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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

by
Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York
1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p80  Chapter VI

River Warfare


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It seems almost like going from the ridiculous to the sublime to compare our small war in Samar to what may be expected in the next great war. Our war was against a semi-civilized people. In our efforts to win we employed ruthless methods in destroying the homes of the people and their means of subsistence. On the Gandara our destruction was of things that could be soon replaced. In a war of tomorrow, the airplane bombing of great cities may destroy priceless possessions that can never be replaced. Precious historical treasures connecting us with our past will be destroyed in the bombing of our museums and our treasure storehouses. Yet the motive of both is the same. To strike a telling blow at the civilian population, upon whom the armed forces depend in war.

The theory today seems to be that in war rashness is prudence and that towards an enemy we must be ruthless, relentless, and remorseless. It seems only sensible that you and I who are to take part in this next war should find ways to have some say as to whether it is to be. Why must we always be led like sheep to the slaughter by dictators and paranoiacs whose inordinate lust for power takes no account of the human sacrifices?

War could not have been so readily averted recently in Europe, if it had not been for the fear of the people, and of their leaders too, for the new weapon, the airplane. Has war become so terrible that the whole world now is inclined to shun it? The Japanese  p81 in China do not fear war, but we must remember that Japan is fighting a nation completely unprepared in the air, and the air forces of the Japanese are meeting no opposition. If Japan goes to war with a nation like Russia, prepared in the air, the Japanese flyers may find such a war not to their desire.

Many of our expeditions while up the Gandara were to obtain fresh meat, for we had to live off the country. We would shoot a likely-looking young steer or a young carabao, butchering it on the spot and carrying the meat back to the ship.

We took the precaution never to anchor in the same place on any consecutive days, and always anchored after dark. We used lines to the shore to prevent the ship swinging into the bank on the change of tide. The Gandara was a tidal river as far as we could navigate it. Several times Shackford and I, in our cots on the fantail, were awakened in the middle of the night by the scraping of trees and bushes on the awning over our heads. Then the Colt gun would be turned loose on the bank where our line had been cut. Deming, the boatswain's mate, would man a boat and carry out a new line, making it fast to a tree. Before the boat landed, we had sprayed bullets in that direction so thickly that there really was little danger of an enemy being there; yet I always had a fear for the men until I saw the boat returning. Then the ship would be hauled back to midstream. We were never fired upon at those times. I know that Lukban's followers held the gunboat in awe. Our high-power cannon and our machine guns were to them something to be avoided.

I was in the foretop observing one day while we were steaming up the river. I was using binoculars and suddenly spied a small hill completely surrounded by trees and apparently invisible from the deck. I had a sailor with me named Lee Herliss to help with the gun. On the hill were several huts like outpost shacks, and when we came nearer, about thirty men, in a nondescript uniform, with rifles and wearing the familiar broad-rimmed straw hat of the rebels, ran out of these huts and peered at us. I jumped to the Colt gun and fired a few bursts of shots in their direction. The gun jammed. Herliss drew back the gas lever, reloading. On the next shot the gun exploded. The shock broke my eardrum, but Herliss flopped, saying he had been hit. The wound looked ugly, a deep gash in his buttocks. I forgot about our enemy and, with a handy rope, lowered the wounded man to the deck and then climbed down myself. I headed the ship down the river with  p82 the intention of getting Herliss to a hospital at once. He was in great pain, and we had no doctor. The tide was too low, and we stuck on the bar. Fortunately the gunboat Princeton was at anchor off the mouth of the river and on signal sent in a steam launch with a doctor. Herliss was taken by the Princeton to the Army hospital at Calbayoc, where he was operated on and nearly died. The Army doctors called it a serious attack of peritonitis and said that the wound was superficial. They declared it was a piece of luck in that it brought surgical aid. I was skeptical. Years later the X‑ray discovered the Colt gun extractor still in Herliss's abdomen. It had passed through his bladder, hence the peritonitis! He carries the extractor as a watch charm.

After getting off the bar, we went back to our hill and fired several six‑pounder shells that exploded alongside the shacks. I directed the fire from the top. Nothing could be seen from the gun. I was using an innovation — indirect fire. Then we landed our ten trusty men and hunted several hours for the hill without success. We did, though, discover, in a tributary of the river about twenty‑odd feet wide, nearly a dozen bancas loaded with hemp. They were ready to be taken out at night.

