Matthew Westfall's (Philippines 1983-85) The Devil's Causeway

devils-causway-170The Devil’s Causeway
The True Story of America’s First Prisoners of War in Philippines, and the Heroic Expedition Sent to Their Rescue

by Matthew Westfall (Philippines 1983-85)
Lyons Press
$26.95 (hardcover); $12.90 (Kindle)
417 pages

Reviewed by P. David Searles (CD Philippines 1971–74)

TO THE EXTENT THAT AMERICANS KNOW anything about the Philippines, they tend to know that the United States played a key role in liberating the country from its 300-year-long Spanish occupation.  They would probably know enough to say that this event took place during the Spanish American War at the end of the nineteenth century.  What they have little or no knowledge about is the fierce, bloody and barbaric war that the United States and the Philippines fought immediately following the dispatch of the Spanish. Even to this day, the United States refuses to give the struggle legitimacy by calling it a ‘War.’  Instead, we insist that it was an ‘insurrection,’ thereby making it appear that the Filipinos where at fault, not the imperialistic Americans.

Matthew Westfall has written a fascinating book about one little-known part of that struggle:  The mission to rescue a small contingent of American sailors and soldiers from their Filipino captors in the vast, rugged and forbidding landscape of northern Luzon.  The book borrows its title from a captive’s mention in a letter home of a “devil’s causeway” that the captives and rescuers alike had to walk during the final miles of their long journey out of the wilderness.  (There is a hiking trail in Colorado of that name and it is called ‘one of the most notorious’ of its kind.  Which came first I don’t know.)

Briefly, and without giving away the dramatic twists and turns of the story, the adventure begins with an ill-conceived attempt by the American navy to penetrate into the heart of Filipino-controlled territory in order to convince a small force of Spanish soldiers that their war with the United States and the Filipinos was really over. The Spaniards are holed up in a fortress-like church refusing to give up their weapons and supplies to the rebellious Filipinos.  The mission goes awry early on.  Several Americans are killed or wounded when their small boat is ambushed by Filipinos and the balance of the small party is taken prisoner, including the commander, U.S. Navy Lieutenant James Gillmore.dave-wesfall5813494

What follows then almost defies belief, although Westfall’s research is superb, and his sources most reliable.  Under extreme conditions of near-starvation and harsh weather — either blazing hot or freezing cold — the ragged and shoeless men are forced to trudge through trackless jungle terrain surrounded by headhunters (literally!), and almost devoid of hope. In all they spend several months constantly being shifted from location to location by their captors.

The Filipinos believed that their hostages would be useful in some future parlay with the Americans and were desperate to keep them under control.  The American rescuers, in line with long-held military custom and buttressed by public opinion back home, refused to give up on their fellows.  Two battalions of American infantrymen were charged with the rescue mission and in many respects lived through the same desperate conditions as did the captives.  In the end, however, the captives were freed, the ‘bad guys’ punished; and Americans back home rejoiced in the exploits of their own.

Westfall rightly concentrates on his story and the people important to it.  He also gives enough information on the overall picture to help the reader understand the issues at stake for the United States and the Philippines and the ways in which they were resolved.  I do think he has been a bit too lenient in his discussion of the American objectives and tactics.  One can only understand the slaughter of civilians, water boarding, house burning, destruction of foodstuffs, and similar acts by the American forces if one knows that official policy called for using “acts of violence and brutality designed to speed up the war’s end.”

To be fair, the insurrectos, as the Philipine independence fighters were commonly called, responded in kind ensuring that the mutual resentment created would last for generations, as it has.

The amount of detail included in the book is proof-positive of the enormous amount of research that went into its production.  We are treated to the ‘back stories’ of all sorts of individuals from the most senior generals and admirals to the lowest privates and enlisted men, and to those in both the American and Filipino camps.  The amount of detail at times is overkill; sometimes one even feels like a Peeping Tom.  (How else can one respond to the author’s speculation that Lt. Gillmore infected his wife with a venereal disease upon his return home?)

As one who has survived the rigors of a history doctorate I will object to Westfall’s frequent attempt to explain his subjects’ thought processes, motivations, and reactions when there is absolutely no evidence on which to base them.  One example from p.297-8:  Lt. Theodorico Novicio, a bad guy if there ever was one, lies in a pool of his own blood dying from multiple gunshot wounds.  Westfall writes “Novicio may have recalled….” and then he goes on to summarize Novicio’s life and actions in detail.  This authorial technique is a handy way to reemphasize Novicio’s importance to the story, but it certainly does not conform to evidentiary standards of scholarly research.  Westfall similarly imputes to many others thoughts and impulses that he has made up, and each time I think of my doctoral committee and how they would have frowned.

One other annoying aspect of the book:  Westfall’s intense and absolute dislike for Lt. Gillmore. During his crew’s capture and travails Gillmore may have been less than heroic, but who can throw the first stone? In his later naval career Gillmore excelled in a variety of assignments including command at sea, is promoted to Commodore on retirement and treated with respect by his colleagues and the public. Yet Westfall grants him no quarter, and even denigrates the title of Commodore, a title worn proudly by such folks as Commodore Perry and Commodore Dewey.  (It was long the custom in the navy to award those retiring from distinguished careers with one final promotion, for both status and retirement compensation reasons.) The author’s attempt to show that Gillmore’s actions in 1898 led to a significant prolongation of the war does not compute. It is impossible to accept Westfall’s theory as anything other than unfounded and unwarranted speculation.

These are minor disappointments and do not detract from the overall pleasure of reading this fascinating tale of courage, physical fortitude, and the sometimes astonishing human ability to endure hardship beyond imagination. Just the idea of trudging shoeless through a tropical jungle for weeks on end is enough to win my admiration for all of those who did it.

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 under John Dellenback (1974-76).  His career has included work in international business, government service and education.  In 1993 David earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and published two books: A College for Appalachia: Alice Lloyd on Caney Creek (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997) both published by The University Press of Kentucky.


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  • Unlike Searles, I’ve earned no doctorate, and I have yet to read Westfall’s book but must note that many Americans opposed the war. E.g., Mark Twain wrote:

    “Perhaps we could not have avoided it—perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands—but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives.

    “I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States.”

    Atrocities were perpetrated by both sides in the war, but one massacre of Filipinos that I recall Twain describing reads eerily like the My Lai massacre carried out by American troops during the much later war against the Vietnamese.

  • John Sayles’ 2011 feature film “Amigo” gives a vivid picture of the Philippine-American war (with eerie parallels with more recent wars), and is well worth seeing for those interested in this part of history.

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