Waller of Samar -- Part II

By Capt Robert B. Asprey - Originally Published May 1961

For many years, whenever a veteran of the Samar campaign entered the mess the senior officer present would call out, "Stand gentlemen, he served on Samar."

What has gone before: On 17 March 1902, Maj Littleton Waller Tazewell Waller, USMC, went on trial by general court-martial for "murder, in violation of the fifty-eighth article of war." Specifically, while serving as commanding officer of the Bascy Subdistrict on the island of Samar in the Philippines, on or about 20 January 1902, Maj Waller ordered the execution of 11 natives by firing squad.

Although admitting the act, Maj Waller pleaded not guilty to murder, his defense being that he was authorized in his action by the laws of warfare. His career, possibly his life, thus would depend on the validity of his defense-on what actually had happened during his months in Samar.

Waller had been ordered to Samar in command of a battalion of Marines after native rebel forces had treacherously attacked and massacred a company of American infantry. By a series of brilliant expeditions culminating in the successful assault of the rebel stronghold, Waller in less than six weeks had so disorganized the insurgents that he now was able to undertake a new mission assigned by his immediate superior, BGen Smith, USA: a reconnaissance march across southern Samar.

* The exact genesis of what one day would be called the "March across Samar" is not known, but apparently BGen Smith had favored the notion for some time. Speaking of a conference with Smith in early December, 1901, Waller wrote:

"General Smith also asked me again to make the march across the mountain to Hernani, on the east coast. He gave me authority to work from Basey to Balangiga, a distance of about 52 miles by trail, in order that I might either capture or destroy the remnants of the insurrectos, now scattered in small bands and causing much trouble to the other natives. Authority was given me to use my own judgment as to the point of departure from the east coast to cross the mountains; that is to say, either from Hernani or Lanang."

Waller spent most of December in leading an expedition from Basey to the east coast, during which he fought numerous small and successful skirmishes at such phonetically-pleasing places as Quinapundan, Omagonggong, and Pambuham. On 21 December he reported to Gen Smith:

"Unless we meet with something much more serious than we have during this march, I think it safe to say that the southern part of the island of Samar is as quiet as many parts of Luzon, where peace is supposed to reign."

The report presciently continued:

"Of course there will be bands of ladrones [native bandits] to encounter, but this condition has existed for several hundred years and, in my humble opinion, will continue until by education and prosperity these people are taught where their interests lie. When this time arrives, they may be capable of self-government -not before."

In late December, Waller reached Lanang on the coast which was garrisoned by the American Army. There, two Army officers, Capt Pickering and Lt Williams, attempted to talk him out of the proposed march but,

"remembering the General's [Smith] several talks on the subject and his evident, desire to know the trail and run wires across, coupled with my own desire for some further knowledge of the people and the nature of this heretofore impenetrable country, I decided to make the trail with 50 men and the necessary carriers."

The expedition shoved off from Lanang on 28 December, a pleasant day that contrasted strongly with earlier, very heavy rains. Waller took Porter and Bearss, 1stLt Williams, 2dLt Halford, and 2dLt Lyles, an Army officer assigned by BGen Smith. In addition the force comprised 50 enlisted Marines, two native scouts named Slim and Smoke, and 33 native carriers or cargadores.

They traveled by boats as far up river as they could, which was not very far. The subsequent march almost at once struck impossibly tortuous terrain. While gritty soil tore through heavy soles of hobnailed marching boots, heavy vines and thorns ripped clothes from the body and dispensed slimy leeches which homed under lacerated skin to produce painful, festering sores. The mountainous country dictated constant fording of the river which, in turn, spelled wet clothing with severe chafing. Then the rains returned.

Moving slower and slower, the long column traveled about 12 miles for every three miles gained. On 30 December Waller reduced rations; the next day he cut them to one-half and the number of meals per day to two. By 1 January his maps had been destroyed and he had as yet seen nothing that looked like the alleged Spanish trail. On 2 January the column was reduced to one-third rations; by 3 January many of the men could no longer keep up.

Waller now decided to take Lt Halford and 13 men in the best condition, push on to a rendezvous with Capt Dunlap who was waiting with food and clothing on the Sojoton river, then send back a relief party to the main column. This group, under Porter's command, would move ahead slowly and follow Waller's trail, which would be clearly marked.

