The Devil's Causeway: The True Story of America's First Prisoners of War in the Philippines, and the Heroic Expedition Sent to Their Rescue


As the United States prosecuted a bloody campaign to pacify its newly won Philippines territory at the turn of the nineteenth century, a secret mission of mercy went terribly wrong. The result was a prisoner-of-war crisis, the likes of which our nation had never encountered before. The epic struggle for survival that followed was not only a test of the human will to live, but a crucible for heroes. And yet, what was touted as a heroic rescue operation extended a war by almost two years and cost the lives of ...

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As the United States prosecuted a bloody campaign to pacify its newly won Philippines territory at the turn of the nineteenth century, a secret mission of mercy went terribly wrong. The result was a prisoner-of-war crisis, the likes of which our nation had never encountered before. The epic struggle for survival that followed was not only a test of the human will to live, but a crucible for heroes. And yet, what was touted as a heroic rescue operation extended a war by almost two years and cost the lives of thousands. In April 1899, Admiral George Dewey dispatched the USS Yorktown to liberate a detachment of Spanish soldiers under siege by Filipino rebels. To reconnoiter enemy defenses, one of the Yorktown's armed cutters—manned by a crew of fifteen sailors—was sent toward shore. And then it happened. Defying orders, Lieutenant James C. Gillmore Jr. recklessly pushed upriver into heavy jungle—and headlong into an ambush that would kill four of his men. The survivors were dragged across mountains and through dense jungle from one pestilent prison to the next along what Gillmore called "a veritable Devil's Causeway." Their captivity and the torturous expedition sent to recover them, recalled today as one of the greatest marches in US Army history, features a tightly hewn cast of characters—including a frail yet determined teenaged sailor and his hardened seafaring mates; battle-tested veterans of the Civil War and the Indian Wars; and a fiery revolutionary commander who gave orders to bury wounded Americans alive. A sweeping military epic drawing on international primary sources, The Devil's Causeway tells their extraordinary story in its entirety for the first time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Westfall, a filmmaker with extensive experience in the Philippines, recreates in exacting detail the plight of American sailors captured by Filipino insurgents in April 1899. Westfall’s painstakingly researched book opens with the Navy men under the command of Lt. James C. Gillmore and how his incompetence led to their capture. Westfall then traces the slow and arduous march of the rescue expedition mounted by the U.S. Army. While the rescue was successfully executed in December, the army expedition, numbering over 200 men with their wounded and sick, still had to march 90 miles through dense jungle, mountains, and fast rivers without food, before reaching the coast where the Navy waited. Finally, Westfall discusses the fate of the survivors, the efforts to recover the bodies of the fallen, and the trials and eventual imprisonment for war crimes of the most brutal Filipino leaders. Westfall gives a thrilling and fast-paced adventure story that brilliantly illuminates an untold aspect of one of America’s first overseas wars, as well as the beginning of the complex relationship between America and the Philippines (Sept.)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Devil's Causeway "Matthew Westfall has unearthed a strange and dramatic tale from America's mostly forgotten imperial adventure in the Philippines in the late 1890s. Here is blundering, courage and heartbreak in equal measure."—Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 and Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World "A brutal clash of Old West and Far East, Matthew Westfall's masterpiece blends the gritty realism of Cormac McCarthy with a filmmaker's eye for the dramatic. This beautifully paced epic of heroes and villains emerging from the jungles of the Philippines is more than a mere Indiana Jones adventure tale; The Devil's Causeway is a rare, enthralling gem mined exquisitely by Westfall from the faded pages of America's lost empire."—Jonathan W. Jordan, bestselling author of Brothers, Rivals, Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and the Partnership that Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe"The United States served notice of its global ambitions in 1898 by defeating Spain in a short and popular war. Less than a year later, America found itself in a divisive quest to conquer and colonize the Philippines. In his superbly researched book, The Devil's Causeway, Matthew Westfall powerfully reconstructs a tragedy at the beginning of our forgotten war in the Philippines—a prisoner-of-war saga that embodied all the hubris, heartache, and miscalculation that ultimately doomed America's first quest for empire."—Gregg Jones, author of Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and The Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream, an editor's choice of The New York Times Book Review "The Devil's Causeway documents an epic tale of military campaigning and colonial conquest. The book enthralls, entertains and educates, while proving once again that the truth is often stranger than fiction. This thrilling work is a must-read for anyone interested in the Philippines' determined struggles for independent nationhood. It is likewise an inspiring story of courage, sacrifice and patriotism by the various protagonists—regardless of nationality."—Fidel V. Ramos, 12th President of the Republic of the Philippines; former Secretary ofDefense, Republic of the Philippines; Chief of Staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines; and West Point graduate, USMA Class of 1950 "There has been way too little written about American military efforts, adventures and missteps after the Philippines became an American possession at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Author Matthew Westfall shines a light on that turbulent time in our military history with his new book The Devil's Causeway. In a thoroughly researched, detail-packed and absorbing work, he tells the story of the capture and subsequent dramatic rescue of the some of our first American POWs to be taken by an enemy on foreign shores. The characters come alive in these pages and the fascinating story unfolds as if it were being told by an old veteran around a campfire."—Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Ret), author and military advisor to film and TV, Los Angeles
Library Journal
In 1899, shortly after the American victory that made the Philippines a U.S. protectorate, the USS Yorktown sent 15 sailors to free Spanish soldiers besieged by Filipinos in a remote area on Luzon's east coast. The sailors rowed into an ambush; four died, and the rest were imprisoned. U.S. Army troops with Filipino guides eventually caught up with the POWs, but it was a harrowing circus caused by an incompetent launch commander, short-tempered insurrectionists, the media, the U.S. Army, grand strategy, and American politics. The determined captives, a bloodthirsty insurrection commander, crusty Civil War veterans, headhunters, priests, and deranged Spanish soldiers all make appearances. Documentary filmmaker Westfall has collected much primary source material, from which he has teased remarkable detail about a forgotten episode of empire making. VERDICT Although he sometimes inserts his characters' thoughts and words into the narrative, Westfall has brought to life the people and societies that clashed at the end of a century when America was determined to build a worldwide empire.—EBB
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762780297
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/9/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,045,680
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Westfall is a writer, urbanist, and award-winning documentary filmmaker, whose films have featured narrators such as Malcolm McDowell, Willem Dafoe, and F. Murray Abraham, and have been broadcast worldwide. He has devoted much of his professional career to tackling poverty in the developing world. Based in Asia for nearly three decades, his work as a development banker addresses some of the most intractable issues in our increasingly urban world: megacities, slums, and managing the urban environment. For his documentary On Borrowed Land, executive produced by Oliver Stone and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Matthew received the prestigious Paul Davidoff National Award for Advocacy Planning from the American Planning Association. Born in New York City and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, Westfall currently resides in the Philippines with his family. He spends his free time reading, writing, and collecting as a means to explore the fascinating history of his adopted country. The Devil's Causeway is his first work of narrative nonfiction. Visit