I remembered that just before we sailed from Calbayoc an agent of a big British commercial firm came to see me on board the ship. He had learned I was going up the Gandara. We had several Scotches together. He claimed that his firm owned a lot of hemp in the river, already loaded in bancas, and that the money had been paid. I believe he thought I might have my price. I wonder if that, then, was the point of the General's story about the Chinese gambler? It would not surprise me. The Britisher could have passed me a thousand or more; his bancas could have slipped past us, or we could have managed to be above where the bancas were hidden. He actually had not mentioned a bribe, but he had insinuated that I could help him if I would. I took keen delight in sending Shackford ashore with a party to pour kerosene on the hemp and set it afire.

Eventually I found the hill. The reason it had been so difficult to discover was that the trail to it had been carefully camouflaged. The Filipinos were very clever at woodcraft. They knew how to conceal the ends of trails. One other thing at which they were adept was building foot traps and man traps of pointed bamboo along the trails. One could never afford to be careless while using a trail. These traps were of several kinds. The simplest were the  p83 foot traps, merely small bamboo darts stuck at the side of the trail and cleverly concealed in the grass. The foot of the unwary strikes a sharp stick, and the point penetrates the instep. The bamboo has to be pulled clear through the wound, for pulling it out spreads the bamboo and causes a bad wound. The man traps were deep ditches dug at the side of the trail, covered over to conceal them with matting, earth, and grass. At the bottom were set sharpened bamboos in such manner that a person feeling into the ditch cannot escape being speared. The spring trap was the rarest, but very annoying and dangerous. They consisted of young saplings bent backward and bamboo spears, like large arrows, poised to be shot across the trail. Often a dozen or more of these machines have been found within a short distance of each other arranged to be sprung by one trigger. The foot of a leader of a party of men using the trail suddenly finds his foot entangled in a harmless-looking vine, and the pull to disengage his foot springs the trap, shooting the bamboo spears across the trail and through the column of men behind him. Every trail of any size in Samar was trapped, and the greatest caution was needed to prevent serious wounds. The sharp bamboo will penetrate clear through a man's stomach. All expeditions carried along a loyal native whose job was to know where a trail was trapped and uncover the traps or spring them before they could do harm. The insurgents themselves used these trails and consequently had to give notice to their own people where they were located. This was accomplished by pieces of split bamboo stuck into the bark of trees along the trail some distance before arriving at the trapped area. Our guides knew these warning signs, and after a time even our soldiers and sailors became initiated and could tell where a trail was trapped.

One morning, some days after we had entered the river, the gunboat was anchored at the fork of the river. I had just set fire to the big town of Gandara, and we had wiped out the carabao herd that had been collected there. The insurgents had begun to show their teeth and lately had fired upon our landing party and even the gunboat. I was returning to the Paragua in my boat when the tug, or launch rather, Hercules, heaved in sight coming up the river, flying the General's flag, red with two stars. The Hercules stopped, and I rowed alongside to greet the General.

"Couldn't you put out the fire?" the General asked perfectly soberly.

 p84  "No." I answered. "Too much headway."

The General invited me to go with him. I was sorry afterwards that I had accepted, because I worried about the gunboat and Shackford every minute I was gone. I gave careful instructions to Shackford, and I could see that he half-resented them. "Well," I said in parting, "you are in command of the ship while I am away, and I count upon you to be even more cautious than I have been."

He smiled and said boyishly and earnestly, "I don't see that you have given us an example of great caution." He meant it to be a compliment, but it worried me, for I feared he might wish to emulate his captain, and I naturally wanted him to play safe in my absence.

The Hercules went up to the three camps. The stretch of five miles to the upper camp on the right fork, the General, his aide, Lieutenant Conger, and I rowed in a small dory from the launch. Most of the time we went through rapids. We had an escort of six darkie soldiers in a large canoe. The camp we were making was that of a company of the Tenth Cavalry, in command of Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Young, a negro West Pointer. These negro soldiers were ideal soldiers against the insurgents, who feared them even more than they did the white troops. Captain Young afterward became a colonel, and I met him years later when he was Military Attaché to the black Republic of Haiti.

On the return of the Hercules, as soon as we reached the gunboat, I went aboard and got the ship under way to escort the General down the river. I was always worried when he took these personal risks with only a handful of soldiers in the Hercules. It would have been a great feather in Lukban's cap if he could kill or capture an American general. We younger men always felt responsible for the safety of our high-ranking officers. I speeded up and took the lead.

