The Unbelievable Story Of The Siege Of Baler (Part 2)
by Jose Maria A. Cariño
Half a year of siege took its toll not only on the Spanish soldiers but also on the Katipuneros, and the Balerenos whose town had been razed to the ground. The town folks complained loudly to General Emilio Aguinaldo and to appease them, Aguinaldo decided to recall Colonel Villacorta, who was also irked and frustrated by his own inability to take over the church in Baler, back to Nueva Ecija. Making good his promise to Teodorico Luna, Aguinaldo made him commander-in-charge of the town. Emboldened by his promotion, Teodorico ordered another volley of shots at the church on 13 January resulting in little else than the slight injury to the Spanish soldier Marcos Jose Petana. By this time, the food supplies of the soldiers had decreased alarmingly, forcing them to eat everything that moved including rats, snakes, crows, and whatever animals they could shoot down. They also consumed the rice that Father Carreno had bought for the church. Their diet had progressively deteriorated. Lieutenant Martin Cerezo described their January diet as consisting of dirty powdery rice mixed with rotten sardines in putrid lard and mixed with pumpkin leaves with no salt. Their daily ration of flour had been greatly reduced from 500 to 200 grams each and the food deficiency compensation of each soldier also reduced to 5 centavos for every three days.
The question that arises here is what use did the soldiers have for the money they were receiving as compensation, if there was nothing they could buy inside the church. Was there a system by which they could purchase goods from outside the church? What is evident is that their forages outside the church, under the cover of darkness, resulted in supplemental food. They even managed to grow a vegetable garden around the church.
In the recounting of the story of the Siege of Baler, both Father Minaya and Lieutenant Cerezo constantly claimed that they did not receive any news about the state of the country, and the ongoing war between the United States and Spain. In truth, they did receive information from both the Filipino revolutionaries and representatives of the Spanish friars and the Spanish Military command, only they refused to believe any of the news they received. In January, Teodorico left copies of Philippine Newspapers La Independencia and La Republica Filipina for the Spanish soldiers, but again, the besieged soldiers treated these as lies and propaganda to encourage them to surrender.
By mid-February, the food situation worsened and a new death, the last for the Spanish detachment, of the soldier Jose Sanz Meremendi was again caused by beriberi. On 14 February, the Katipuneros asked for a truce and a Spanish captain, Miguel Olmedo y Calvo, dressed as a civilian approached the church with a message from the Spanish commander general in Manila to Captain de las Morenas. The message informed the detachment of Baler about the treaty between the U.S. and Spain and ordered the detachment to abandon the church and proceed to Manila with their ammunitions, guns, and valuables (treasure arks). As Olmedo did not show any Spanish badge or sign identifying him as a Spanish official, Martin Cerezo doubted the veracity of the mission of Olmedo. Cerezo relied on Article 748 of the Spanish military rules on verifying the veracity of a military order, which under the circumstances he could not do being in a siege and having no means of communicating with the Spanish headquarters in Manila.
Good News, Bad News And More Bad News
After almost eight months of siege, the emotional and psychological states of the soldiers were at an all-time low and for some the option of surrendering or deserting their companions must have proved very attractive. On 24 February, the soldier Loreto Gallego Garcia informed Cerezo that another soldier, Antonio Menache Sanchez, was planning to stealthily cross over to the Katipuneros. Another soldier, Jose Jimenez Bero, confirmed the information.
Menache was one of the soldiers who had been assigned to Baler in the earlier detachment headed by the unlucky Lieutenant Mota. He had been a deserter before, captured by the Katipuneros, and was returned and reinstated into the Spansih army during the lull brought on by the Pact of Biak-na-Bato. Menache was caught trying to desert and, upon interrogation, broke down and confessed to a plot that he and two other soldiers, Jose Alcaide Bayona and Corporal Vicente Gonzalez Foca, were planning to escape from the church and surrender to the Filipinos. Menache also confessed that they were hoping to convince others to join them. After their confession, Cerezo thought of having them executed but instead decided to chain them and lock them up in the baptistery of the church.
Two days later, they found the flour for the bread completely depleted. However, on the same night, the Spaniards were surprised to find a herd of carabaos at the plaza ten meters from the church. The Spaniards opened the doors of the church and tried to shoot them but, in their excitement, only managed to scare them away. On the second night, another herd of carabaos again entered the plaza and this time the Spanish soldiers aimed at one and managed to shoot it down. They dragged the animal into the church and butchered it. The next day, their bellies ached from eating so much as their stomachs had already constricted from their sparse rationed diet. On 6 March, they were able to kill a second carabao and a third on the 12 March. Because they had no salt with which to preserve the meat, they had to consume as much as they could because the country's humid tropical climate made the meat rot.
