Los Tiradores de la Muerte: General Antonio Luna’s Feared Marksmen

More than a century ago, there was a legendary group of Filipino soldiers that were not only feared but also respected because of their incredible exp


More than a century ago, there was a legendary group of Filipino soldiers that were not only feared but also respected because of their incredible exploits during the Filipino-American War. Although the Americans eventually prevailed, they have put fear in the eyes of the invading armies they faced.

Known as the “Tiradores de la Muerte”, this elite crack unit of marksmen were handpicked by General Antonio Luna himself. They were sent in key battles to wreak havoc on the enemies while also focusing on assassinating key officers from field commanders to generals. They are picking out those who stand out from the enemy in the fog of war. Once key officers are killed, the command-control structure is expected to collapse.

Most of the elements of this unit came from the remnants of the old Spanish Army, which later dissolved after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1898. The better-trained soldiers were recruited in the Tiradores where they were given better training, arms (German Mauser bolt-action rifles), and ammunitions. The best of the best eventually formed the core of this unit. Their fearsome reputation during the Philippine Revolution, they got their name as the Marksmen of Death and far even worse than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Baptism of Fire

After the ouster of one colonial power, the Americans are looming on the horizon and soon hostilities sparked after Pvt. William Grayson shot dead a Filipino soldier crossing the San Juan del Monte Bridge into American lines. Soon American units already in the Philippines were mobilized to crush the “Philippine Insurrection” while more reinforcements are on their way.

The Filipinos were unable to retake Manila after a failed counter-attack on February 23, 1899. However, they didn’t push the initiative as they were waiting for reinforcements from Major General Henry Ware Lawton, which was then divided with the other unit commanded by Brigadier General Arthur MacArthur Jr. (father of future General Douglas MacArthur).

American soldiers at skirmish line, March 1899

By March 25, 1899, the Americans launched an offensive to encircle the retreating Filipino forces to Malolos, Bulacan. The Americans crushed President Emilio Aguinaldo’s forces in the Battle of Marilao River. As a result, Aguinaldo has placed Luna as Chief of War Operations in central Luzon three days later.

Luna’s 5,000-man army faces a much superior force of up to 15,000 so they decided to draw the Americans inwards away from possible naval bombardment and artillery fire. Colonel Frederick Funston’s men were the first to enter the city but were met by resistance ‘by about a dozen men behind a street barricade of stones.’

Civilians raise a white flag to an American sentry guarding a rail line

"They will never surrender until their whole race is exterminated. They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence and would have had it if those who make the laws in America had not been so slow in deciding the Philippine question. Of course, we have to fight now to protect the honor of our country but there is not a man who enlisted to fight these people, and should the United States annex these islands, none but the most bloodthirsty will claim himself a hero. This is not a lack of patriotism, but my honest belief."

-          Ellis G. Davis, 20th Kansas Volunteers

"Sometimes we stopped to make sure a native was dead and not lying down to escape injury. Some of them would fall as though dead and after we had passed, would climb a tree and shoot every soldier that passed that way. Even the wounded would rise up and shoot after we passed. This led to an order to take no prisoners, but to shoot all."

-           Robert D. Maxwell, 20th Kansas Volunteers

Though outnumbered three-to-one, Luna’s forces gave the Americans everything that they got and show them what they were made of. As the capital of the revolution, a furious gun battle happened in the plaza until the Presidencia and Congress Hall caught fire. With the Americans emboldened, resistance was stubborn. In the end, Malolos fell on March 31 resulted in massive losses on the Filipino side with the Americans losing only 56 men.

Americans guarding wounded Filipino soldiers

Filipino POWs held by the 2nd Oregon Volunteers

Despite the American victory, they failed to bring the war to a swift end. The Philippine Army retreated into the interiors to fight the enemy in further guerilla engagements and pitch battles.

The Calumpit Offensive

With the capital captured, MacArthur’s forces further pushed north to keep up with Aguinaldo’s retreating army while Luna’s forces stand in the way to blunt further the American advance. By then, the capital was moved to San Isidro, Nueva Ecija.

The Filipinos, led by boy wonder Brigadier General Gregorio del Pilar, set a defensive line along Calumpit, Bulacan, and Apalit, Pampanga to hold MacArthur’s forces thereby giving Aguinaldo more time to consolidate his forces. The American offensive was launched on April 23, 1899, with the 20th Kansas Volunteers, Utah Volunteer Light Infantry, 1st Montana Volunteers, and 1st Nebraska Volunteers leading the way.

