THE BATTLE OF CATUBIG
By QUINTIN L. DOROQUEZ*
August 26, 2006
Fought at the turn of the 20th century—between the local militia of Catubig and a contingent of General Vicente Lukban’s incipient Army of the Philippine-American war in Samar and Leyte on the one hand and the U.S. Regular Army on the other—the battle of Catubig(1) brought into focus two aspects of the combatants: raw courage and humanism on the part of the Samarnons, and the penchant of a vanquished, proud U. S. Army to hide the truth from the Filipinos.
Catubig used to be a small town some eighteen kilometers from the mouth of the deep, navigable Catubig River that empties into Lake Lao-ang in the northern section of what used to be the one-province island of Samar. Today, further inland, in the upper source of the river is another town, Las Navas, which regained or was granted its own municipal charter in 1948.
Before the last two decades of the Spanish rule in the Philippines, Las Navas was in fact the set of municipal government in the Catubig Valley. However, toward the close of the 19th century, Kagninipa (now Catubig) started to out-grow Las Navas. This is understandable inasmuch as Kagninipa is located right at the stretches of wide agricultural lands in the vortex of the rich rice-growing Catubig Valley, reputedly the rice granary of Samar. So, ecclesiastical authorities or the Roman Catholic Church built a strong stone church in Kagninipa in 1886. This edifice is stronger in construction and larger in size than the Church in Las Navas even to this day.
The two settlements themselves had a romanticized rivalry, especially when it became apparent that ecclesiastical authorities had its bent on Kagninipa. To avoid a violent confrontation to settle the issue as to where the permanent seat of government was to be located, the two rival chieftains, or capitanes at the time decided it will be a waste of human lives and ugly to fight employing armed men. Capitan Saro of Las Navas and Capitan Mecias of Kagninipa agreed to settle the conflict by staging a carabao bullfight one Sunday. Should the Las Navas bull win, Las Navas will keep the seat of government; should the Kagninipa bull win, the seat of government will, accordingly, be transferred to Kagninipa.
After exhaustive search for the best bulls, the two chieftains were ready to settle the issue. To cut a long story short, it was the bull from Kagninipa that decisively won, in fact chasing the Las Navas bull until it jumped into the Catubig River in fright and pain where it drowned from the wounds gorged in wildly by the strong horns of the more powerful Kagninipa bull.
Thus the seat of municipal government permanently moved to Kagninipa. This took place, however, not without any further enmity.
Then early in February 1900 some Americans started coming in trickle posing as private surveyors. The local church authorities were perceptively more friendly with the visitors than they were with the natives. But the “visitors” were also trying their best to be friendly with the natives. At one point, on a pleasant sunny morning, as two “surveyors” were strolling along Kagninipa Brook, one saw a cat sunbathing by rolling along the grassy edge of the brook. The Americans approached a young lady who was doing her laundry and asked, “What is that, cat?” The lass, hardly seeing the cat which was in higher elevation, and not knowing what the foreigners were asking about, responded, “Tubig,” meaning the water of the brook.
In a short while bystanders gathered around. And they started saying, at the bidding of the Americans, “Catubig!” The Americans thought that “tubig” means cat, and the Filipinos, yes, the Catubignons, thought on the other hand that “cat” means tubig. When this news reached Domingo Rebadulla, the most respected and admired citizen of Kagninipa at the time, he suggested that this “word-compact” or word of friendship be used henceforth as the new name of the town of Kagninipa to signify the friendliness of the Americans and the native populace. Hence, the name “Catubig” today.
In a matter of weeks the “surveyors”, apparently having understood and learned the psyche of the local populace, were already wearing military uniforms, and more men were pouring in, ferried by a gunboat. The priest had left, if temporarily, apparently at the bidding of the Americans, for his safety as well as to make room for the Americans to establish a garrison in the rectory or convent and in the adjacent stone church of Saint Joseph the Worker Parish.
