On Datu Ali's Trail

Oh, sing a song of hikers, On Datu Ali’s trail

On straight tips from old Piang, Who ought to be in jail

Three commands of doughboys, And one of horseless horse

Through mud and slime, Through filth and grime

We wend our way perforce

 (First Chorus of "On Datu Ali's Trail" (1905). To the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”)

Soldiers of the 23rd Infantry Regiment crossing the Cotabato River - 1904

    On April 7, 1904 General Leonard Wood wrote in his personal diary:

The people of this valley have been so hostile and intractable for generations that I have decided to go thoroughly over the whole valley, destroying all warlike supplies, and dispersing and destroying every hostile force, and also to destroy every cotta where there is the slightest resistance. While these measures appear harsh it is the kindest thing to do.

    General Wood was referring to the Cotabato Basin of central Mindanao and his principal target for destruction was Datu Ali, militarily the strongest leader of the Maguindanaos, the "people of the flood plain", who lived in the watershed of what is now known as the Cotabato River, but in early 1900 was called by its Spanish name, El Rio Grande de Mindanao.

Datu Ali with one of his wives and a son c1902

Mindanao c1900

(For close up and more detail, click center of map above)

    Hearing that Ali was urging defiance of the new American-imposed government over Moroland, Wood assembled a large expeditionary force and marched on Ali's huge fortress at Seranaya, with the intention of making a pre-emptive attack--however disguising his intent from the War Department as a mere "reconnaissance".  On March 10, 1904 the 17th Battery of the Field Artillery opened up a day-long bombardment of the defenses of Seranaya in preparation for an infantry assault the next morning. But rather than stay and fight against uneven odds, Ali evacuated his warriors in the blackness of night under the nose of the unsuspecting Americans. Wood sent the 17th Infantry and 14th Cavalry regiments in hot pursuit but they were easily outdistanced by Ali. Two months later on May 8, 1904, in a stinging rebuke Ali and his men ambushed Company F of the 17th near a place called Simpetan, killing fifteen (including the two officers) badly wounding seven, and taking three prisoners (more than half the company were casualties) while incurring no casualties of his own. Two weeks later, in a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation, Ali released the three prisoners, well and unharmed, and offered to negotiate. 

    Embarrassed and outraged, Wood refused and  pulled out the stops, carving out four extra large "provisional companies" from each regiment under his command, the 17th, 22nd, and 23rd Infantry and the 14th Cavalry, for the sole purpose of tracking down the fugitive datu and his followers. The chase, although interrupted periodically by the demands of other campaigns in Jolo and Lanao, lasted twenty-one months. Ali kept his men (whose numbers fluctuated from no more than two or three hundred to over one thousand during the chase) almost constantly on the move and one step ahead of his pursuers. On numerous occasions Ali waged effective guerrilla-style hit and run attacks, and at one point even came close to capturing the lightly defended city of Cotabato after leading the provo companies into following a false trail to the other end of the valley. More than 3,000 American soldiers, 100 Moro Constabulary, 100 Philippine Scouts and several hundred contract packers and Moro cargadores were employed in the hunt. Initially marshalling over 1,000 warriors, by the time of his death Ali had sent most of his followers back to their villages and retained only about two dozen men at his side.

    Wood lived up to his promise of harsh measures, but not just against those who were openly hostile, punishing the entire population in order to get at a few. All Maguindanaos were rounded up and herded into two "protected areas", in fact little more than concentration camps intended to deprive Ali of the potential support of the general populace. Anything outside were declared "prohibited areas, roughly 90% of the entire basin. Orders were given to shoot and kill any and all adult male Moros encountered in the free fire zones. Females and children were to be captured and sent to the protected areas. Several hundred villages were burnt to the ground, crops razed, and food storages destroyed in an attempt to render the valley uninhabitable. Although violating a standing order from the War Department, journalists were banned from the region and escorted back to Zamboanga. Little of what was going on was communicated back to Washington, with Secretary of War Taft hearing rumors and eventually becoming suspicious of the highly sanitized reports. Taft was shocked to hear that economy and commerce of once-prosperous Cotabato had inexplicably descended into near ruin, and pressured Wood for an explanation, prompting a temporary suspension of the operation.

    Yet despite the relentless pursuit and draconian measures against the populace, Wood failed to capture Ali. When the end came, it occurred on another commander's watch. General James Buchanan had been placed in temporary charge of the department while Wood was in the U.S. on emergency medical leave for a brain operation. Ali finally met his end in a hail of bullets on October 22, 1905 near Buluan in a daring raid by the provo company of the 22nd Infantry conceived and led by Captain Frank McCoy.

    The saga of "the Hunt for Datu Ali", well-known in its day, has somehow become lost in U.S. history and ignored by Hollywood (and HBO), even though for high drama, intrigue, and tragedy it matches the more well known pursuits of Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Butch Cassidy, and Poncho Villa. The intrepid doughboys in pursuit of Ali had to cope with drenching tropical rains, flash floods, bottomless mud, swarms of malarial mosquitoes, poisonous insects and snakes, giant crocodiles and pythons, all in the forbidding terrain of the giant swampy basin of the great Rio Grande de Mindanao. The following pages are the remaining photographic record of that adventure.