Donald Trump bungles facts, history on General John Pershing, Pigs, and Muslims

General John J. Pershing was a military governor in the Philippine Moro Province in the early 1900's. Photo: National Archives

General John J. Pershing was  military governor of the Moro Province in the Philippines in the early 1900’s. Photo: National Archives

Did GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump confuse fiction for fact when he recounted a story last week for an audience at a South Carolina campaign stop?

The fable involves former WWI General John J. Pershing’s service in the Philippines in the early 1900’s. It claims Pershing ordered U.S. troops to execute Moro insurgents of the Muslim faith by shooting them with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. The pig’s blood was said to have been used as a deterrent that would bar suicidal Muslim terrorists from entering heaven. Watch the Trump video below.

I have found no evidence to support the pig’s blood story told by Trump on the campaign trail, or others in print, social media and on the web in the past several years. The story is of personal interest to me as a university professor who is producing a documentary on Pershing’s life and has spent some time researching General John J. Pershing’s career and personal life in the Library of Congress and National Archives.

Pershing’s life in the Philippines

The pig’s blood narrative supposedly happened during Pershing’s distinguished tenure as military governor of the Moro Province in the Philippines. Pershing governed a half-million citizens in the province. Most were Moros, the rest were Filipinos, Chinese, Europeans, some Americans and other native tribes.

General Pershing, pictured in the center, regularly consulted with Moro leaders called "datos" as he governed the Moro Province. Photo: National Archives

General Pershing, pictured in the center, regularly consulted with Moro leaders called “datos” as he governed the Moro Province. Photo: National Archives

Several noted Pershing biographers (Smythe, Vandiver, Smith, etc.) have detailed Pershing’s time in the Philippines and the peaceful relations he had with many Moro leaders who were called “datos.” Pershing consulted with the datos often and tried to promote peace by working to improve the living conditions of those he governed in the Philippines. As with many societies, including the United States, some terrorists are citizens. Most citizens are not. Some Moros were terrorists. Most Moros were not.

Pershing_1919_WaPo_Headline_As military governor, Pershing built new roads, and bridges, established schools and health dispensaries during his time in the Philippines. Drawing on the law degree he earned at the University of Nebraska, Pershing made changes in the Moro Province’s legal system. He adapted legal customs of the Western world to fit some Moro traditions. Pershing also worked to create trading opportunities for the Moros. He often toured the province, including one 400 mile trek on foot and horseback that took Pershing through remote jungle and alpine trails to meet with Moro datos during one 11-day span.

At times, another related story has also surfaced. It suggests Pershing’s troops buried dead Moro attackers with the carcasses of pigs. There is some truth to this story, but its historical context is important for the sake of accuracy.

Pigs and Muslims: Myth and fact

Pershing’s own papers in the Library of Congress describe his challenges in disarming dissident Moros who revolted against the law and Pershing’s governance of the Moro Province. Pershing wrote about the practice of “juramentado” in which some Moros revolted by swearing an oath to kill Christians:

“…juramentados, individuals ready to kill Americans at certain sacrifice of their own lives, appeared from time to time even in towns. In the early spring of 1911 there were several such fanatical outbreaks.”

The killer of Lieutenant Walter Rodney lies dead after being shot to death by another soldier in Jolo City.

The killer of Lieutenant Walter Rodney lies dead after being shot to death by another soldier in Jolo City.

Pershing described one “particularly cruel case” involving the death of U.S. 2nd Cavalry lieutenant Walter Rodney. The lieutenant was walking unarmed in Jolo City with his young daughter. Suddenly, a Moro who had just passed them on the road, drew his long bladed barong, killing the lieutenant “with several quick, vicious slashes from behind.”

Before the juramentado could kill anyone else he was shot dead by another soldier. Other Moro terrorist attacks soon followed and Pershing wrote-

”These juramentado attacks were materially reduced in number by a practice the army had already adopted, one that Muhammadans held in abhorrence. The bodies were publicly buried in the same grave with a dead pig. It was not pleasant to take such measures, but the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven sometimes deterred the would-be assassins.”

John T. Greenwood, former chief of the Office of Medical History, Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Army, has expertly edited Pershing’s papers into a published book; “My Life before the World War, 1860–1917: A Memoir.” The passage I described above may also be found on pages 284-285 of Greenwood’s excellent book on Pershing’s memoirs.

The late Donald Smythe, a history professor at John Carroll University, is one acclaimed biographer of Pershing’s life. In his book “Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing,” Smythe takes up the discussion on pages 162-163.

“To combat the juramentado, Pershing tried burying him when caught with a pig, thinking that this was the equivalent to burying the Moro in hell, for pigs were impure animals to a Moslem. General Bell, the American military commander in the Philippines, thought it worth a try. “This is a good plan,” he said, “for if anything will discourage the juramentado it is the prospect of going to hell instead of to heaven. You can rely on me to stand by you in maintaining this custom. It is the only possible thing we can do to discourage crazy fanatics.””

