The Philippine Thermopylae at Tirad Pass
Most Americans do not know that the Philippines were part of the United States from 1898–1946. Even fewer remember how our involvement began there.
Some dimly recall learning about the Spanish-American War, an ignominious mugging of a crumbling colonial power that netted the US de facto control of Cuba and outright ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
Spain barely put up a fight in the Pacific. Shortly after midnight on May Day 1898, six US Navy ships steamed into Manila Harbor. At sunrise, they opened fire. Shortly after noon, the Spaniards lowered their flags to signify surrender. In the space of a few hours, the Americans sank eight ships and slew nearly eighty Spaniards while losing zero vessels and just one sailor— to heatstroke and a heart attack.
Taking control of the colonial capital was the easy part. Overwhelmed by a longstanding Filipino insurrection, the Spanish viceroy barely controlled anything else in the archipelago.
The hard part would be taking the islands from the Filipinos.
Waging the entire Spanish-American War took only four months and cost the US only 345 battle deaths (though another 2,500 servicemen died of tropical diseases).
By contrast, crushing most military resistance in the Philippines took fifteen years (1898–1913), slew 5,000 American soldiers and killed perhaps 300,000 Filipinos. Civilians comprised the bulk of islander deaths, with war-related disease and starvation claiming more lives than simple massacres.
Most Americans have never heard of this unfortunate conflict, but it holds an important place in our military history, marking a continuous trail of blood from Wounded Knee to My Lai. A sick subculture of former Indian fighters brought the brutal race war tactics of the Wild West to the Philippines. The atrocities committed by deviant soldiers in the islands — indiscriminate killing, taking trophies like severed ears from the dead, even the racial epithet “gook” — got recycled against the Japanese during World War II, against Koreans and Chinese during the police action of 1950–53, and against the Vietnamese in the ’60s and ‘70s.
Initially, the islanders welcomed the Americans as liberators. After taking Manila Harbor in 1898, the US Navy brought Emilio Aguinaldo — a renowned Filipino freedom fighter — out of exile in Hong Kong to take command of the island’s rebel forces. Under Aguinaldo’s leadership, the rebels quickly eradicated what little Spanish resistance remained outside of the capital city.
Fresh from this triumph, Aguinaldo felt betrayed when US troops— now augmented by reinforcements — refused to let the Filipino freedom fighters enter Manila.
Convinced that the Americans intended to replace the Spaniards as colonial occupiers, Aguinaldo declared independence and proclaimed himself president of the Philippine Republic.
Pondering what to do with the islands, President McKinley sought divine guidance:
“I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me… that we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and… that there was nothing left for us to do but… to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”
Like many men of faith, McKinley made the startling discovery that God shared his convictions, including his belief that the US deserved to profit by acquiring the islands. Oddly, the omniscient Creator did not see fit to advise the president that the Spaniards had already converted most Filipinos to Christianity more than three centuries before his time.
By January 1899, negotiations between Aguinaldo and the Americans broke down, and hostilities commenced. Despite inferior weaponry and training, the Filipino freedom fighters vexed US forces by waging guerrilla warfare: mounting hit-and-run raids, avoiding direct confrontations, and hoping to drain the will of the invaders—essentially the same strategy the Viet Cong later used to defeat first the French and then the US in Indochina. For this reason, some scholars refer to the Philippine Insurrection as America’s “First Vietnam.”
In December 1899, the US Army forces under Major Peyton March had pursued Aguinaldo into the mountains of northern Luzon. Recognizing that the Americans were gaining on him, the Filipino president left 60 soldiers to hold Tirad Pass while he escaped with the rest of his troops.
Just as King Leonidas faced the Persians in their thousands at Thermopylae with his 300 Spartans (plus 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians whom Hollywood forgot), these 60 Filipinos prepared to defend the high ground against Major March’s much larger force.
Aguinaldo assigned Brigadier General Gregorio del Pilar to lead the defense of Tirad Pass. A gifted commander, he had already scored notable victories over the Spanish and the Americans. The 24-year-old “Boy General” directed his men to dig trenches and pile up stone walls to enhance the natural fortifications of the pass.
Still, they knew they were doomed. In his diary the night before the battle, del Pilar wrote:
“The General has given me the pick of all the men that can be spared and ordered me to defend the Pass. I realize what a terrible task has been given me. And yet I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life. What I do is done for my beloved country. No sacrifice can be too great.”
On 2 December 1899, American and Filipino forces clashed in the Battle of Tirad Pass.
Leading 300 infantrymen, Major March initially tried a frontal assault, but withering fire from del Pilar’s troops convinced him to abandon that course. Capitalizing on intelligence gathered from nearby villagers, March initiated flanking maneuvers, sending men up narrow side switchback trails less vulnerable to fire from the top of the pass.
While the bravery of del Pilar and his men rivaled that of the Greeks at Thermopylae, they held the pass not for three days, but for five hours. Instead of the massive losses King Leonidas inflicted upon the Persians, only two American soldiers expired in the battle. Rather than fighting to the last man as at Thermopylae, eight of the 60 Filipino defenders survived the battle.
Shot through the neck, del Pilar perished in the fighting. March moved on, hurrying after Aguinaldo. But the sacrifices of the Boy General and his men granted the president a sufficient head start; he escaped to fight another day.
Del Pilar and his men laid unburied in Tirad Pass for three days, until US Army Lieutenant Dennis Quinlan and some Igorot villagers gave him a decent burial. Quinlan marked the Boy General’s gravesite with the following inscription:
“Gen. Gregorio del Pilar, Died December 2, 1899, Commanding Aguinaldo’s Rear Guard, An Officer and a Gentleman.”
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