Due to communications failure, this plan completely miscarried.

By the morning of 4 January, Waller's party had made such little progress that he decided to return to Lanang. In a message sent by native carrier to Porter, Waller informed him of his new decision and instructed him to go to the Suribao river and start building rafts until his, Waller's, party returned.

Porter soon discovered that the wood was not suitable for rafts-it wouldn't float. When Waller failed to appear, Porter sent Bearss and one man to find him.

Disliking to abandon the expedition, Waller meanwhile had pushed on a mile or two and had discovered salvation in the form of a clearing planted with bananas, young cocoanut palms, and camotes, a variety of sweet potato. An equally prosperous clearing was located on the opposite side of the river and a trail led five minutes away to still another clearing with shack.

Capt Bearss and Cpl Murphy now caught up to Waller and reported that Porter's group was only about an hour and a half away. Waller thereupon sent a second message to Porter instructing him to march to these clearings, feed and rest his troops, then continue the march along Waller's marked trail. In short, Waller reverted to his first plan: he would push on, rendezvous with Duncan, and send back a relief party.

After waiting an hour for Porter, Waller crossed the river to a new clearing, messed his troops, and saw to it that their feet "were well washed with soap and bathed in a good strong bichloride solution." At this point Waller's native runner returned and reported that the insurrectos were so numerous he had not gotten through to Porter. Capt Bearss told Walter he was sure Porter would come along anyway as "he was considering it when he [Bearss] left." With that, Waller resumed the march.

Waller's party soon struck a well-defined trail that eventually led to a native shack where five persons were captured. Of them, a man and a 12-year-old boy knew the way into Basey. After a rugged march of two more days, the small party picked up the Sojoton river and, eventually, Dunlap's party. They reached Basey on 6 January 1902.

Waller Takes Off Again
Although exhausted, Waller immediately organized a relief party which he personally led out on 8 January. Altogether he spent nine days in a fruitless search for Porter's group-indeed, severe floods had removed traces of his own camp sites. His troops giving out, he returned to Basey and collapsed. In something over a month this 45-year-old officer had marched about 250 miles, much of it through impossible mountain terrain. His ankle in bad shape and his body covered with sores, he now gave in to a fever and was hospitalized with a 105° temperature.

What happened to Porter and the main column? After Porter had dispatched Capt Bearss and Cpl Murphy to Waller, he stood by awaiting new orders. When none came by late afternoon, Porter sent out a native who soon returned and reported that he couldn't find Waller.

Porter and Williams now made an estimate of the situation. The last word received from Waller was to build rafts and stand by. Porter concluded that Waller was delaying up ahead because of the sad condition of his troops. Porter's own troops were nearly exhausted. His native carriers were becoming increasingly surly, and his supply consisted of a few cans of bacon and one ration of coffee. He decided his column must return to Lanang on foot.

Accordingly, on the morning of 3 January, Porter, who considered himself "stronger and in better physical condition than Lt Williams," took GySgt Quick, six men and six natives and started for Lanang where he would organize a relief party. Leaving Williams in command of the main column, he ordered him "to remain where he was, waiting for [Waller] a reasonable time and then to follow my trail." Porter also left Waller a detailed report of his plan in a tin can "tied to a tree in a most conspicuous place where it was impossible to miss it, that side of the tree being blazed so as to attract attention."

After an indescribably brutal march-the Lanang river had risen 15 feet in one night which prevented crossing and re-crossing-Porter's small party reached the area where the original column had left the boats. Here he was forced to abandon four of his seven Marines, hopeful in the knowledge that they could subsist on potatoes until his return. He and the rest of his party finally struggled into Lanang on the evening of 11 January, three days after Waller had started out in search of them from Basey.

At Lanang, Porter organized a relief party under Army Lt Williams, but the flood river prevented its departure until 14 January. Two days later the relief party found the four Marines left behind by Porter, got them safely into Lanang by canoe, then pushed on in search of Williams' column.

Williams, meanwhile, had been undergoing the tortures of the damned. With no rations and his men barefooted,

"one day was like the rest. By day we stumbled painfully forward and by night lay in a stupor, tormented by the most vivid dreams of food and comforts. At the first clearing Pvt Baroni, too sick to move, was left, and from that time until five days before we were rescued ten men were left scattered along the trail, despairing in mind and so nearly dead from starvation and exposure that they could not crawl, and, in most cases, move."