Smythe noted the following. It speaks to those who believe(d) dipping bullets in pig’s blood or, in this case, burying outlaw Muslims with pigs would discourage others from committing acts of terrorism:

“A nice theory,” wrote Smythe, “but it was not true and did not discourage anybody, at least not for long. Hugh L. Scott, who had been governor of Sulu (another Philippine province), noted that when one of his predecessors buried pigs with juramentados the only people who got angry were some humanitarians in the United States. The Moros? They “did not care enough about it to even discuss it among themselves.””

Here’s’s treatment of the various versions of pig’s blood, pig’s carcasses, Moros and General Pershing. Snopes correctly notes; “Pershing’s strategy was to surround the Moros and wait them out while attempting to induce them to surrender, a strategy that worked effectively.”

Facing insurgent Moros on Bud Dajo

In late December, 1911, Pershing and 1,000 U.S. troops did just that on Jolo Island. They faced an estimated 800 armed insurgent Moros who, as was custom, took their wives and children and had built trenched fortifications, were dug in, and making an armed stand against the provincial government. Bud Dajo was the Moros’ sacred mountain and highest point on Jolo Island. It’s where the armed Moros made their stand.

Pershing biographers also described Pershing’s earlier efforts to avoid bloodshed and negotiate peace with warring Moro outlaws who were typically held in check only by under-trained local constabulary (police) forces. When the violence continued into September, 1911, Pershing offered Moro citizens a bounty to turn their knives, guns and other weapons over to the government. All weapons not turned over to authorities by December would be confiscated by the provincial government. It was Pershing’s effort to quell the violence, slavery, piracy, kidnapping and other civil unrest that disrupted peace in the Moro Province.

When some Moro tribal factions ignored the government’s disarmament call, Pershing used U.S. troops and friendly Moro Scouts to end the dissident’s terrorist acts. The result was Pershing’s decision to make a troop assault on Bud Dajo in late December of 1911.

Unlike his predecessors, Pershing didn’t order a full-scale military assault against the Moros. Instead, he instructed his troops to circle Bud Dajo and wait the Moros out.

“I am strongly of the impression that they can be induced to come down, or if that is impossible, they can be starved out or will escape in time of their own accord.”  – John Pershing

Historian Donald Smythe wrote that Pershing, rather than fight, was  “squeezing the fight” out of the Moros. Doing so avoided needlessly risking the lives of Pershing’s troops, and the lives of the opposing Moros. “Have no outposts nearer than 300 yards to summit of mountain,” wrote Pershing in one of his orders. “Avoid contact if possible. Do not return fire but keep hidden.”   

During Pershing’s eight-day military operation the Moros eventually ran low on food and water and launched several fierce attacks to try and slip by Pershing’s men and escape their Bud Dajo fortress. Most were repelled by U.S. troops. Pershing sent friendly Moros to urge the hostile Moros to surrender. “He wanted only guns, not lives,” wrote Smythe. “If they would merely surrender their guns they could go home in peace.”

Soon, many hostile Moros, hungry and exhausted, began to surrender; Twenty at first. In the days that followed, Moro groups of 50 to 200 also surrendered to U.S. troops. On the operation’s eighth day, Moro Scouts flushed the remaining Moros out of hiding, killing six of them.

Bud Dajo had been secured. The casualty count for the entire operation: Three wounded on the American side. Twelve were killed, a few others wounded on the Moro side.

Before the operation, some U.S. military officials predicted many Americans would die before Bud Dajo could be taken. Pershing had done it with only three wounded on the U.S. side. He also avoided the “fight to the death” that many Moro warriors had wanted. Wrote Pershing:

“It was only by the greatest effort that their (Moros) determination to fight it out could be broken. The fact is that they were completely surprised at the prompt and decisive action of the troops in cutting off supplies and preventing escape, and they were chagrined and disappointed in that they were not encouraged to die the death of Mohammedan fanatics.” – John Pershing

The battle of Bud Bagsak

Dato Naquib Amil, pictured here with his son, led a revolt against the government of the Moro Province in 1913. Photo: Library of Congress

Dato Naquib Amil, pictured here with his son, led a revolt against the government of the Moro Province in 1913. Photo: Library of Congress

Two years later, in 1913, Pershing’s attempts to use “friendly persuasion” with warring Moros led by Dato Naquib Amil failed to bring peace. Pershing described Amil’s followers as “the most stubborn, the most defiant, and the most difficult in the whole Province.” Biographer Frank Vandiver in “Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing,” wrote that efforts by Pershing to negotiate with Amil “produced typical agreement and noncooperation…While talking, Moros raided, snatched slaves, murdered each other and attacked stray cavalry and infantry units.”   