Filipino soldiers marching to the front line

This time they implemented Luna’s three-tier defensive strategy, now known as the Luna Defense Line, to put the American offensive into a ‘meat grinder.’ This defense line culminated in the creation of a military stronghold in the Cordillera as the war winds down to its conclusion. American military observers were even astonished by the extensive bamboo trenches constructed from town to town that would allow Filipino soldiers to withdraw gradually and fire from covered positions against the advancing Americans. As the enemy capture one position, a series of traps would have been set up against them. This deadly maze of seemingly light fortification would have been put in great effect in succeeding battles that lie ahead.

The Push Through Bagbag River

The capture of Calumpit is the next major military objective after the fall of Malolos. The Filipinos hold the Bagbag Bridge as their first line of defense while setting another defensive line along the Pampanga River in case the town of Calumpit falls. However, Luna was not there to lead the defense as he was heading to Guagua, Pampanga to punish the provincial commander General Tomas Mascardo for leaving his post to inspect troops in Arayat. Mascardo’s 21,000-man force would have been used to reinforce and strengthen the Calumpit-Apalit line.

Filipino soldiers destroying key transport lines

However, the Filipinos still have the upper hand since they know the terrain very well. With so many river crossings and extensive swamplands in the north and marshy areas in the south. An effective defense on the main bridges would slow the Americans down. With Luna out from the action and most of the cavalry and artillery have taken by him, del Pilar was left in his own figuring out how to stop the Americans.

American reinforcements arriving via the Manila-Dagupan rail

Since the Manila-Dagupan railway is the main transportation route that would help the Americans rapidly deploy all their units throughout Luzon, demolishing the railway bridge that connected both ends of the river is crucial. Not only it will delay supplies and logistics, but it will also hamper future reinforcements. However, Luna ignored Aguinaldo’s order to destroy it. Although del Pilar managed to cut the iron girders and the bridge eventually collapsed before a train carrying machine guns could safely pass through, the Americans simply hired Chinese porters to push the train through the river.

US Army Corps of Engineers repairing a demolished bridge

Moreover, more American troops cross the other side of the river and repaired the bridge to let the supply wagons pass through. By the time Luna arrived in Calumpit, the soldiers assigned to the Barrio of Santa Lucia were the ones putting up a resistance against the enemies in the Bagbag sector. Luna tried to put a valiant defense but was forced to retreat and destroy other bridges as they fall back to the Pampanga River defensive line.

Last Stand at Pampanga River

By April 27, the Filipinos have destroyed the river the connected both sides of the 400-foot wide Pampanga river. As the water is too deep to swim, Colonel Funston ordered his men to cross the river by establishing a rope ferry where they can pull rafts to cross the other side. Eventually, 120 men managed to cross including Funston himself.

American soldiers occupying a small hamlet while a town is burning ahead

By then, a group of American soldiers attacked the left flank of the Filipino defensive trench positions while the rest crossed the bridge in a single file. The reserve 1st Nebraska volunteers then drove out most of the Filipino defenders in three lines of entrenchment. For his exploit, Funston later received the Medal of Honor.

Despite the success, the Americans lost 700 men at the start of the Calumpit offensive. The Tiradores have taken their toll on the invaders by killing key officers on the battlefield. Specific targeting and assassinations killed many of them. Although it was a strategic American victory, the Filipinos only lost 200 men.

By the time the Calumpit offensive has ended, only eight of them have remained.

The Battle of San Mateo

A few months after the bloody battle that decimated most of the regular Philippine Army, especially Luna’s forces, the Americans have gained greater ground in the war as more reinforcements have arrived. Since the capture of Malolos, Lawton captured Santa Cruz, Laguna, and San Isidro, Laguna.

General Antonio Luna, the man that would have led a better-organized resistance against the Americans, was assassinated in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija on June 5, 1899. Once Aguinaldo’s threat was liquidated, he consolidated total control of the entire forces. However, he lost his greatest military strategist that would have prolonged the war even further.

General Lawton on his way to battle

Five days later, Lawton launched his Cavite campaign that has pushed the Filipino defensive line further south. By October 1899, Lawton began a successful campaign against Aguinaldo’s main force itself. Soon Aguinaldo loses battle after battle.

Order of Battle

By December, plans were in placed to capture San Mateo even though the annual monsoon rain has flooded the Marikina river so crossing it is essential to encircle the town effectively. Lawton’s force composed of Col. James R. Lockett’s 2nd and 3rd squadron of the 11th Volunteer Cavalry (positioned northeast of the town) and Lt. Col. HH. Sargent’s battalion of the 29th Infantry Regiment (positioned west of the town) was formed near the rice fields and higher bluffs. Other units, such as the Troop I of the 4th Cavalry, and a battalion of the 27th infantry regiment, were expected to cross the river from the north. Once San Mateo is captured, the road to Marikina is open to American soldiers.

