General John Pershing commanded the US forces in the final assault on the Bud Bagsak fortress in 1913.
During the occupation of the Philippines, the Americans owned the “Moro Province” in the South – Mindanao and the Sulu Islands. Individual Datus (or Dattos) – tribal leaders – occassionally rebelled against US forces. When one tribe rebelled, others remained allied to the US. It was easy enough to put down the occasional rebellion.
1913 presented a different problem. At Jolo City, in the Sulu archipelago, there was a large revolt led by the Datto Amil. They were better trained, armed and led than previous insurgents.
Gen. John J. Pershing spent quite a bit of time in Moroland. He originally entered the Province as a Captain, and helped put down individual revolts between 1903-1904. Pershing explored the use of “soft power” by negotiating treaties with datu and religious councils. He read the Koran, learned a bit of the Moro dialects, and built partnerships with many Moro leaders, especially the Sultans. He later served as governor of Moro Province in 1909.
In 1913, he fought the battle of Bud Bagsak.
The problem began in January of 1913. Datto Amil used nationalist and religious motives to encouraged a widespread revolt against the United States and the Sultan of Sulu.
Amil’s forces skirmished with and defeated a small detachment of local US and Moro police forces. A combined force of Philippine Constabularies and Scouts (indigenous police and military units with American officers) attacked a nearby rebel fort. They used the standard procedure that normally worked. They hit the fort with a brief artillery barrage and followed with an infantry charge. Amil’s forces repulsed the Scouts. This was the first time in the entire decade that Moro Rebels won a battle.
These rebels were nothing like the poorly armed tribes the Americans encountered in 1903. They now used modern Krag rifles used far better tactics. They dug slit trenches to survive rifle and artillery fire, rather than relying on bamboo-mud walls as they had in the past. They threw dynamite like hand-grenades. They were fairly accurate with their rifles. Amil’s forces always tried to shoot the officers first. This was made easy because Americans were taller and whiter than anyone else on the battlefield.
Datto Amil’s forces redeployed to Bud Bagsak by late January– an extinct volcano ringed by a series of cotta forts and very steep slopes. Reportedly, the rebels were numbered at some 10,000 which was faintly ridiculous – that would be nearly the entire island. Their numbers were closer to 2-3,000.
In early February, Pershing brought in the 8th Infantry to reinforce the Sulu capital of Jolo City and set out to besiege Bud Bagsak. And this is where things got interesting. Pershing, having considerable experience in putting down Muslim rebels, did not intend to attack immediately. He intended to use soft-power to separate the population from the rebel Datu.
After surrounding the volcano, Pershing refused to attack. Instead the Sultan of Sulu went up the volcano to negotiate terms. He succeeded – Datto Amil returned home on the condition that the the US forces would leave.
Datto Amil believed the Americans were weak as a result. Through March and April, his forces took over most of the island and besieged Jolo City, taunting the Americans to come out and fight. He received no response. The 8th Infantry and Philippine Scouts fortified the City and refused to engage.
In May, Amil once again retreated to the forts at Bud Bagsak after Pershing resumed aggressive patrolling of the island.
What happened here and why did the Americans wait over five months since the start of the rebellion? Datto Amil overstayed his welcome. The Moros of Jolo City loathed him and his rebels. Moros outside the city lamented the loss of trade and poor farming. Amil took too many men away from the farms during the spring months. He reduced trade and encouraged lawlessness in the countryside.
When Amil went back to Bud Bagsak in May, his force was a small fraction of his forces in January.
When Moros made their stands in their forts, they brought their women and children with them. Effectively, they made the non-combatants human shields against US artillery. The anti-imperialist movement loved stories of how Americans were butchering children, so the Army avoided this as much as possible. The nearby presence of women and children made Bud Bagsak an even tougher shell to crack.
In June, Pershing partially besieged Bud Bagsak and asked the Sultan to resume negotiations with Amil. Pershing then decided to unilaterally withdraw, apparently without even telling his own officers his plans.
Pershing made it appear that he was leaving Jolo for the time being as if the situation was a stalemate. US forces lifted the siege of Bud Bagsak, allowing the Moros to go up and down it at their leisure.
Then, in mid June, Pershing made a sudden return with a Philippine Scout unit, and ordered the immediate besieging of Bud Bagsak. The Americans cut off Bud Bagsak so quickly and unexpectedly that few women and children were in the forts as a result.
Even more importantly, many of the fair-weather fighters were back home tending the crops, believing the Americans had given up yet again. Others slept till late in the morning with their wives, then woke up shocked to learn that the Americans were back and blocking the path to Bud Bagsak. Even those with legitimate reasons for rebelling found themselves wanting to cooperate with the Americans after the local economy had been disrupted for 6 months.
Amil’s forces consisted of some 500 warriors. All were committed Muslims who wanted to die fighting the Christian invaders. After 6 months, a wide-spread revolt had deteriorated into a small knot of fanatics.
The US military attacked Bud Bagsak between June 11th and June 15th. They killed nearly all of the Muslims. Pershing began the assualt with a heavy artillery barrage. US Infantry laid down fire on Moros who retreated from the outer positions. US and Philippine infantry then advanced up the steep mountain and captured the cotta forts. Pershing was in the front-lines at one point of the attack. 13 Americans died in the battle.
Few Moros surrendered. They took the juramentado – the religious oath to fight to the death. It was the last major rebellion in the Moro Province.
General Pershing wrote this to his wife:
“The fighting was the fiercest I have ever seen… They are absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat they count death as a mere incident.”