The following is an excerpt from the latter half of – Hostile Participants – by Miguel Miranda, a novel set during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The text excerpted is from chapter 24 and features the supporting characters in an American counter-offensive versus the Filipinos whose de facto capital is in the historic city of Malolos. The entire novel is set in southern Luzon, where much of the war took place and contains elements of espionage fiction. Hostile Participants was released on September 20 and became available in ebook and paperback format by October 2. It’s the first volume of a planned fiction series.
The weeks had beaten them into shape. Now they were mean and impatient, eager to kill and do the regiment proud. It’s why Colonel Burr had them all gathered in one place, 14 companies, officers included, with the mess and medical staff present as well.
They’d been rained on, dirtied, bloodied, marched for days, and generally made to endure the strain of constant fighting. Now the Third Colorado was in its best shape and the entire waited for their Colonel to materialize before the giant map guarded by Captain Wallace, the stoic aide-de-camp.
Colonel Burr was puffing on his tobacco as he slowly walked from his field tent to the front of the assemblage. He swung a riding crop on his one hand as he assessed his boys. Lots of drawn faces, he observed. There were a multitude of gaunt cheeks and haggard faces and tense anticipation.
Taking the pipe from his lips he allowed a few second of stillness to pass before he spoke. “I hope you all had a pleasant breakfast,” Colonel Burr said.
“If not,” he continued, “I’ll have our cooks lined up.”
He let the bad joke sink in a little before it went stale.
“This here,” Burr tapped a point in the map with his crop. “Malolos.”
“We’re finally going to take it.”
“Two days from now General MacArthur is going to lead the 2nd Division up from Caloocan and they’ll be barreling through the brunt of Aguinaldo’s army and then skip across the Tuliahan River,” Burr said.
“The First Colorado already have orders to capture and hold the pumping station outside Manila.”
“Us Third Colorado, we’ll be securing the railroad and the flank,” Burr said, using his pipe to stab at the air. With the crop he traced the route of the railroad that delivered sugarcane and hemp from the provinces to Manila.
“That’s our job,” he declared.
The boys listened to him in rapt silence, hanging on to his every word. “But most importantly, we’re going to be the right hook.”
Sticking his crop into his armpit, Burr assumed a boxer’s stance and jabbed in front of him. There were guffaws first, then the boys howled. Burr liked it. He was always one for delivering the memorable speeches, even as a junior officer so long ago.
Burr hooked a thumb on his belt, grinning from ear to ear. “You all seen that?”
“That’s what we’re going to do.”
Burr suddenly whipped out his crop, eyes dead serious. “Let me all just remind you that two weeks ago, Congress ratified our sovereignty over the Philippines.”
“Over here, Aguinaldo seems to have other ideas, fashioning himself a dictator of his tin can republic.”
“Let me tell you boys who we’re fighting here. They are rebels, insurrectos.”
“So when we march I want us to go out there and leave them bloody and most of them dead,” Burr declared, rousing a cheer from the men.
“And when we reach Malolos, let’s give that son of a bitch Aguinaldo a good whuppin’!”
“Let’s give ‘im,” Burr said, “a kick in the ass!”
With that, the Third Colorado applauded, threw their hats in the air, and howled for blood.
The fateful day did arrive and it was splendid. At first, the entire regiment marched in a single great file, winding its way from sodden grassland—for it had rained the previous night—and beneath the columns of bent palm trees, whose numbers were prolific and scattered. With unfailing precision, the companies in their blue shirts and Stetson hats, Krags resting on shoulders, separated to form lines directed by officers. Soon they would meet the enemy in his trenches and breastworks, and battle would be joined.
It must be understood that at the end of the nineteenth century, with all its tumult and promise, the infantryman as he was could not accomplish much. At least three hundred years of set piece battles fought with powder and shot, though elevating his value, continuously endangered his person. As the British, the Dutch, the French, the Russians, the Spanish, the Italians, the Mexicans, the Americans, the Ottomans, and the Germans would find out in their own petty wars, the infantryman in general and the rifleman in particular, even if he had his ammunition, his pack, his rations, his water, and a superior long-range bolt-action rifle with a light cartridge, couldn’t be expected to shape momentous events. Worse, except for a helmet, often without one, the century’s mud kickers were bereft of armor.
But put him in a line with other riflemen, equipped the same as he, under the direction of a capable officer, and so much carnage could be wrought. The Filipino generals understood this and tried to mold an army in the European fashion. General Antonio Luna went out of his way to establish a military academy in Malolos staffed by Spaniards, housing it in Barasouain, a church and seminary that was also the seat of the de facto Republic.
Even with numbers on their side, however, the Filipinos didn’t have enough experience, enough ammunition, enough modern artillery, and enough professional officers schooled in the modern European fashion. What they lacked in material they compensated by sheer ingenuity. Such was on grand display for the American regiments to behold as they marched toward Malolos; there were miles and miles of land furrowed with trenches and bamboo palisades. There were sharpshooter’s nests along with minor fortresses of packed earth studded with sharpened stakes.
Accompanying the Americans were numerous correspondents, some were lugging cameras and others meant to observe what went on around them. Many were artists who could render vivid illustrations in pen and ink, more than a few wrote absorbing prose. Among their number, a fellow American would capture the moment for a magazine, writing thusly:
The wind carried the sound of thunderous gunfire. But there was a strange quality to the ominous notes that reached us and it was not until much later that I learned a Flipino orchestra, with their brass, strings, and their drums, had joined their fellowmen in the trenches and played scores better suited to fiestas. This was for the native’s morale, I assumed. So it was their music that was carried to our ears, to the ranks of grim Americans, and the absurdity it lent to the scene could not halt the inevitable.