Children kneeling in front of American soldiers

Opposing them was a 1,000-man force led by Brig. Gen. Pio del Pilar and Gen. Licerio Geronimo, which pose a threat to the Marikina waterworks and the wagon road to the north. With his gung-ho attitude of leading his men, Lawton believed in leading from the front even though his subordinates were worried about him exposing to a possible assassination attempt. Even General Elwell Otis, his superior, ordered the return of the troops because of the bad weather. However, Lawton was determined to march on and attack by daylight.

One Shot, One Kill

The heavy rain has bogged down Lawton’s maneuvers as they try to position near the town defenses overnight on December 18. At 9:15 am the following day, Lawton was walking along the firing line within 300 yards of a small Filipino trench. He should have been in a secured position at his forward HQ but he ends up personally directing his men on the field with his big white helmet and distinctive light-yellow raincoat. His commanding 6’3” height makes him an even more prime target from the Tiradores who are aiming their rifles on him.

Soon several close shots were fired on the American side with bullets clipping the grass at Lawton’s position. With his staff officer calling for attention, he simply laughed it off and ignored the danger. Soon their troops advanced and the 11th Volunteer Cavalry captured the neighboring town of Montalban while Sargent’s battalion approached the town despite poor visibility. However, effective rifle fire forced the Americans to scramble for cover at the nearby rice fields.

The spot where General Lawton was killed

Lawton rallied his men until one of his staff officers was shot on the left side and fell in an exposed position. Out from that mist, Filipino sharpshooter Bonifacio Mariano made the kill-shot that hit Lawton in the lung killing him instantly thereby claiming the most significant casualty in the entire war.

Other Units

Even after Luna’s bloody assassination, other units have emerged were formed that were patterned after the Tiradores. In fact, one other unit formed by Luna called “Los Bandoleros” (The Bandits) have emerged from the scenes. Led by Rosendo Simon de Pajarillo, the unit was formed by ten men wanting to join the regular army. Although Luna sent the men away after the defeat at the First Battle of Caloocan, the men were initiated and played a vital role in the Second Battle of Caloocan. The Filipino defeat marked the moment when Luna’s relationship with Aguinaldo became so strained when the latter wanted to disarm the Kawit Battalion for insubordination which the latter countered by assigning that unit to another loyal officer. Luna even threatened resignation because of that.

Another unit called the “Guardia Negra” (Black Guards) was a 25-man guerilla unit formed under the leadership of Luna’s favorite soldier named Lieutenant Garcia. His unit was tasked to approach the enemy by surprise and quickly return to camp.

The Aftermath

Although the American forces, and even the civilian home front, were shaken by that surprising development of Lawton’s death, the war pushed to greater heights of barbarity with resistance and reprisals intensified. Despite the valiant efforts of this legendary unit, there’s nothing that can stop total victory for the Americans.

Lawton's death was in the headlines in American newspapers

Even before Lawton’s death, he already acknowledged the fighting spirit of the enemy he was fighting against. "Taking into account the disadvantages they have to fight against in terms of arms, equipment, and military discipline, without artillery, short of ammunition, powder inferior, shells reloaded until they are defective, they are the bravest men I have ever seen…," he wrote in one correspondence.

Many of the Filipinos who fought during the Philippine-American War (like General Licerio Geronimo who led the unit that killed Lawton) later served in the Philippine Scouts and Philippine Constabulary, which laid the groundwork for those who went on to fight alongside the Americans in the Second World War.

In a tribute to the legendary unit, today’s incarnation of the Philippine Army has “Tiradores de la Muerte” as the motto for its Light Reaction Regiment to honor the impeccable skills and the marksmanship of the most feared sharpshooters in Philippine history.

 

References:

“The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna,” by Vivencio R. Jose

“Americans Advance to Malolos,” by Arnaldo Dumindin

“History of the Filipino People,” by Teodoro Agoncillo

“Memories of Two Wars,” by Frederick Funston

“General Henry Lawton dies at San Mateo,” by Arnaldo Dumindin

112th Anniversary of the Battle of San Mateo

“Major-General Henry Ware Lawton, U.S. Volunteers,” by Mark J. Denger


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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Los Tiradores de la Muerte: General Antonio Luna’s Feared Marksmen
Los Tiradores de la Muerte: General Antonio Luna’s Feared Marksmen
More than a century ago, there was a legendary group of Filipino soldiers that were not only feared but also respected because of their incredible exp
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