of Oct] an expedition was sent to the trenches previously occupied by the insurgents. The troops found them empty, but they destroyed the houses on the way up. Three bolomen were killed and about 3,000 pounds of rice [taken] . . . On the 30th I went to Balangiga . . . and on the way down destroyed two villages, killing one man and capturing another . . . these men were armed with l Krag, 2 revolvers, and bolos, or short, heavy daggers."

None of these expeditions was a simple matter. On the trail the Marines lived off bacon, biscuit and chewing tobacco while forcing their way through jungle so dense that often compasses had to be used entirely. Frequent rains meant sinking to the knees in mid. Progress was further impeded by heavy marching packs, rules, and double web belts holding 100 cartridges for the heavy Krag Jorgenson rifles. The terrain proved a ghastly combination of leech-covered jungle vine that tore off the blue uniforms and infected bodies, and a pumice soil that quickly wore away shoes. Any turn of a trail might find a small band of fanatic insurgents ambuscading behind pits, trenches, or poison spear traps, waiting to swoop down with flashing bolos. This was a tactic called the bolo-rush and was answerable only with rifle fire that generally spelled death for the insurgents.

Expedition Paid Off
But, as Waller foresaw, the frequent expeditions served two purposes. They placed constant pressure on the insurgents, and they seriously interfered with his food supply. Perhaps as important, they taught the Marines the nature of the enemy, both terrain and man. The latter challenge was often sharpened when a search of prisoners or rebel dead disclosed relics-pictures, letters, rings, canteens-which had belonged to the massacred soldiers of the Ninth Infantry.

On 5 November, Waller pushed his way up the Sojoton river, overran enemy outposts, killed and captured several insurgents, and captured two small bamboo cannon or lantakas, an action which cost the lives of Marine Pvis J. Lynch and E. A. Kloman. Although the gun platform yawed in the seaway on the return trip and went under, the three-inch gun and the men were saved. Waller denied the device "a great success." While alterations were accomplished, the pressure continued so that in the week ending 8 November Waller could report: "255 houses burned, 39 men killed, 18 men captured, 17 bolos captured, 1 ton hemp and one-half ton rice destroyed."

Attack Up the Sojoton
By mid-November Waller was ready to attack the rebel stronghold some 15 miles up the Sojoton river. Sending a land column of 50 troops under Bearss to rendezvous with Porter's company and proceed up the Sojoton, Waller brought up a third party plus supply and his precious three-inch gun by boat. On the night of 16 November the expedition reached the overhanging cliffs of the Sojoton where the boats were forced to halt-any attempt to push further would have been met by huge cages of boulders which the enemy was ready to drop from the cliffs.

Early on 17 November the land column under Porter and Bearss began the difficult ascent to the cliffs. Soon striking an enemy trail, the Marines pushed on through such un-manned defenses as poison spears and pits, and finally came to a number of bamboo cannon, one of which had its fuse burning. After Cpl Harry Glenn rushed this and plucked out the fuse, the party charged the first camp which moments early the enemy had deserted.

From this vantage the Marines looked across the 150foot wide river and, 150 yards away, spied two more enemy camps, both occupied. Dragging up a Colt 6mm gun, the Marines opened fire on the cartels, killed some 30 insurgents and put the rest to flight. After burning the first camp, they descended the cliffs to the river, which was crossed in small boats or bancas, then scaled the opposite cliffs by fragile bamboo ladders left in place by the confused defenders. When Porter and Bearss led an assault against the new cartels the insurgents fired two ragged volleys and fled.

Although lack of supply and troop fatigue prevented Waller from immediate pursuit, the victory nonetheless was impressive. For the first time in the history of Samar, while men had penetrated the insurgent stronghold and put the defenders into disorganized flight. Besides the immediate results-30 insurgents killed, their cartels burned, 40 cannon captured, rice and other stores destroyed-Waller glowingly reported that "years of labor have been destroyed here. We have proved to them that their impregnable places can be taken. We have swept away a stronghold for the last rally."

He was especially pleased with his troops who "overcame incredible difficulties and dangers." Although no serious casualties were suffered, Waller reported that most of his men were "barefooted and must rest for about three days." In a later report recommending decorations, he noted that "where all did so well it seems almost impossible to distinguish extraordinary service. Each man carried his life in his hands." (Years later Captains Porter and Bearss would receive Medals of Honor for the Sojoton assault.) In citing Gunnery Sgt Quick, Waller wrote that he "now holds a medal of honor for Guantanamo. I do not believe there is anything too good for him."

BrigGen Smith was as pleased as Waller, whose report he endorsed,

"Major L. W. T. Waller, USMC, now brevet lieutenant-colonel, has proven himself to be an officer of exceptional merit, and carries out any instructions loyally and gallantly. He deserves another brevet for his service thus far, and I urge this recognition: also a general order from the division commander [Chaffee], congratulating him and the Marine Corps of this command."

RAdm Rodgers cabled, "Well done, Marines . . ."; MajGen ChafEee sent "Thanks to officers and men . . ."; the Secretary of War expressed his "gratification" to the Secretary of the Navy; and the Department of the Navy cabled congratulations to Waller.

But before the last of these laurels arrived in Basey, the first shadow of what was to prove a fearful black cloud descended on "Tony" Waller. So effectively had he consolidated his Sojoton gain by a series of expeditions throughout southern Samar that now insurgents increasingly turned themselves in, exchanging their weapons for the oath of allegiance to America. In this pacific circumstance of early December, 1901, Waller turned to a new project earlier proposed by BrigGen Smith: a march across southern Samar to determine if wire could be strung between Lanang and Basey.

The expedition would become known to history as the "March across Samar." For Waller it would end in an Army barracks in Luzon-it would end in a general court-martial on a charge of murder.