The soldiers, as the surveyors finally turned out to be, were of Company H, 43rd Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. Their real mission was two-fold. First, on the short term, to deny General Lukban access that year (1900) to the bounty rice harvest of the Catubig Valley. This harvest takes place, until now, during the month of April. Second, to deny the General, on the long-term, from making the lush and rice-rich Catubig Valley as the alternate if not permanent headquarters of the Army he was raising in Samar and Leyte for the Philippine Revolution, which had already metamorphosed into the Philippine-American War.
The people of Catubig naturally resented the deceptive presence of the Americans upon discovering the Americans’ real intentions. The local leaders, hospitable as they customarily were to visitors, started a series of hurriedly-convened secret meetings.
Francisco Fincalero, the local real-estate and rice magnate and adoringly called Taga-ta by his associates, sent out instructions to his tenants that if the Americans commandeered his harvest, his tenants were to resist. Homobono Joli-Joli, a young man from Las Navas, forgot the past rivalry of Las Navas and Kagninipa and volunteered with 25 men, with himself at the head, to join the militia. Domingo Rebadulla, the acknowledged leader of Catubig during the Filipino American War and first mayor thereafter, was the over-all overseer in forming the local militia. Domingo, charismatic by personality, easily counted the assistance of Juan Alaras and Probo Plagata, men who later also became municipal mayors of Catubig.
The people responded quickly and favorably. A 300-man strong, fighting force was easily raised.
Knowing that the men were ill-trained and ill-equipped, well-off families—the Orsolinos, the Tafallas, the Mercaders, the Tentativas, the Turbanadas, etc.—donated their mousers and revolvers. Local blacksmiths worked overnights to make palteks (locally manufactured guns) and baids (the Samarnon’s counterpart of the Samurai blade).
Doubting the military know-how of the militiamen, Domingo Rebadulla dispatched a three-man courier party, overseen by his fourteen-year old son, Pedro, to make contact with General Lukban. The General responded by dispatching for a few days one of his deputies, Col. Enrique Villareal Dagujob, a college-educated native of Bicol. The colonel was to check the terrain of the possible battleground and to give secret military instructions to the militia.
General Lukban likewise assigned one of his chemists to the fighting men of Catubig to ensure that they had adequate and steady supply of gun powder to recycle used cartridges.
Above all, the General assured the “boys” liaison that should hostilities break out, he will immediately reinforce the Catubig militia with at least 500 men.
The success of the “boys’ mission” was quickly apparent. Col. Villareal-Dagujob showed up in a few days incognito. The colonel found the morale of the town’s leadership and the fighting men unusually high. Leaving specific instructions as to what to do upon the start of hostilities, Col. Villareal-Dagujob returned to Blanca Aurora, in the highlands of the Gandara Valley, the headquarters of General Lukban.
Sensing immediate hostilities, the General deputized back Col. Villareal-Dagujob to head a 600-man raiding force. Just a day away of mostly jungle marching to Catubig, the raiding party learned that the battle of Catubig had begun. The local leaders took advantage of the fact that the steamer Tonyik which had been ferrying supplies and men to Catubig was nowhere to be found in Lao-ang, the closest port. Informers reported it was in Calbayog, in the westside of the island of Samar. In the estimation of the leaders in Catubig, this means at least about three days before the garrison in Catubig could be reinforced or rescued in the event of hostilities.
It was a sunny April Sunday morning, typical of April, the rice harvest month in Catubig. The mayas were chirping their songs of joy in the abundance of rice grains, their favorite food, just in the outlying fields.
The date: April 15, 1900.
The longshoremen were piling abaca bales after bales in the street ready, as they appeared to be, for loading to a double-mast parao moored at the pier closeby where the American steamer had also been mooring. The giant out-triggered vessel was unloading earthen wares (pots, jars, etc.), but mostly 20-liter kerosene cans. The kerosene cans were, in the normal course of trade, being readied for delivery to consignees in town.