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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae v

Prologue: The Boy Venville ix

Book I Maps:

The USS Yorktown's Route to the Philippines 2

The Philippines 2

The USS Yorktown's Route to Baler 3

The Ambush of Gillmore's Cutter at Baler 3

Chapter 1 Baler, 1897 5

Chapter 2 A Defense to Madness 15

Chapter 3 Arrival 26

Chapter 4 A Generous Mission 39

Chapter 5 Reconnoiter 46

Chapter 6 Trouble 58

Chapter 7 Off Beach and Bar 70

Book II Maps:

The Gillmore Party's March across Luzon 78

The US Army's Northern Luzon Campaign 79

The Gillmore Party's Route across the Cordilleras 80

Chapter 8 Sierra Madres 81

Chapter 9 San Isidro 93

Chapter 10 A Ray of Light 109

Chapter 11 Prison 116

Chapter 12 The Center of Gravity 135

Chapter 13 Pursuit 151

Chapter 14 Buying Time 162

Chapter 15 The Expedition 171

Chapter 16 Cordilleras 193

Chapter 17 Salvation 208

Book III Maps:

From Baler to Abulug: The Gillmore Party Trek 226

Novicio's Escape from Malahi Island Prison 227

Chapter 18 Garrison 228

Chapter 19 Venville 241

Chapter 20 The Trial 250

Chapter 21 Bones 264

Chapter 22 Dead Man's Island 287

Chapter 23 Empire's End 301

Epilogue: The Cost of Conquest 304

Appendix A Lieutenant Gillmore's Cutter Crew 325

Appendix B The Gillmore Party Rescue Expedition 326

Appendix C Report of the US Burial Corps, Expedition to the Philippines 332

Author's Note 334

Acknowledgments 337

Notes and Sources 340

Selected Bibliography 403

Index 411

About the Author 418

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