Native Scouts Mutiny
The conduct of his native carriers, never exemplary, soon became mutinous. Repeatedly disobeying direct orders, they refused to scout the trail or to gather firewood. When they found edible wild food they hid it from the Marines. Late in the ordeal, when Williams ordered three of them to search for firewood, one jumped him, stabbed him with a bolo, and bit him in the hand while the rest looked on. "Although the attack occurred but a few yards from camp, it was at least two minutes before the men came to my assistance, and then the first to come, Sgt McCaffery, was too weak to work the bolt of his rifle." Pursuit, of course, was impossible. The three natives escaped into the bush.

Williams would have had the other carriers shot except that each plan he conceived "depended upon the concerted action of every man in the party." "He was afraid that because of their weakness-the weakness of all of us-that some one or two might slip up in carrying it out, and then the natives might kill us."

At this critical juncture-about noon of 18 January -the Army relief party came onto the survivors. Williams and his men were crawling towards them. They reached Lanang that night and by 20 January all hands were in the Army hospital at Tacloban, Leyte.

Capt Porter at once telephoned the terrible story to Maj Waller at Basey. Porter had arrested 11 of the natives and was sending them to Basey under GySgt Quick. Porter believed they should be shot; so did Williams; so did the troops.

Waller knew exactly what Porter was talking about. On 5 January he had been personally threatened by a carrier named Victor and throughout the march his scouts, Slim and Smoke, had failed to report to him when ordered. Victor, who had not gotten through to Porter because the area was full of insurrectos, was discovered to have lied and to have told another guide, "As the Americans will not return to the other party, it will be a good time for us to kill them and flee to the mountains."

After Porter's telephone call and GySgt Quick's personal report, Waller called in the 11 prisoners, who only trembled silently during interrogation. Convinced of their treachery, Waller was also mindful of his overall mission. He was still out of action; the populations of Basey and Balangiga were openly hostile; he had 95 prisoners, and only 45 effective Marines for duty.

His orders to execute the 11 people were carried out that afternoon. The next day he telegraphed BGen Smith on Leyte that he had "expended" 11 natives.

The matter might have ended there except for, according to Waller's later report to the Commandant, "the vain boastfulness of one of the officers of my battalion." However it happened or whoever was responsible, word of the executions reached MajGen Chaffee in Manila. Already in trouble with Governor Taft for his military policy, Chaffee at once queried BGen Smith, who started the official investigation that led to Waller's arrest and court-martial.

Waller was defended by Cdr Adolf Marix, USN, Maj Edwin F. Glenn, 5th US Infantry, and one Mr. Oscar Sutro, of whom nothing more is found in the records.

Senior Member of the Court was BGen William H. Bisbee, USA. In addition to seven Army officers ranging from colonel to captain, the Court comprised six Marines, including Maj William P. Biddle and Capt Eli C. Cole.

Defense opened with a plea "in bar of jurisdiction" -that since Waller had been relieved from service with the Army, the Army could not now court-martial him. This, a very fast legal curve, caused endless adjournments until the convening authority, MajGen Chaffee, denied the argument and the trial proceeded.

Smith Puts His Foot In It
Apparently not discouraged, Defense now chose a singular plea that lasted until the end of the trail. In executing the natives, the Defense maintained, Maj Waller was not only acting completely within his authority as area commander in time of war and under martial law (as opposed to military law) within the terms of General Order Number 100, but his act was fully justified by the circumstances and was defended by national and international precedents.

This was a good plea and as one studies the 400 some flimsy pages of transcript the impression is gained that Defense was winning its case. At the very least the Court's decision would have been close. But now an Army major named Kingsbury, who was Judge Advocate prosecuting, committed a dreadful error-one that not only would influence the trial but would bring down the wrath of Theodore Roosevelt on the United States Army. Kingsbury called BGen Smith as a witness for the prosecution.

When Smith took the stand, Defense reiterated its intent to argue the case solely within the legal bounds of General Order Number 100. Apparently unimpressed, Kingsbury now established that Smith had never seen Waller's original operations order (see Part I) and that he would have disapproved of parts of it, particularly the last paragraph: "We have also to avenge our late comrades in North China-the murdered men of the Ninth United States Infantry." Smith then stated his incredible opinion to the Court that the massacre at Balangiga was actually defensible under international laws of warfare!