The belfry boys got their instructions before the fall of night, April 14. They usually were to ring one bell for the customary ringing at 6:00 A.M. on a Sunday of ordinary time. But for the following day they were to stay put and wait for a small-arm gunfire at which instance they were to ring in full blast all three bells, including the giant de ruida. This de ruida bell is rung only on solemn occasions, such as the arrivals of dignitaries, or at the inception and completion of a High Mass during town fiestas or special occasions, or in cases of calamities such as fires beyond control.
But Domingo Rebadulla objected to the small-arm gunfire, for it could in fact mean hostilities. He ordered instead dropping on the concrete street, with the appearance of casual fall from the head of a longshoreman, an empty kerosene can to produce the loud, sharp decibels that were to signal the American garrison did not accept the town leaders’ demand to surrender with their guns and military wares and to vacate the convent and the church vicinities.
At about 7:00 A.M., just before the Americans started their daily morning drills in small numbers, a courier was dispatched by the town capitan to hand in an envelope to the doorman at the rectory containing the demand. As anticipated the garrison turned the demand down. A thumb-down signal from the courier as he emerged from the rectory caused the fall of an empty kerosene can from a husky longshoreman while he was stacking kerosene cans not far from the town square. That sudden fall was the signal that the belfry boys were awaiting. A few bell rings sent the token force of militiamen at the rear of the convent firing to decoy the Americans in that direction.
At 7:30 A.M. all hell broke loose.
The bells of Catubig, especially the giant de ruida that day kept spinning in crescendo, the other two bells were tolling unusually fast. All able-bodied men ran toward the convent even without orders and volunteered to fight. But unarmed they instead ended up rolling the hemp bales around the convent to serve as shields to the militiamen.
At the indication that the Americans were forcing themselves out into their two small motorized boats, the militia, assisted by civilians, poured kerosene on the abaca bales and set them afire. Americans who dared to leave the convent were thus forced to negotiate their way through the towering inferno of abaca bales, then through the baids and guns of the militia. Fifteen of the 36 Americans perceived to be in the garrison tried to flee to safety, and fifteen burnt alive or were cut down by Catubignon fires or bolos to their bloody deaths.
But the Americans were shooting too and in higher volume of fires. After all they had better guns. Their bullets were proportionately taking higher tolls than those of the Samarnons’. Badly outnumbered, however, the American ceased firing. Yet their will to fight echoed in the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., later when one soldier, Cpl. Anthony J. Carson, of Boston, Massachusetts, was given the U.S. highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his, according to the citation:
“Assuming command of a detachment of the company which had survived an overwhelming attack of the enemy, and by his bravery and untiring effort and the exercise of good judgment in the handling of his men successfully withstood for 2 days the attacks of a large force of the enemy, thereby saving the lives of the survivors and protecting the wounded until relief came.”
1st Lt. J. T. Sweeney, one of the few survivors of the four-day confrontation, later recounted that they had superior arms than the Samarnons, but when they smelled kerosene from the bales of hemp piled around the rectory and, had the rectory caught fire itself from the burning bales of hemp, they (Americans) could have been roasted and charred alive inside the rectory.
The Americans, however, did not easily surrender. It was discovered later that they were buying time for reinforcement or rescue to arrive. And they had dug trenches at the back of the convent(2).
Then early on the third day of the siege, the 600 men of General Lukban arrived. Intelligence report from General Lukban’s men revealed that American reinforcement or rescuers were steaming up the Catubig River from Lao-ang. The rescuers arrived in the town early on the fourth day, i.e., Wednesday, April 19, 1900.
A great battle immediately erupted after a lull of almost two days when only sporadic fires where heard. The bells of Saint Joseph Church did not stop ringing the entire morning of the final day of the battle of Catubig. The Americans tried to take the bells by scaling the belfry. But they never succeeded for two reasons. First, they were getting killed in their attempt; second, the belfry of Saint Joseph Church was difficult to scale. It is mounted on the highest point of the church frame over the main facade, unlike other churches in Samar, as the one in Balangiga, where belfries are built detached from the church and lower in height.
