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They died with their boots on

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The title of a November 1941classic hollywood movie that starred Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, “They Died With Their Boots On” was a fictionalized and romanticized life story of Maj. Gen. George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876),  one of the most colorful personages in US military history.

Relevant internet sources further reveal that after his graduation from the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, just two months after the outbreak of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, Custer was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army. The following year, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.

Although he never received any medal for his gallantry and successes as a cavalry officer, he was awarded brevet promotions – nominal, temporary promotions to higher ranks without the benefit of a higher pay, but sometimes clothed with greater authority.  Thus, he became a Brigadier General of Volunteers in June 1863 (at the age of only 23),  then Major General in command of a cavalry division until the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865.

But Custer’s lasting albeit controversial fame had its roots over a decade later in the “Battle of the Little Bighorn.” The saga began in June 1876 when the US Government sent an expedition of some 2,400 troops (Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment of 600 men was part of it)  commanded by General Alfred Terry to enforce its resettlement policy involving the native American peoples in the Montana Territory. Thus, following a three-pronged campaign plan, Gen. Terry’s main force left Ft. Lincoln in North Dakota to link up with Col. John Gibbon’s Montana Column from the west, and Brig. Gen. George Crook’s regiment from the south.

Though tasked to ride ahead merely on a scouting mission, Gen. Custer decided to attack the large number of native Americans encamped along the Little Bighorn River without waiting for the other columns as planned. Thus, he rashly led his men into what would be their “last stand” on June 25, 1876. For unknown to them, the native American peoples concerned had formed the largest such alliance ever to defy the US Government!
So, overwhelmed by the counterattack of an estimated 3,500 enemy warriors, the 7th Cavalry’s three-pronged attack was repulsed; however, some retreating troops made it to the safety of higher ground despite heavy losses. Haplessly cut off from them, Gen. Custer and his personally commanded column of 208 men were all killed in a fierce and bloody fighting.

The circumstances leading to that battle, particularly the decisions and consequent actions of Gen. Custer, have since been thoroughly analyzed, evaluated and criticized by American historians – civilian and military. The resultant controversies notwithstanding, one thing has always been undoubted:  Gen. Custer and his 208  men “died with their boots on” – they never
gave up or gave in; they kept fighting to the end.

So did also the 19 Philippine Army (PA) soldiers who perished during the encounter at Al-Barka, Basilan, last October 18th!  (The platoon was actually composed of 41; of the rest, 14 were wounded.)  But the parallelism of these two tragic events does not end there, in spite of such major differences as the historical period of occurrence, the nature of the mission, the attitude and style of the commander, the quality of armaments used by the opposing forces, and the race and level of sophistication of the forces that fought against the government troops.  At Al-Barka, specifically, the alleged ambushers were reportedly led by a local leader of a well-armed Mindanao organization that has been negotiating with our Government for greater autonomy.

Thus, in the context of this write-up, the following similarities between Gen. Custer’s “last stand” and the ambush of PA soldiers at Al-Barka deserve some attention:

Controversies attending the conflict – the reports and claims of the AFP have been disputed by the MILF; also, certain statements of the executive department clashed with the observations and opinions of some members of the legislature;

Superior number of enemy forces – owing to the reported practice of pintakasi or collaboration, the number of the mixed ambushers at Al Barka (whose leaders have reportedly been identified already) was allegedly much larger than that of the soldiers; Relative youthfulness of the soldiers involved – Gen. Custer, himself then only 37, must have commanded younger troopers because the 7th Cavalry Regiment was organized as part of the post-civil war expansion of the US army. Besides, among those who died with him were his two younger brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew.

Finally, in one of human history’s amazing coincidences, Gen. Custer was reburied  (He and his 208 men were first interred on the very spot of land where they died) with full military honors at the West Point Cemetery, New York, on October 10, 1877. Similarly, all the 19 fallen heroes of Al-Barka were given full military honors, and most were buried at the Libingan Ng
Mga Bayani  (Cemetery of Heroes), Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, also in the month of October!
Indeed, all true-blue and resolute servicemen regardless of nationality, geographical and epochal issues, the heroes of the Little Bighorn and of Al-Barka “died with their boots on!”

By Ric Adjawie




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