When the Paragua reached a small gorge in the river, with hills capable of being strongly fortified on each side, the insurgents suddenly opened fire upon the gunboat. The Hercules was some distance astern and had not entered the gorge. The fire seemed to come from all directions at once, but the greatest volume from the right bank. Bullets were hitting all around us. The enemy also were shooting their bamboo cannon, loaded with gravel, and the water alongside the ship looked as if a heavy downpour of hail had struck us. I stopped the ship, but the only gun that could  p85 be trained on the top of the gorge where the enemy were intrenched was the Colt gun in the top, and that had jammed.

I was constantly dreading the jamming of our Colt guns in an emergency such as this, for I knew of the unreliability of our rifle ammunition. It was emergency stuff left over from the Spanish War. On one occasion I had returned from an expedition into supposed enemy hideouts, and just as we reached the river we attempted to fire our rifles to signal the gunboat, when we discovered that none of the ammunition would go off. Imagine our predicament if on our hike we had encountered an enemy.

Shackford and I finally fired a number of shots with the one‑pounder on the bridge, and the explosion of its shells, together with the fire of a machine gun from the Hercules, caused the enemy to cease firing. It stopped almost as suddenly as it began. No one was hit but the ship was struck a score of times. One bullet hit the top of the compass stand and spattered lead on the deck. The next day I went up the hill and saw well-constructed trenches with runways to the rear for escape.

It was lucky that I had decided to go all the way down the river with the General for when the Hercules tried to cross the bar she stuck hard and fast on a falling tide. She was a keel boat, and as the tide fell she listed badly. I anchored the gunboat at the mouth of the river, manned my boat, a sixteen-foot, four-oared dinghy, and went alongside the Hercules. The General was sitting on the slanting deck, looking very disconsolate. His face beamed when he saw us, for he thought we had returned up river.

"I've come, General, to row you to Calbayoc," I said.

The distance was about ten miles. My crew were expert and tireless. On reaching the General's headquarters, we all had a fine dinner. They wanted to keep us overnight, but I was anxious to return. I waited at the mouth of the river until the tide in the morning floated the Hercules and I saw her on her way.

After the Gandara, we entered another big river in the north of Samar, the Catubig, and our work there was similar. I attempted several other smaller rivers without success. There was not enough water over the bar. One or two of them I went up in our boats and received quite a warm reception.

I have always felt the gunboat work was most beneficial, and every young officer should be given such a command as an important step in his training to command larger ships. The experience  p86 he gains in navigation, especially piloting, is invaluable. Of course we cannot arrange an insurrection for him, and I suppose this fact caused the commanding officers of our small gunboats in the Philippines to take chances in piloting that they would not have done in peacetime. The Paragua, while I had her, was aground almost daily. It was lucky for me that the Spaniards had built these vessels out of malleable wrought iron. They bent but they did not break. At that time, officers at sea received ten per cent additional pay. My friend Commander Ben Bryan came to me one day with a most serious face and told me he heard I was to be denied my ten per cent because the paymaster had learned that I had been ashore with the ship a greater proportion of time than I had been afloat!

The Filipino insurrection can be attributed to our wavering and spineless policy at home. I have always felt that it could have been avoided. Commodore Dewey, later the Admiral of the Navy, after the battle of Manila Bay and before our troops arrived, made contact with the Filipino leader, General Emilio Aguinaldo, and encouraged him to attack the Spanish garrisons and the cities of Manila and Cavite. When the Army arrived, the usefulness of the Filipino army against the Spaniards was recognized. The impression gained ground that when the Spaniards had been defeated and cleaned out of the Islands the United States would withdraw and turn them over to Aguinaldo. In other words, Philippine independence. They had been fighting Spain to gain this for years. Nothing was ever done to disabuse the Filipino mind of this impression; so after the fall of Manila to our Army and the Filipinos had learned that their hopes would not materialize, their resentment flared up at what they considered a betrayal of their trust in the Great Democracy, and caused them to revolt. If our Government had been honest and had not tried, as usual, to make the Philippine issue an internal political one, but, on the contrary, had told the Filipinos frankly that we had no intention of giving them their independence, but would, after teaching them how to govern themselves according to our methods, make their country into an autonomous Commonwealth under our sovereignty and protection; then that sensible idea would have sunk in, and the most radical Filipino politician, for they are all alike the world over whether white, black, yellow, or brown, would have been unable to stir the people to revolt.

 p87  Of course many Americans were killed during the war or died of tropical diseases, but the Filipinos themselves were the greater sufferers.

