Read AN ENCOUNTER WITH BOLOMEN of Bamboo Tales , free online book, by Ira L. Reeves, on

A True Narrative of a Personal Experience in the Philippines.

By a Lieutenant of Infantry.

The organized bands of Filipinos known as bolomen are so called because their principal weapon is the long, broad-bladed, vicious-looking knife called the bolo, with which they do their deadly work. They make many boasts of their prowess and skill in taking human life, and one of their proudest feats is to sever the head from the body with a single blow. Our men in the Philippines who are on detached duty, or who for any cause are away from their commands, are frequently attacked by these men.

As a rule, bolomen do not carry rifles, although many carry revolvers when they can get them. Their work is to kill at short range. With the stealth of a cat they slip up on their victim, strike him a deadly blow, and then beat a quick retreat to their own lines.

Many of the insurgent officers and soldiers carry bolos, but the genuine bolomen are an organized body belonging to Aguinaldo’s army, who have as distinct a work to do as the different branches of our own service. Their work is solely to surprise the unsuspecting outpost, officer or soldier, to dispatch him and run away before the deed has been discovered.

Their feats are commonly committed in the darkness of the night Then their cat-like tread serves them well. Stealing noiselessly along through banana groves and bamboo thickets, cane-fields and cogonales, they approach within a few feet of their intended victim and lie for a few moments watching him as a snake eyes a defenseless bird.

During the months of June and July, 1899, my regiment was doing duty at San Fernando, about forty miles from Manila. The companies of the regiment took turns on outpost, going on this duty every fourth day and being in reserve on the outpost line the day preceding that on which they went on post. This gave the companies two nights in houses in town and two on the line out of every four.

My company did duty on what was known as the north line, extending from San Fernando a full mile toward Angeles. The entire distance was an almost impenetrable jungle of bamboo and banana trees, intertwined and interwoven with vines, thorn-bushes, and many other forms of tropical growth.

To the front was an immense cane-field, with a “paddy-field” beyond. The cane was from five to seven feet high. Along this deep fringe of bamboo and matted undergrowth, and near the edge next to the cane-field, our pickets, or Cossack posts, as they are properly called, were stationed at distances ranging from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty yards apart, one corporal and six privates at each post.

On the tenth of July my company went out in reserve, and early in the morning relieved the company there on the outpost line, Nothing took place during the day except the usual exchange of shots with the insurgent pickets. Most officers when in command of companies on this duty visit their sentries some time during the night, in order to reassure their men, and to see that they are well-instructed and on the alert. I have always followed this practice.

I started on a tour of inspection at about 9:30, visiting first the post on the railroad on the left of the line, then taking the other posts in succession down toward the right It had rained in torrents for several days, and wide, deep pools of water had formed everywhere along the way. Because of these pools, I was wearing high-topped rubber boots. Shortly after ten o’clock I arrived at the next to the last post on the line, which was about two hundred and fifty yards farther on. Between these two pickets was the most dense growth of bamboo trees and banana stalks to be found in that neighborhood, and the entire distance was a continuous chain of diminutive lakes. There was a path leading through this net-work from one picket to the other.

It was drizzling. The immense spreading leaves of the banana and thickly matted foliage of the bamboo formed a canopy that shut out every trace of light. No dungeon was ever darker than this path.

Notwithstanding the gloomy surroundings caused by the death-like stillness, the darkness of the night, the water dripping from the overhanging vegetation and completely saturating my clothes, my occasionally colliding with a thorny shrub, or tripping over a low-hanging vine, I was in excellent spirits. I groped along the cave-like way, humming in a low tone “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and had reached a point about midway between the pickets. Then, although I could see no one, I suddenly became aware of the presence of a human being.

I stopped as if I had been struck dead, and strained my eyes. There, just in front of me, near enough for me to grasp with my hands, I saw the dim outlines of a short, thick-set man. Was he one of my men? No, for no man would dare to leave his post at that time of night. Should he be discovered in such an act, the penalty for his crime would be death.

“Hello! Who are you?” I said. There was no answer from the man; instead, I saw his right hand quickly strike out from his shoulder, and the flash of a glistening blade. I threw up my left hand, and our wrists met in heavy collision; but his blow was stronger than my ward, for I felt a sharp sting in my face just below the left eye, and a moment later the warm blood trickled down my cheek. With my left hand I grabbed his wrist just below the thumb and gripped it like grim death, but he was not to be beaten thus. I felt the sinews of his wrist rise, and the grinding of the muscles, and then the same stinging sensation that I had felt in my face I now felt in my wrist.

I could count the cuts as he made them one, two, three all on my left wrist and hand, and then the blood began to run down my forearm, as our hands were elevated.

This occupied but a second of time. He raised his left hand, and I saw another flash. What it was I knew not, but I immediately grasped his wrist and tried to force this hand behind him. Before I could do so, he fired, and the ball passed through my left boot-leg. The muzzle was so close to me that the force of the powder almost threw me to the earth. I ground my teeth in a desperate effort to force his hand behind him. My left hand, cut and bleeding, still held his right. Now forcing the fight with the revolver, he tried vainly to raise it and shoot me in the body. Throwing my whole strength on my right arm, I succeeded in forcing back his revolver hand. At this he began to shoot at my feet.

The first shot missed, but he immediately followed it with another. It struck, for my right foot felt as if it had been hit with a club, and grew numb. Four more shots came in quick succession. One of them which I cannot tell struck the same foot and broke the bridge, as I knew from the immediate loss of strength in that member.

Now all was quiet. We stood with our heaving chests touching. I felt his breath in my face, and his heart palpitating against my breast. There was a lull in the battle. I felt safe, as far as the revolver was concerned, for he had emptied that, but the deadly knife was still poised over my head. My life depended entirely on the strength of my wounded hand and wrist, which were holding the knife away from my throat.

Now I remembered that bolomen never travel alone. That he had comrades within a few feet of me, who were trying to distinguish between us, so that they might be sure that their knifes should enter my back instead of his, I was certain. My flesh cringed at the thought; I could almost feel the cold steel enter my body.

It was time for me to force the fight. My right foot was badly wounded, but the knee was yet unhurt. With this I struck the man a blow in the abdomen, and quickly followed it with another. It was evident that he was weakening. He again made a desperate effort to free the hand which held the bolo, but my endeavor to keep him from succeeding was greater. I drew back the right leg as far as I could, doubled up the knee, and, with all the strength that I possessed, drove it again into his abdomen.

The effect was marvelous; his muscles relaxed, his struggles grew feeble, and his breathing was badly interrupted. This was the decisive part of the fight, and I grasped the opportunity. With all my might I threw him from me. He fell among the bushes, and was lost in the blinding darkness. I drew my revolver from the scabbard, and fired in the direction in which I had thrown him. This shot was answered by a cry which told me he had been hit.

At this moment I heard the twigs breaking and the leaves rustling behind me. Like a flash I faced about and fired at the approaching figures my assailant’s fellow-bolomen. The effect of the shot was to cause a heavy rustling and the sound of many feet in rapid retreat.

I had been careless enough to come into this jungle with but two loads in my revolver, and these had been fired. When I began to reload, my right foot gave way and I fell. Lying on the ground, I loaded and fired again. The groans of my wounded enemy were getting farther away, and the sounds finally died in the direction of the Filipino line.

I hobbled to my nearest outpost, where one of the men bound my wounds, and later I received the attention of a medical officer. I believe myself to be the first American soldier to live to tell the tale of his fight with bolomen. From Youth’s Companion of February 1, 1900.