During the Philippine-American War that lasted from 1899-1902, the United States sent regiments of African-Americans as reinforcements to help fight the Filipino “insurrectos” led by Emilio Aguinaldo.
The 9th and 10th Cavalry that had previously fought native Americans in the last Indian Wars, earned the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers”, possibly because the soldiers’ curly hair looked similar to a buffalo’s dark mane, and their aggressiveness was likened to that of a ferocious bison. The Buffalo Soldiers later came to include the 24th and 25th Infantry, which also had all-black members.
There were over 5,000 Buffalo Soldiers that arrived in the Philippines, and hundreds were stationed in Camp Stotsenburg and in towns like Magalang, from where they got their marching orders. A few soldiers have notable experiences and stories to tell, relative to their assignment in the Philippines, and Pampanga, in particular.
African-American soldier Richard Johnson, arrived in Stotsenburg in 1916, as a member of a medical unit of the 9th Cavalry. It was the 4th time that Corporal Johnson was sent to the Philippines; his first was as a 19-year old enlistee in 1899.
While in the camp, Johnson brought attention to the deplorable conditions there, which posed many health risks to soldiers, particularly, malaria. He also wrote about the poor living conditions of soldiers, in which he noted that married men below the rank of a staff sergeant had to build their own living quarters made of bamboo—at their own expense!
His observations paved the way for the next commanding officer of the camp to institute drastic measures to improve the “old and decrepit camp”. Johnson would have a long career in military service and would later write his memoirs about his U.S. Army life from 1899 to 1922.
Perhaps the most written about African-American soldier was the deserter, Corporal David Fagen, of the 24th Infantry. On 17 Nov. 1899, Fagen defected to the Filipino army because he could no longer stand his sergeant’s constant harassment. He sought refuge in the areas around Mount Arayat, which were guerrilla-protected. For his dauntless courage, he was promoted to captain by Gen. Jose Alejandrino in 1900. Such was his popularity that Filipino soldiers often referred to him as “General Fagen.”
His most daring exploit was the capture of a steam launch and its cargo of arms, while on the Pampanga River. Fagen earned notoriety in the U.S. press and was described by the New York Times as a “cunning and highly skilled guerilla officer who harassed and evaded large conventional American units.” It took a Tagalog bounty hunter, Anastacio Bartolome, to end his daring run, who delivered his severed head to American officers, after he and his men supposedly killed him while Fagen was taking a river bath.
But the Buffalo Soldier with the most fascinating story to tell, is Ernest Spokes of Chattanooga, Tennessee. To escape oppressive racism in the Deep South, Stokes volunteered for the Spanish American War.
After training at the Presidio Army Camp in San Francisco, Stokes was shipped off to the Philippines in 1898. But even in a foreign land, Spokes continued to face discrimination in the hands of his white superiors who often assigned him at the frontline. Nevertheless, he performed his duties well and became a sergeant in his unit.
The Buffalo Soldiers formed a bond of kinship with Filipinos which incensed their Caucasian superiors, who, incidentally, referred to both groups as ‘savages”. They came to understand the cause of the Filipino fighters against the U.S. so, they refused to shoot them in their encounters.
After the war, many of these soldiers, who had come to love the people and their culture, opted to remain in the Philippines. By 1921, about 200 men of the 9th Cavalry had married Filipino women—and one of them was Ernest Stokes.
Stokes first fell in love with a Nueva Ecijana from Peñaranda, Maria Bunag, whom he married in 1902, a union that produced three daughters-Felicia, Teodora and Dominga. The years after Maria’s death in 1917 were a sad and troubling period for the black Filipina sisters, who were abused by relatives.
But in 1923, Stokes met the vivacious Roberta Dungca, a 16 year old illiterate girl from Angeles, where his base was located. Despite their age difference, Roberta was charmed by Stokes who spoke fluent Kapampangan (he also knew Tagalog, Spanish and a bit of Chinese). Their marriage was facilitated when Stokes was caught kissing Roberta—a no-no in the local courtship tradition.
Stokes and his young bride left for the U.S. in 1928, where they settled in West Oakland, California. Roberta raised her three stepdaughters as if they were her own. The couple would have no children of their own, but they adopted the daughter of Teodora, They also got reacquainted with former Buffalo soldiers and socialized with their Filipina wives.
Stokes, who spent 25 years of his life in the Philippines, died in February 1936, at around age 66. Roberta would marry a second time, to Manuel Unabia. Buffalo Soldier Ernest Stokes is buried in the Presidio in San Francisco, the same place where he started his military career.
Today, a monument stands there to honor the memory of these volunteers who ventured to an “unholy war of conquest” across the seas , only to find their own hearts conquered by Filipinos whom they had sworn to fight.
American Voices of World War I: Primary Source Documents, 1917-1920, By Martin Marix Evans p. 1,”Prelude to War”.
Clark Field and the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Philippines 1919-1942, Richard B. Meixsel, New Day Publishers © 2002
Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars, By Robert B. Edgerton,”The war to Save Humanity”,p. 57.
The Woyingi Blog Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines: A Filipina American Grandaughter remembers her African American Grandfather https://woyingi.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/buffalo-soldiers-in-the-philippines-a-filipina-american-granddaughter-remembers-her-african-american-grandfather/
Voices of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Experience, Volume 1, By Sang Chi, Emily Moberg Robinson, p. 233-235
Filipinos in the East Bay, by Evelyn Luluguisen, Lillian Galedo,p.15