By the friendly attitude of the average Filipino, I am inclined to believe that the insurrection has opened the natives' eyes to the proverbial fairness of America in its dealings with them. The Filipino may resent white man control, but they do not dislike us; on the contrary they admire us because of the war we waged to bring them to their senses. After they surrendered, America showered her political favors upon all the Filipino leaders who had obstinately fought our troops for over three years. I know that the Filipino puts far greater trust in America than he does in his close relative, Japan.

Even while the insurrectos in the North were fighting our troops, aided by the advantage of terrain and financial help from rich natives, the non‑Christian tribes of the south, the Moros, also broke out in open revolt. The Paragua was known by the admiral in Manila to be less seaworthy than it should be for security in navigating between the Islands, where typhoons often took disastrous toll of small vessels caught in the path of these violent tropical storms. So it was apparently decided in Manila that a safe place for the Paragua was up the Rio Grande de Mindanao, where some fighting with the Moros had already occurred. But, as it happened, we were never to arrive at this destination. After receiving our orders, we sailed from Calbayoc for Cebu. I was sorry to part from General Hughes, but there was a certain lure in visiting new places. When we reached Cebu, I reported to Commander Perry Garst, commanding a larger gunboat, the Cebu, and senior naval officer in that port. The gunboat Panay in command of Ensign J. W. L. Clement, was under orders from the Admiral to go to the Island of Paragua, our most western island, across the dangerous Sulu Sea, to co‑operate with the Army there. Clement claimed the Panay was unseaworthy for the trip, and Commander Garst suggested that we swap assignments. Garst did not have the authority to make the change, so the Panay and the Paragua sailed in company for Misamis, Mindanao, from where we could telegraph the officer to whom I was to report, Captain James Helm. We found the telegraph line was down, so I took upon myself the responsibility and sailed for Puerto Princesa, Paragua Island. We made a smooth passage, and the Army on the island were glad to see us. We were disappointed  p88 we had come. The rebel leader shortly after our arrival surrendered. I wanted to leave at once, but the Army major in command would not give up a gunboat without a struggle. He gave orders, I heard afterwards, not to give us enough coal to get back to Iloilo, the nearest port. I struck up a friendship with Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Helmick, the post quartermaster and second in command, and we fixed up a trip to the Moro country in the southern end of the island. The cruise was most pleasant and instructive until we reached the west coast of the island. There we got into some rough monsoon sea and finally a hurricane. We were forced to go with the wind, and at the very height of the storm, when even I, the most optimistic, almost gave up the ship for lost, we managed to seek shelter in Ulugan Bay. How we managed it I never knew, for the visibility was zero, and it was blowing a full gale. We were more than rolling our decks under. I somehow managed to find the entrance and let go both our anchors in Oyster Cove, a narrow sheltered inlet. Even there, with sixty fathoms on each chain, the ship charged about like a tethered race horse.

After the storm, as we were almost halfway round the island, I decided to circumnavigate it. It was a pleasant trip from there on, and we arrived in due time back at Puerto Princesa to relieve the anxiety of Mrs. Helmick, who had given us up for lost, knowing of the typhoon which had devastated parts of the island. At Ulugan our Army guest wanted to return by trail across the island, but I dissuaded him by assuring him there were no more typhoons in Davy Jones's locker. It was a tough experience for a landlubber. Helmick afterwards became a general and was Inspector General of the Army.

While waiting for Major Brown to have a change of heart about his coal, I made a trip with several officers of the garrison to Sandakan, Borneo. I made many friends and there began my collection of Malay and Philippine knives that I still own. I met a very interesting character there, Captain Raffles Flint, who commanded the native constabulary and had taken a company of his "wild men from Borneo" to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. He had just returned from up country, having been on a punitive expedition against the Dyaks, and from him I obtained some of the knives that had been captured in battle.

On our return to Puerto Princesa, Helmick aided me, while Major Brown was temporarily absent, to get enough coal, and I sailed for Iloilo, leaving the Major a polite note of farewell.  p89 Helmick told me over thirty years later that when Major Brown learned that I had deserted him he was furious. Funny people one meets. I was no use to him, and he knew I was needed elsewhere. He thought possession was nine points of the law.

Upon reaching Iloilo, I was directed to proceed to Calapan, Island of Mindoro. There I fell in again with my old friend, Commander Bowman, of the Castine. Major Bill Pitcher was the Army head. It was a very slow business for us. We made several landings with the Army on the west side of the island but spent most of our time with the Castine dodging gales of wind.

