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'The Devil's Causeway' unearths forgotten tale from Philippine-American War

At the onset of the Philippine-American War in April 1899, Admiral George Dewey sent a US Navy mission to rescue a band of starving Spanish soldiers under siege in Baler. But the 15 American sailors were ambushed and captured by Filipino insurgents, and held as prisoners of war. Author and documentary filmmaker Matthew Westfall recounts their plight in his book "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." The book, which involved five years of intensive research in archives across three continents, examines the fate of the survivors and the efforts to recover the bodies of the fallen, illuminating America’s bloody ‘days of empire’ and misadventure in the Philippines, according to a press release. "Marched barefoot across more than 500 miles of Luzon’s rugged and unforgiving terrain, the group of prisoners, under the command of Lieutenant James C. Gillmore Jr., quickly became valuable pawns in the Philippine fight for freedom," the release said. In December 1899, Gillmore and his men were used as bait to distract US Army regiments as they pursued General Emilio Aguinaldo.   "Falling for the ruse, the US Army mounted an expedition to rescue Lieutenant Gillmore and his men, who were reportedly facing imminent execution in the uncharted wilds of Apayao. The tortuous march into the forbidding Cordilleras, and the harrowing 90-mile trip down the Apayao River that followed, would go down in US military history as one of the greatest expeditions of all time," it said. The author's grandparents and father, who were émigrés from Europe, held Filipino citizenship in the 1920s and '30s before landing on American shores. “I soon found myself struggling to understand fully America’s arrival in the Philippines at the turn of the century, a bloody event that had been relegated to a footnote in history,” Westfall explains in the Author’s Note of the book. “How did the United States stumble into an experiment with an empire on faraway shores and become embroiled in a bloody campaign of pacification? How did America manage to quell a restive nation that was on the verge of achieving a hard-fought victory for independence? And what were the lessons in all of this for the Philippines, America, and the rest of the world?” he asks.   In a video, Westfall shares his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1983 working with USAID, before he moved to work at a development bank where he stayed for 17 years. "The more you stay in a country, the more you are intrigued by its history, and the Philippines of course has a fascinating history, being a colony of Spain for 300+ years, and America's one and only colony from 1899 to 1946. So there's this fascinating relationship between the US and the Philippines that over time I began to explore, first through books then through collecting antiquarian photographs and old news articles, just wondering what was really that period of time all about," says Westfall, who describes himself as an avid armchair historian. The Devil's Causeway includes never-before-published photographs and historical documents along with the narrative, the press release said. "I love military history. Yet the more I studied this conflict through the standard sources, the less I seemed to know. So I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to find a story within that conflict that had never been told? And that essentially is what the story of the Gillmore party prisoners is all about," Westfall says. The book started out as a screenplay, but Westfall discovered there wasn't much information about the topic. "There was really no research on this, it was sort of skimmed over and in fact the narrative had been co-opted as a Spanish story. This was a story of the last heroes of the empire, the last holdouts from Mother Spain in this church under siege by Filipino rebels. It never really was explored from the angle of the American experience which was the USS Yorktown being sent out to rescue these Spaniards, one lieutenant deciding to move up a river against orders and take this church on his own, and ending up finding himself ambushed and in captivity with fourteen other sailors," he said.   In another video, Westfall describes the research process as a “treasure hunt.” “It was a giant jigsaw puzzle that had never been assembled before, and I had sort of tasked myself to take that on,” he says, adding that research involved a full-time team working at the U.S. National Archives for five years. Released in the United States last September, 'The Devil's Causeway' is on the Amazon's Best Seller List for history books on the Philippines. It also debuted at the No. 4 spot in Nonfiction at Fully Booked, where it is available exclusively in the Philippines. Publishers Weekly honored the book with a 'starred' review, and the Library Journal describes the startling, long-forgotten tale as “[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… 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.” - Carmela G. Lapeña/YA, GMA News To read more about the writing of 'The Devil’s Causeway' and view historical documents and photographs, visit the website of Matthew Westfall and his Author Page. Photo courtesy of the author