Dato Amil and his Moro followers ultimately reneged on their promise to surrender their weapons. They threatened the provincial capital of Jolo City and fired sniper shots at the city’s troop garrison. Against Amil’s open defiance Pershing again resorted to military action. Under the cover of nightfall, he led an expedition of 1,200 officers and men in a surprise military assault against the Bud Bagsak mountain stronghold of Dato Amil and his Moro warriors.

Bud Bagsak mountain on Jolo Island was the stronghold of Dato Amil and his Moro warriors. Photo: Library of Congress

Bud Bagsak mountain on Jolo Island was the stronghold of Dato Amil and his Moro warriors. Photo: Library of Congress

The remote Bud Bagsak summit rose 2,200 feet above the sea. It was surrounded by steep approaches that had to cross several Moro defensive trenches and fortified by five Moro “cottas” (thick log, mud and rock-walled fortresses) that looked down from Bud Bagsak mountain on Pershing’s approaching troops a mile away. Author Robert A. Fulton noted that more than 90 percent of Pershing’s force was made up of Philippine Scouts that included two Moro companies. The U.S. Army contingent included 50 men of Company M, 8th Infantry and a 25-man demolition detail from the 8th Cavalry.

The five-day battle favored the well-armed U.S. troops who fought their way up the mountain, toppling one cotta after another with artillery, pistols and rifles. Nonetheless, they met fierce resistance from hundreds of Moros who chose to fight and die rather than accept an offer by Pershing to surrender their weapons and return to their homes. 

90 percent of Pershing's troops who fought insurgent Moros in the battle of Bud Bagsak was made up of Philippine Scouts that included two Moro companies.

90 percent of Pershing’s troops who fought insurgent Moros in the battle of Bud Bagsak was made up of Philippine Scouts that included two Moro companies.

The odds did not favor the Moros, nor did it keep them from forcing a bloody contest against the attacking U.S forces. With few guns, many spears and other cutting weapons at their disposal against the overwhelming fire power of Pershing’s troops the Moro losses numbered over 500 dead. Among the dead was Dato Amil. An estimated 5-10 percent of the dead also included Moro women and children. “This was inevitable,” wrote Smythe, “given the Moro policy of taking their families with them when they fought.”

Pershing_Bud_Bagsak_Headline_routMany more Moros were wounded or escaped during the five-day encounter. Vandiver wrote that the ferocious battle didn’t stop until Pershing and his troops had crossed the last Moro trench.

“In that last trench, a scant 25 yards from the cotta, a gory, blood-spattered last stand by the Moros was beaten down. Pistol in hand, Pershing fought forward with his vanguard. By 5:00 p.m Bagsak had fallen and Pershing had won the hardest battle of his life.” Pershing biographer Frank Vandiver

American soldiers stand near one of the trenches where Moro warriors fought to the death in the 1913 Bud Bagsak battle. Photo: Library of Congress

American soldiers stand near one of the trenches where Moro warriors fought to the death in the 1913 Bud Bagsak battle. Photo: Library of Congress

Government losses from the battle were 15 dead and 25 wounded. At one critical point in the battle Pershing personally stepped into the firing line, taking direct command while dodging flying Moro spears and barongs when “matters looked desperate” for U.S. troops. General Pershing later wrote his wife Frankie and described the Moro fighters in the Bud Bagsak battle:

“The fighting was the fiercest I have ever seen… They are absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat they count death as a mere incident.”- John Pershing

Historian Donald Smythe later wrote:

“The tragedy of Bud Bagsak was that the Moros brought on a battle they could not possibly win. They construed kindness and leniency as weakness. Pershing had offered complete amnesty to Amil and his followers if they surrendered their guns. The Moros treated such an offer with contempt.”

What Donald Trump knew?

It’s fair to ask if Donald Trump knew the pig’s blood story was false when he told it to his campaign audience. To be accurate, Trump should have done some basic fact checking. It’s likely most Americans would expect that of anyone running for political office, much less the presidency of the United States.

Had Trump done better fact checking, he might have learned that General Pershing preferred negotiation and diplomacy with his foes in the Philippines. If negotiations failed, Pershing used military force to end further lawlessness, loss of life and property.

Trump could issue a formal correction, and an apology for his erroneous comments.

The correction should accurately state the facts.

The Trump apology would account for his misrepresentation of General Pershing’s legacy, and for the resulting ethnic and religious divisiveness his political rhetoric has caused.

Would that be asking too much?

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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2 Responses to Donald Trump bungles facts, history on General John Pershing, Pigs, and Muslims

  1. Pingback: Who is Gen. Pershing, the WWI general Trump wants Americans to ‘study’? - GoViral

  2. Sean Williams says:

    Thanks, Barney, It is reassuring to see statements that are supported by factual evidence, cross-checked, and openly reported. It is regrettable that our Chief does not have standards. Have you seen this bit on Truth?

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