Money had become available for our repairs, and we went to Cavite after about a month in Mindoro. There I found my relief on hand, Lieutenant Eugene Bisset. I also heard that we had been given up for lost until I reported by cable from Borneo. Ensign Clement apparently had not reported where we had gone.

When I look back upon my service in the Philippines, I recognize it to have been the most beneficial, if not the most exciting, episode of my younger career. I was then under thirty. As a commanding officer of a warship, I found myself in rather intimate association with officers of considerable more rank than myself, and saw them deferring to my opinions on a variety of subjects. I could thus let my initiative have full play and accept responsibility for my own actions. It was a grand school, and I was learning early to rely upon my own judgment. Naturally, I was old enough to know the dangers surrounding us but young enough not to allow them to cause me to be overcautious. In a sense, gunboating was a lonely life. We were marooned for months on end in the wilds with no recreation or diversion. We were too tired after the day was over to do anything else but crawl into our cots and sleep like logs until awakened by the sun in the morning. Shackford and I may have found it difficult at times to prevent getting on each other's nerves, but fortunately we were both of a type that did not look for faults in others and were willing to make allowances. I know we had for each other a mutual respect and understanding, and in consequence our association, as I look back on it, was ideal. The life we were leading tended to break down the apparently traditional barrier between officers and men, and a wholesome comradeship, without a hint of familiarity, took its place. A common peril among known dangers, a highly responsible leadership, upon which all our lives depended, intelligent obedience, and quick, unerring judgment  p90 bound officers and men together as a band of brothers in most hazardous work. We had lots of fun together.

I do not think that I saw Shackford angry at me more than once, and then he had every reason to be. It was a few days before we left the Gandara for good. The Paragua was slowly steaming down the river from the fork carrying out our plan of destruction of everything that could be of value to the enemy. Shackford was in a boat with a couple of sailors, being towed alongside. When we came to a stream, I would stop the ship, and the boat would cast off and investigate the stream for bancas, palay, and hemp. In the boat were kerosene and axes for chopping holes in the bancas. While we were stopped abreast a stream into which Shackford had taken his boat, I spied a huge crocodile lying on the river bank sunning himself. His head was inshore, and he was asleep. I prepared the one‑pounder gun for a shot. Shackford returned and made fast his line. Then I steamed slowly ahead. When the crocodile was abreast and not twenty yards away, I aimed and fired the gun. The shell missed the brute by inches, and the explosion of the shell scattered mud in all directions. The crocodile reared back on its tail, just missing Shackford's boat. It was all a surprise to Shackford and startled him so that he quite lost his temper. He cussed me out soundly, and I took it, for it was an idiotic thing for me to do without giving him warning and making sure the boat was far enough away not to be jeopardized. We hardly spoke to each other for several days.

When Governor W. H. Taft made his inspection of the Islands in an army transport of large size, he asked for the Paragua to accompany the transport because the captain of the vessel could not be made to bring the ship near enough to the landing places, which meant a long pull in a small boat for the hefty Governor. We came alongside when the transport stopped, and the Governor and his party transferred to us; we would take them within a few yards of the prepared landing stages, sometimes going alongside the stages, even though our bottom was in the mud. I recall very distinctly and pleasantly the people of the party: Cameron Forbes, afterward governor himself and later our Ambassador to Japan; Henry C. Ide, also governor later, and his two charming and beautiful daughters, one of whom I might have married if she had only said the word; Beekman Winthrop, Executive Secretary to the Philippines Commission and afterward Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The cruise was a  p91 happy relaxation from our river work and gave us some knowledge of the workings of statesmanship. They talked silvery words to the gathered throngs of Filipinos, while we had been feeding them bullets.

The Filipinos are Orientals and, at least in appearance, are closely related to the Japanese and Chinese. Being a tropical people, in comparison to the northern Orientals, they may be said to be an indolent race. For this reason they could not compete with their northern cousins, and, if the United States should withdraw its guiding hand and protection, the Islands sooner or later, both commercially and politically, would gravitate toward Japan.

Under American leadership they have prospered, and as a people the Filipinos are happier and more contented than they have ever been in their history. They are a likable people, and much more honest than many people we meet in our own country. In fact, I believe that in bringing the Filipinos our American civilization we have taught them many things that did not improve either their political or their business morals. They seem to have taken leaves out of our book and beaten us at the game. I do not believe the intelligent people of the Philippines want independence, but the politicians have held this illusion so long before the eyes of the people, that now they do not know how to back down. It seems to me that our best plan would be to give the Filipino politicians a chance at once save their faces; and they would drop the idea of independence like a live coal.


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