Apart from sating their hunger for fresh meat, they were also able to fashion slippers and sandals using the leather hide of the carabaos. This was important because after so many months of the siege, many were already walking barefoot or wearing tattered shoes, which could no longer be mended. By the end of the siege their clothes had also become so tattered and were practically rags covering only their private parts.
In the recounting of this episode, the good lieutenant considers the sudden appearance of carabaos a miracle. Of course, he had not been in the Philippines long enough to know the temperament of a carabao. It was highly improbable that a whole herd could pass through the entire ring of Katipuneros that surrounded the church without their being noticed and being driven away. It was also highly improbable that these wild carabaos simply wandered into the town to graze, and for them to approach and remain in the plaza so that the Spaniards would have a chance to shoot them was almost impossible. Was it possible that the Katipuneros, upon seeing the emaciated Spanish soldiers, decided to be merciful and give them food by leading the carabaos into the plaza and leaving them there four times?
On 28 March, after digging more trenches, the Spanish soldiers ambushed and killed two Katipuneros and wounded a third. This caused much anger among the Katipuneros. Reacting to this loss, Aguinaldo ordered a stronger attack on the besieged church. He ordered General Tinio to send ~ore troops ,and a modern cannon to Baler, and once and for all break down the defenses of that detachment.
On 30 March, the Katipuneros opened fire using the new cannon. One shot hit the mark and made the church shake in its foundations. However, the Katipuneros did not have previous experience with such a weapon that they could not aim it properly rendering them almost useless. They alternated cannon shots with gunfire from all sides and the church withstood the barrage. The Spaniards valiantly stood their ground.
Frustrated by their inability to make progress, the Katipuneros asked for dialogue eight to ten times and their offers of peace fell on deaf ears. Finally, they decided to offer letters signed by Aguinaldo, and newspapers referring to the defeat of Spain by the Americans, that the Philippines and Spain had become friends and that there was war only between the Philippines and the U.S. Again, the Spaniards would not believe the Katipuneros. Out of frustration, the Filipinos again fired cannon shots and barrages of gunfire, which caused little damage on the part of the besieged Spanish soldiers.
In his book, Lieutenant Cerezo stated that he realized that the cannon being used was one of theirs from Cavite. The question is if the Filipinos were already using them after their capture in Cavite, how come Martin Cerezo could not conclude that Manila had already capitulated?
On the night of 5 April, the Katipuneros thought of setting fire to the sacristy of the church, which was made of wood, but the noise they made gave them away and the Spaniards shot at them in the dark, causing the death of one and forcing the others to flee. Next morning, the Spanish soldiers found the abandoned firewood that the Filipinos wanted to use for the attack.
By 8 April, most of the food supplies of the Spaniards were depleted. After 282 days of siege they were forced to contemplate their options- surrender in defeat, attempt to escape into the jungle in the middle of the night, or die fighting.
The Americans Arrive In Baler
At two 0' clock in the afternoon of 11 April, ten cannon shots were heard coming from the cove of Baler. The Katipuneros rushed to the beach and saw the American gunship Yorktown sent by Admiral Dewey to rescue the Spanish soldiers upon the request of the Spanish High Command. Lieutenant James Gillmore boarded a boat and set out to shore to conduct a dialogue with the leaders of the Katipunan and explain his mission in Baler. The Katipunero in charge, Captain Nemesio Bartolome, approved the dialogue and set up a protocol by which the Americans could come ashore to convince the Spanish soldiers to surrender and return to Manila aboard the Yorktown. It was agreed that on the next day, 12 April, a boatload of Americans, one officer (Lieutenant Gillmore), fourteen armed navy sailors, and a flag bearer, would come to shore. It was agreed also that they would fly a white flag and ask permission to enter the Baler River with their boat. Here, the versions of the story began to differ.
According to the Americans, and as recounted to Father Minaya by the sailor Axer Venvell, the Katipuneros, for no reason whatsoever and in violation of what was agreed upon, fired at the boat while it was still halfway inside the cove, killing three sailors and wounding four. The Americans then claimed that the Katipuneros captured the boat and stole everything in it, including the weapons and the clothes and shoes worn by the Americans.