Sensing disaster because it was trapped from two open sides of the Catubig River by militiamen in their dugouts—as people do now in peacetime during fluvial parades in celebration of Santo Niño—the steamer Tonyik, which ferried in the reinforcement from Lao-ang, suddenly pulled out. But it was chased by the militiamen and by some of General Lukban’s men who captured two motorized smaller American boats.
Some two kilometers down the river, downstream toward Lao-ang, the steamer ran out of control due to heavy fires by some Lukban men who set a sentry at the Irawahan tributary river to the left of the main river. Those manning the steamer were so scared to death because they were also being chased by Catubignon militia and the Lukban men in the main river. The ill-fated Tonyik hit the sharply curving, rocky edge of the Catubig River at a hillside called Kalirukan (a local term for maelstrom because the water in that segment of the river is violent during high floods) and suddenly capsized and went down the deep water, lying on its left side and bringing seven soldiers to their watery graves.
The real estate immediately to the right side of this segment of the river, on the downstream direction toward Lao-ang, was then owned by—and still belongs today to the descendants of—Domingo Mercader(3). In fact the settlement that later sprang from the adjoining real estate is now called Bgy. Domingo Mercader.
After a week the American corps of engineers salvaged the sunken boat, but not without leaving some heavy items like some steel ballasts and anchors to the Mercader household as gratuity of battle and for having given humanitarian aid to the scared and distressed American survivors—with the consent of the Catubig militia and the Lukban men of course.
Cpl. Anthony J. Carson of Company H, 43rd Infantry Regiment (later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, as aforementioned), one of the survivors, openly admitted that the Battle of Catubig was a total defeat for the American forces.
On board another steamer that picked up the survivors of the capsized Tonyik, Lt. Sweeney, one of the survivors, was so thankful to his Maker for having survived.
The U.S. War Department recorded the event as “…the heaviest bloody encounter yet for the American troops” against the Filipino freedom fighters. This account is so intriguing. This seems to include those in Luzon!
The New York Times called the Battle of Catubig, “horrifying”.
The Americans recorded their casualties at 22, 19 dead and three wounded. But the Lukban forces believed there was a cover up by the Americans of their actual casualties. Other published accounts recorded 31 American deaths(4), which obviously included the fatalities when the Tonyik capsized, as well as those who jumped ship as it was speeding away from the thick of battle almost uncontrolled from the town of Catubig.
For example, Maria Mercader Lambino(5), then a 13-year old daughter of Domingo Mercader and an eyewitness to the battle, used to tell her grandchildren that one American soldier who jumped into the water, as the Tonyik was attempting to pull out, shouted, “Dinamat!” The American while swimming and cursing was hacked to death by a militia boloman who was in a dugout. A Lukban soldier could have shot the American point blank, but to conserve ammo he let a militiaman do the kill with his baid.
Maria’s grandchildren later interpreted dinamat as “god damn it”.
The Filipinos accounted 150 deaths of their own due in large measure to their exposed position when attacking the rectory.
Antonio Hipe (now deceased)(6), who was a clam diver, together with other clam divers, had recovered quite a heap more of steel ballasts that the corps of engineers, in salvaging the Tonyik, had left at the bottom of the waters in Kalirukan. However, local blacksmiths had made most of them into farm implements(7).
Conclusion. The battle of Catubig is an overlooked glory of Filipinos in the Philippine-American war, some say. By the same token, this is attributed to the penchant of the U.S. military at that time for spiriting away immediately to Washington, D.C., any records of combat that gave the American side the appearance of ignominy and total defeat. Hence, Filipino historians doing research in the Philippines—and writing history books with what they had—were left without complete information. The battle of Catubig had not appeared even in footnotes of Philippine history books.