Over the next three years, guerilla units nipped away at the United States military, whose brutality escalated with each passing month. Unable to quell the insurgency, American forces instituted concentration camps, torched villages, massacred civilians, and frequently bragged about their exploits in letters to family and friends back in the states. While the U.S. suffered more than 4000 deaths during the Philippine-American War, Filipinos themselves perished by the hundreds of thousands. While roughly 20,000 Filipino guerillas died in combat, as many as 750,000 civilians may have lost their lives in the fighting as well as by disease and malnutrition. Although the most important guerilla leader, Emiliano Aguinaldo, was captured in spring 1901, skirmishes continued in most regions of the archipelago for months and years afterward.
On September 28, 1901, several hundred Filipino bolomen attacked a company of American soldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment while they gobbled their breakfasts in the town of Balangiga, located in the central Philippines on the island of Samar. Taken by complete surprise, scores of soldiers died in their mess tent before they could arm themselves. Witnesses who surveyed the scene after the attack described soldiers whose bodies had been dismembered and in some cases boiled. Several wounded soldiers were allegedly buried to their necks and covered with sugar and ants.
In the aftermath of the Balangiga ambush, US Marine Col. Jacob Hurd ordered his men to sack the island and turn it into a “howling wilderness.” As his fellow Marine Littleton Waller revealed during subsequent court martial proceedings, Smith insisted that
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.When asked to clarify the last sentence, Smith explained that ten years old was an appropriate threshold. Although Smith’s orders clearly were not administered to the letter, thousands of Filipino civilians were indeed killed by American forces over the next several months in retaliation for the 54 soldiers who died in Balangiga.
In time, the conduct of American soldiers on Samar led to Smith’s court martial for “conduct to the prejudice and good order of military discipline. After earning a guilty verdict, Smith was allowed to retire from the Marines with no further punishment. Upon his return to the US, Jacob “Howling Wilderness” Smith was received as a hero. Smith’s own medical officer defended his colleague, telling a San Francisco newspaper that
[i]t makes me sick to see what has been said about him (Smith). If people knew what a thieving, treacherous, worthless bunch of scoundrels those Filipinos are, they would think differently than they do now. You can't treat them the way you do civilized folks. I do not believe that there are half a dozen men in the U.S. army that don't think Smith is all right.