Reviewer P. David Searles served three years as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and then spent two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency (1974-76).  Following the end of his business career in 1990, David earned a Ph. D. from the University of Kentucky (1993), and published two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997), both published by The University Press of Kentucky.

the-boys-140The Boys: 1st North Dakota Volunteers in the Philippines
by John Durand (Philippines 1962–64)
Puzzlebox Press
$17.95
422 pages
2010

Reviewed by P. David Searles (PC staff 1971–76)

John Durand has written a fascinating account of a little remembered event at the very beginning of America’s entry onto the world stage as an imperial power:  the struggle to subdue and annex the Philippines.

These days if anyone remembers the Spanish American War it is probably with images of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, ‘yellow journalism,’ the island of Cuba, and the slogan “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.”  But that was Cuba.  The war in the Philippines was far bloodier, it lasted far longer, and it created tensions and legacies that continue to affect American foreign policy to this day.  Durand’s The Boys: 1st North Dakota Volunteers in the Philippines recounts the experiences of a group of men, mostly young, who volunteered to avenge the sinking of the battleship Maine by joining a quickly assembled regiment of North Dakotans. The author’s command of the facts is remarkable; and his use of original sources — including diaries, newspaper accounts, letters home, speeches, and official reports — add a sense of authenticity that is convincing.

This book will be of interest to three different groups.  The first, and probably the most intensely interested, will be the families and descendents of all those North Dakotans who participated in the regiment and whose exploits were never fully understood, or if they were, have since been forgotten.  The second will be those folks who have an unquenchable thirst for the strategies and tactics of war, a thirst which will be satisfied by the astonishingly detailed descriptions of battle plans and their outcomes contained in the book.

The third group, and this one includes me, will be made up of those who have often puzzled over the ‘love/hate’ nature of the Filipino/ American relationship.  During my time in the Philippines, seventy years after the events described in the book, it was not unusual to encounter very angry demonstrations in front of the American Embassy or at one of the several American military bases, hot-tempered outbursts by Filipino politicians, and angry editorials in the local press.  Yet, time and time again we Americans were treated with such warm and unstinting friendship that we had to wonder which Filipino was the ‘real’ one.

Durand’s book makes it abundantly clear that from day one the Philippines had grounds for charging the US with double-dealing, or worse.  The Filipino patriots who helped the U.S. quickly rout the Spanish forces soon found themselves the target of American rifles.  The American forces treated the Filipinos with undisguised contempt; stole animals, foodstuffs, furniture, whole houses and anything not nailed down.  The American leadership even mocked the very idea that Filipinos could govern themselves, despite the fact that it was independence which energized the Filipino uprising against the Spanish in 1898 before the Americans arrived.  It would be years later (years not covered in the book) before William Howard Taft began a more conciliatory approach.  Still later, on July 4, 1946, the United States granted full independence to the Philippines, accompanied by a round of self-congratulations for its own magnanimity.  On a visit to Washington in 1995 I noticed that the Philippine Embassy flaunted a huge banner proclaiming its 97th year of independence in celebration of Emilio Aguinaldo’s declaration of Philippine independence on June 12, 1898.  So much for July 4, 1946!

It was a bit surprising to read how the North Dakota volunteers responded to their first encounters with the Philippines, encounters that happened before any blood had been spilled.  As I read portions of letters home and the author’s accounts gathered from various sources, I suddenly said to myself “The Peace Corps volunteers reacted in the same way.”  Read pages 153–56 and it will be the 1970s all over again, right down to the sight-seeing, the souvenir shopping, the tasting and liking of the exotic local foods, and even the visits to the red light district!   Some things never change.

The book is superbly researched, well written, and filled with period photos, maps, and diagrams of the many battles in which the 1st North Dakota regiment participated.  Perhaps the only drawback in the book, at least for some of us, is the overabundance of detail provided for individual battles and skirmishes.  To make sense of the information Durand provides the reader will need hours of paper and pencil work to understand which unit did what to whom, when and where they did it, and how it all unfolded.

Available from www.puzzleboxpress.com