…the most terrifying aspect of fighting in the open is the dreaded Mauser bullet. Once fired, its trajectory leaves no sound and the tumbling bodies and sudden groans of dying men were the only indication that it had done its work.
…the boys flattened themselves on the ground and crawled behind a knoll. The insurgents were jeering as they shot at us, to little avail. Our marksmanship was superior, plain and simple, and we gave back what they sent us sevenfold.
…every skirmish followed the same pattern. We would decimate the insurgents and with a whoop and a cheer the boys rushed forward in a heroic charge, bayonets stuck to rifles and ready to impale resisting Filipinos. Upon deciding the battle we would marvel at the number of dead, killed in bunches and crumpled as they fell in their multitude. There they lay at the bottom of a trench, an earthy grave that had been prepared for them in the mistaken notion they could resist our strength of arms.
–Alfonse Goodwin for The Latium Dispatch, Vol. XII, No.8, 1899
The Utah batteries were putting in a good day’s work. Well-practiced drills made bombardment immediate and very effective. So effective, they were making a sport of blowing the insurgents to smithereens. The Utah boys found a way to send a high velocity shell from a five-inch gun, whose awful recoil pushed it several feet backward, slamming into the packed earth battlements and the Filipinos behind them were cut to pieces. There would be cheers whenever body parts could be seen flying in the air and hitting the ground.
The Gatlings were equally ferocious. A pair of them were manned by Utah and Colorado boys and whenever a group of Filipinos moved in the open, the Gatlings roared and reduced the natives to mince meat.
After one particular skirmish, Captain Grand led his company to take a battered Filipino line. The natives were mostly dead by the time they reached the insurgent trenches and those who could still move had melted away unseen and unheard.
Private West didn’t mind though. He leapt into the trench and lanced a body, cursing it under his breath as his bayonet pierced the pin-striped shirt of an insurgent and buried itself in the mortified flesh. West’s face was an ugly grimacing mask from his scar, which looked as if a coiled centipede had imprinted itself on his skin. He was still jovial as before, but his swearing came forth in rhapsodious mouthfuls and he harbored not a smidgen of empathy for any Filipinos.
It was already noon, the battling and the warring had started as soon as the Third Colorado reached the first railway station that morning. There was no contest. What would happen is the Americans assembled their firing line parallel to the Filipinos, the Utah guns would open up, delivering a hail of death. There would be an exchange of uneven rifle fire as the Filipinos spent their ammunition. The Americans would charge, bayonets gleaming, and the outcome was settled. Some battles took longer than others and a few skirmishes were resolved in close quarters, with frightening casualties on both sides.
Dellinger was deathly afraid of having to grapple with an insurgent. He instinctively knew a drawn bolo wasn’t a thing to be trifled with. Just a few feet away from where West did his grisly work he picked the corpses. He didn’t mind the glassy eyes that stared at him as he propped torsos and there wasn’t much to smell, except for the faint ordure of what he thought was feces.
He needed Mauser bullets and their 7x57mm cartridges were becoming scarce. He went as far as having the company artificer, a jack of all trades and gunsmith to boot, chamber the necessary rounds. There weren’t enough though, so not only did Dellinger pick his shots carefully, he made it a habit to take from the dead.
He didn’t notice the looming figure that stood above him. “Done robbing, Alice?”
“Shut up, Jim,” Dellinger snapped, wiping his brow with a sleeve.
“You might try to save some for me too,” Morgan teased.
“If it’s bullets you need Jim, get down here and pick them yourself,” Dellinger replied as his hands dug into the pouches of a cartridge belt around a dead Filipino’s waist. He overheard the others who were busy violating the dead like he was.
“Use your bayonet.”
“The jaw’s clenched shut. I don’t want to try and break it.”
“Just pull back the lips then and check the molars.”
“These are poor folk, I doubt we’ll be finding golden teeth.”
“Yeah, and that’s an officer you’re looking at. I can tell by the stripes.”
“Break his jaw or what? This fellow only got beads and a cedula in his pocket.”
“He got a revolver too.”
“I’m keeping that.”
Sergeant Pompey spat on the ground before chugging from a bladder. The heat had worked up a mighty thirst in him. It didn’t help that he needed to huff and run alongside the boys, yell at them even as bullets flew by him and snapped off branches.
God damn this fucking heat, he thought.
The heavens were turning a bright orange by the time the bedlam subsided and the whole company retired beneath palm trees to nurse their canteens. Since the Utah batteries needed their muzzles cleaned and new shells, orders arrived for a pause. The Gatlings were spent as well, and a new set of barrels needed to be brought up.
Captain Grand’s voice startled the men. “Up! Up!”
“Colonel Burr’s on his way and I don’t want him to see any of you basking like it was your leisure you were looking after,” he yelled, the words running from his mouth in an evenly formulated rhythm.
Grand scratched at his neck. His arms had all sorts of small welts on them. Damn the brush, the heat, and the flies sucking at the moisture that accumulated in his exposed orifices, like beneath his eyes or his mouth. Colonel Burr moved about like something had lit his ass, checking on individual companies and even berating his officers in the thick of combat.
He came in at the head of a small procession. There was Captain Wallace behind him with the maps along with civilians. Grand squinted as he swatted the hovering flies.
“Grand,” the Colonel said, speaking from the side of his mouth as he sucked on a pipe. “What do we have here?”
“Sir,” Grand pointed to the corpse strewn trench some distance away. The boys made sure to move ahead of it lest the wind carry foul orders their way. “Over there we just cleared at least a company of insurgents. None surrendered and none were found alive but wounded.”
Colonel Burr suddenly cut in. “Very good!”