Waller Takes the Stand
This was too much for Defense. Calling Waller to the stand, his counsel asked him to describe the original conference with Gen Smith, the one that had inspired the now questionable operations order. Waller told the Court that in front of witnesses Smith had stated to him, "I want no prisoners," and "I want you to kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me."

Waller then testified that Smith wanted all persons killed "who were capable of bearing arms." When Waller asked him what age limit he should respect, he was told ten years! Further, before Waller's final assault against the Sojoton stronghold, he had received a message from Smith ordering, "You will make the interior of Samar a howling wilderness!"

The evidence was terribly damning to Smith, the more so because Waller obviously had employed great restraint throughout the campaign in carrying out such desired retribution. As Porter testified-and he was witness to the conference-Waller later told him in reference to the order to kill ten-year-old insurgents, ". . . we are not making war against women and children, Porter; we are making war against men capable of bearing arms." And when in Court the Major was asked, "Why did you take prisoners . . . when you had specific orders not to take them?", he replied, "I have been twenty-three years in the service; I have served with almost every army in the world; and I know the laws of war, sir."

Although it was now obvious to the Court that almost any punitive action by Waller would have been defensible under the extraordinary orders issued by Smith, it is greatly to the credit of the former that he still refused to admit that protection in defending himself. The following testimony is revealing:

Q.-From the evidence you received during these various reports [from Porter, Quick, etc.], and the opinions which were expressed to you directly or indirectly by officers and men, what was your decision as to what should be done with these men?

A.-No doubt in my mind at all, sir, and I acted on that and had the men shot.

Q.-Did you honestly believe that these men deserved death?

A.-Undoubtedly; and they were the only men I ever had shot.

Q.-Did the military situation, or did it not, make it advisable to kill these really condemned men at that time?

A.-It did.

And in a written statement submitted to the Court, Maj Waller wrote:

"As the representative officer responsible for the safety and welfare of my men, after investigation and from the information I had, considering the situation from all points I ordered the eleven men shot. I honestly thought I was right then, I believe now that I was right. Whatever may happen to me I have the sure knowledge that my people know, and I believe the world knows that I am not a murderer."

After lengthy deliberation the Court agreed: Major Littleton W. T. Waller, USMC, was acquitted.

Although the Court's decision was excoriated by the local reviewing authority, it was upheld by the Judge Advocate General of the War Department, who also ironically concluded that Waller's original plea "in bar of jurisdiction" was valid. Therefore, he ruled, "the court-martial acted without jurisdiction and . . . its proceedings are, for that reason, null and void, and it is recommended that General Chaffee be so advised."

Unfortunately, this did not end the affair.

Under fire by important civilians for his Philippine policy, a thoroughly alarmed President Roosevelt immediately ordered "a most thorough, searching and exhaustive investigation" into Army policy in America's newest possession. Less than a month after Waller's trial, Chaffee was forced to court-martial five regular Army officers, one of whom was BGen Jacob Smith.

Found guilty of the charge, "Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline"-specifically, his retributive orders to Waller-Smith was sentenced "to be admonished by the reviewing authority." Elihu Root, however, in forwarding the case to the President, concluded that, despite Smith's excellent military record, his action was inexcusable. Since he was going on 62 years of age, Root recommended Smith be retired. Roosevelt agreed.

The High Price of Success
But for a political coincidence, the episode probably would have left Waller otherwise unscathed. But the Governor of the Philippines at the time, William Howard Taft, was a mortal enemy of MajGen Chaffee and his military policy with which Waller was inextricably volved. In 1911, when Waller became eligible for Commandant of the Marine Corps, Taft was President and chose instead William P. Biddle who, as a major, had sat on Waller's court-martial.

This was indeed a high price to pay. Yet it is doubtful if Waller ever regretted his decision on that day of 20 January in Basey, Samar. To Waller the order was a matter of protecting his mission. And to Waller his mission was forever paramount in importance to all else-to career, even to life. For this reason, perhaps, Smedley Butler, who saw a lot of officers in his own career, later called Littleton Waller "the greatest soldier I have ever known."