When Frederick Funston, a brigadier general of volunteers, explained his plan to Maj. Gen. Arthur McArthur, his division commander in the Philippines, MacArthur called it “a desperate thing.”
“I fear that I shall never see you again,” he said.
When the Spanish-American War ended, the United States was granted sovereignty over the islands, but a segment of the Filipino population believed they were promised independence, objected to the American takeover, and began an armed resistance.
By the time that resistance — called the Philippine Insurrection — finally ended, it cost 4,234 Americans killed and another 2,818 wounded as well as at least 16,000 Filipino casualties. At the head of the rebel forces was Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino politician who fought against Spanish occupation of the island before the war and continued his opposition when Americans took control.
In February 1901, Funston was the commander of the 4th District of Luzon. After months of uncertainty, he confirmed Aguinaldo’s location through a captured rebel officer named Cecilio Segismundo and hatched a plan to capture him. Aguinaldo, Segismundo said, was at the village of Palanan with several officers and a force of about 50 men.
He also said that all approaches to Palanan were closely watched.
“The only recourse was to work a stratagem,” Funston wrote in his memoirs.
On Mar. 6, 1901, with Funston in command, the gunboat Vicksburg left Manila Harbor. On board was a force of 81 Filipino scouts dressed as insurgents, along with Funston and four other Army officers masquerading as captured American privates. Six days later, at one o’clock in the morning, the force quietly landed at Casiguran on Luzon’s east coast. They were still almost 100 miles from Aguinaldo’s Palanan hideout.
They were accepted in the area as what they purported to be, a rebel force with American prisoners. The ruse was working.
From Casiguran, they were able to send messages ahead to Palan announcing their arrival on the coast and their intent to come to the rebel headquarters. (A forged letter was sent earlier announcing their “capture” of the Americans and that they would bring them to Aguinaldo.)
“It was thoroughly understood,” Funston later wrote, “that we would not be taken alive. ”
After gathering what food and supplies they could from the natives, the force marched along the beach and on jungle trails through almost constant rain and on half-rations, arriving at Palanan nine days after landing at Casiguran.
They were welcomed by the rebels as they had been at Casiguran and the two “leaders” of the column, Filipinos disguised as rebel officers, were taken to meet Aguinaldo. One of them, a Spanish secret service officer named Lazaro Segovia, stood at a window and explained at length how the Americans were “captured.” When he thought the moment was right, he waved his hat, signaling the men in the courtyard to attack, and they began firing on the rebels.
Two rebels were quickly killed, and the remainder dispersed. Aguinaldo, meanwhile, heard the firing and, thinking his men were celebrating by firing their weapons into the air, went to the window to tell them to save their ammunition.
There he was tackled by the second “leader,” a renegade rebel officer named Hilario Tal Placido, as Segovia pulled out a pistol and fired six rounds, killing one of Aguinaldo’s officers and wounding another. The rest of the rebels leaped through the room’s windows and escaped.
By then, Funston reached the room, took charge, and explained to Aguinaldo — in fluent Spanish — that he was now a prisoner of the United States Army.
After the men rested at the village for a day, they walked back to the beach and were picked up by the Vicksburg’s boats, which, in turn, took them to the gunboat and then to Manila.
Funston was rewarded by being promoted to brigadier general of the regular army and was praised by President Theodore Roosevelt for the raid, which Roosevelt called, “the crowning exploit of a career filled with cool courage.”
Aguinaldo, realizing he was beaten, called for the rebels to lay down their arms and a year later, on July 4, 1902, President Roosevelt declared the insurrection over.
Funston died in 1917 at age 51 and was buried at the Presidio in San Francisco.