The Filipino version, as later recounted to Father Minaya by the Katipuneros, claimed that the Americans did not respect the protocol they earlier agreed on. The Americans flew the stars and stripes instead of the white flag that was stipulated by the agreement. They did not ask for permission to enter the river and when Captain Teodorico Luna Novicio saw that the boat was already navigating inside the river, he ordered it to halt but the Americans did not obey the order and instead prepared to shoot using the machine gun that was positioned at the prow of the boat. Seeing that the Americans refused to obey a second order to halt, Teodorico aimed a gun at the sailor manning the machine gun, and fired a shot that killed the sailor. The rest of Teodorico's men then followed suit and fired at the boat. With the boat captured, those unharmed were taken and imprisoned. They were later sent to Nueva Ecija. The wounded Americans the Katipuneros attended to and two of them later returned to Manila together with the Spaniards inside the church. The last wounded American sailor had to stay on in Baler way after the siege until he was well enough. The dead were buried in Baler. As for the truth, it is probably a combination of the American and Filipino versions because in all wars, both sides try to appear honorable, valiant, and heroic.
The next day, the captain of the Yorktown decided to return to Manila, having failed in the mission to rescue the besieged soldiers and losing many men in the effort. The Manila newspapers of the following day were filled with news of the Spanish flag that continued to fly in the tiny church of Baler.
The Spaniards inside the church never knew what transpired until after the siege. They thought that the ship was a Spanish one coming to rescue them. One could imagine the joy they may have felt when they heard the ten cannon shots coming from the cove because they knew that the Filipinos had no navy to speak of, much less a gunboat. The Spaniards fired three salvos to advise the ship of their presence inside the church. The spotlight from the ship at night must have raised their hopes at the prospect of at last being rescued and having decent food and clothes. What must have confused them was that the gunshots fired from the cove were those of Remingtons instead of the Mausers used by their Spanish Navy. They kept awake the whole night waiting for their rescuers and even lit fires on the top of the tower to advise those in the ship of their presence. To their chagrin, they saw the ship leave. They surmised wrongly that the ship had returned to Manila to gather more forces for a massive rescue attack. The rescue never took place and after a few days of waiting, their hopes fell.
By the end of April, after the Filipinos repelled a gunship and the fact that the ship did not return with the reinforcement that they expected, Lieutenant Cerezo's refusal to surrender could only be interpreted by the Katipuneros as pure hardheadedness and stupidity.
The Final Days Of The Siege
On 7 May, using the captured machine gun, the Katipuneros again attacked the church furiously, which resulted in the wounding of one of the Spanish soldiers, Salvador Santamaria Aparicio. He died on 12 May. Before that, on 8 May, a grenade hurled by the Katipuneros landed in the baptistery where the three Spanish soldiers who planned to desert were confined. The three were slightly wounded and transferred by Doctor Vigil de Quinones to the infirmary where they were given first aid. Taking advantage of the fact that the guard had his defenses down guarding the wounded, one of the prisoners, Jose Alcaide, jumped from the window of the church and was able to successfully implement his plan of desertion. On 9 May, two Spanish soldiers, Pedro Vila and Francisco Real, were wounded by shots fired from the machine gun. On 19 May, the soldier Marcos Jose Petana died of dysentery.
The Katipuneros decided to try another tack to subdue the Spaniards, this time concentrating on their water supply. At the end of May, under the cover of darkness, the Katipuneros were able to get close enough to the patio where the water well was. The Spanish soldiers heard the noise the Katipuneros made when the latter were getting into position inside the patio. The Spanish soldiers raised the alarm, took their positions and patrolled the entire church and looked for strategic points from which the Filipinos could fire their shots. It was not until the next morning when they opened the church door that they realized that the Filipinos had already breached the outer wall of the church and that they had already made holes from which they could shoot anyone who would attempt to get water from the well. The Katipuneros fired their guns through the said walls to prevent the Spaniards from coming closer. The Spaniards returned fire and forced the Katipuneros to take cover. Protected by the Spanish sharpshooters, the other soldiers proceeded to cover the holes with earth, using picks and spades.
The group of Katipuneros remained behind the outer wall of the church. They could not escape back to the trenches because of the positions atop the walls held by the Spanish sharpshooters. Running towards the trenches would mean exposing themselves to the bullets of the Spanish sharpshooters. To force them to move from the walls that protected them, one of the Spanish soldiers thought of a plan to pour boiling water on the Katipuneros who took shelter behind the outer church walls. Initially, the Katipuneros laughed at the strategy claiming they were not chickens to be scalded for dressing, but after several cans of boiling water on the Katipuneros backs, they begged their companions in the trenches to retaliate so they could be saved from this unique bath. They were forced to run away and, while retreating, seventeen of them were shot dead by the unforgiving accurate aim of the Spanish sharpshooters.
Will They Surrender?
During a lull after this last skirmish, one of the Spanish soldiers stationed in one of the trenches outside the church, heard the whistle of a ship. He reported this to Martin Cerezo and at first they thought that the Katipuneros were again up to their tricks. They found out that it was the ship Uranus that had docked at the cove of Baler. That same afternoon, lieutenant Colonel Cristobal Aguilar y Casta�eda and a Spanish soldier wearing a rayadillo uniform and waving a Spanish flag presented themselves at the church. None of the soldiers in the church could recognize him hence he was not allowed inside the church.
Lieutenant Colonel Aguilar proceeded to inform them that his mission was to bring them back to Manila in the ship Uranus and that he carried safety passes from the Americans, President Aguinaldo and a commission from the Spanish War Minister General Diego de los Rios to pick up the detachment. In spite of the educated appearance and correct Spanish diction of Aguilar, Martin Cerezo again refused to believe what he was being told. He presumed that General de los Rios had changed sides and brought with him Spanish officers like Aguilar. He asked Aguilar to make the ship fire two shots and thereafter to position the ship at a point called Los Confites. Aguilar hesitated at first then they agreed on said procedure. Aguilar returned to the ship after the conversation with Martin Cerezo yielded no further results and, on the next day, the Uranus fired two shots and moved to Los Confites.
Again the obstinate Lieutenant Cerezo did not believe that there was actually a ship on the water and claimed that it was a mock up held by Katipuneros using strong swimmers to make the craft, supposedly made of bamboo and nipa, navigate across the water. At 3 pm, Aguilar again appeared at the door of the church inquiring if at last they were convinced, but the lieutenant stood his ground and declared that there was no space in the ship for all their guns, provisions, ammunitions, papers, and medicines. Aguilar said that they need not carry anything and that they should leave everything behind. Lieutenant Cerezo refused, thinking that indeed all that Aguilar wanted to do was get the guns for the Katipuneros to use. Aguilar asked for permission to photograph the church as Arias, the most famous Manila photographer of the period, was inside the ship. Lieutenant Cerezo promptly turned down this request. When he failed to convince Lieutenant Cerezo, Aguilar warned the lieutenant that his obstinacy could only lead to disaster. Cerezo made an arrogant lie and said that the detachment still had three months' worth of provision and that they would march to Manila, shooting their way out if necessary, only when their food supply ran out. Aguilar of course did not believe this because of the claim of one of the Spanish soldiers who deserted earlier. Aguilar asked sarcastically if the detachment would surrender if General Rios himself came to fetch them. Frustrated, he bid them goodbye, leaving behind a bundle of Spanish newspapers that he gathered from the ship and wishing the detachment good luck.
During this time, the Spanish soldiers were already divided, as some believed that Aguilar actually came to save them. Those who thought that Aguilar was telling the truth wondered why their leader had become so hardheaded. By the time the detachment realized their mistake, the Uranus had raised already its anchor and sailed back to Manila.
Upon the ship's arrival in Manila there were many rumors as to why the detachment of Baler did not surrender, including the allegation that Lieutenant Cerezo had murdered Captain de las Morenas and that he refused to surrender for fear that he would be punished.
Lieutenant Cerezo and the soldiers who could read pored over the newspapers left by Lieutenant Colonel Aguilar and again concluded that they were excellent forgeries. The food supplies of the detachment were now practically depleted and all of what was left had rotted away and were unfit for human consumption. Lieutenant Cerezo devised a plan for the soldiers to leave the church at night and flee towards the jungle to find their way back to Manila. They decided to arm themselves each with a rifle and destroyed whatever weapons were left over so that they would be useless to the Katipuneros. Cerezo decided to summarily execute the two soldiers who planned to desert, Toca and Menache, so that they would not be a burden during the march to Manila.
Night fell and they set out to implement their plan to flee but they saw that the trenches were heavily guarded. They decided to postpone their plan for the next night. Cerezo did not sleep the whole night thinking of the best way to attack the lines of the Katipuneros, so that they could flee to the jungle.
The next morning, he reread the newspapers left by Aguilar and chanced upon two lines in one of the newspapers referring to his best friend, another lieutenant, Francisco Diaz Navarro, who had told him many times that once the war was over he would ask to be assigned to Milaga where his fiancee and his family lived. This piece of news could not have been faked and the shocked Lieutenant Cerezo realized that everything the Filipinos had told him were true. With this realization, Lieutenant Cerezo explained to his soldiers his decision to surrender despite some of the soldiers' persistent refusal to capitulate.