American waterboarding in times gone by: the Philippines water cure of 1901

The New Yorker has a good investigative piece on the history of the use of waterboarding by US troops in the Philippines in 1901-2 -- a scandal that rocked the nation.

A letter by A. F. Miller, of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment, published in the Omaha World-Herald in May, 1900, told of how Miller’s unit uncovered hidden weapons by subjecting a prisoner to what he and others called the “water cure.” “Now, this is the way we give them the water cure,” he explained. “Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.”
And let us not forget: after WWII, Japanese soldiers who'd waterboarded their American prisoners were put to death by the US military for committing unconscionable acts of torture. Link (Thanks, Ken)


  1. after WWII, Japanese soldiers who’d waterboarded their American prisoners were put to death by the US military for committing unconscionable acts of torture.

    I can’t seem to come up with any reliable account of these excecuted Japanese soldiers online. Can you cite your source?

    From what I can find, it appears the U.S. only prosecuted one Japanese officer for the practice (along with charges of other torture methods), and he received a prison sentence.

  2. “Here are some excerpts from my chapter on an infamous torture case in Singapore. (Some cuts and edits have been made so it can be within the maximum boundaries of blog length.)

    The victims of the “water treatment” were our side, British, Eurasian and Chinese in Singapore.

    On Monday September 27, 1943, British and Australian commandos raided Singapore harbour, then occupied by the Japanese and blew up a number of ships.

    Japanese intelligence, including the kempeitai, the secret police, had no idea how the ships were attacked.

    A few days after the attack what the later trial called “informers of extremely doubtful character” approached the kempeitai in Johore (on the mainland across from Singapore) and told them that ships had been sunk by British soldiers in Johore who had contacts with civilian internees in Changi Jail. The informers told the kempeitai that the internees had a secret transmitter with which they used to contact the British army. The Johore kempeitai passed the information to their counterparts in Singapore.

    The man then in charge of the kempeitai in Singapore, Major Haruzo Sumida, received orders for what was called “Number One Work”—to obtain actionable intelligence and crush any opposition.

    Over the next few weeks, 57 European and Eurasian civilians held in Changi were arrested in the kempetai’s “Number One Work.” A number of local Chinese were also arrested. All were taken to three different locations in the city and tortured.

    Not one of the internees had anything to do with the attack. Although there were secret receiving radios in the jail, there were no two–way radios.

    One man was executed. A second after horrific torture, attempted suicide was refused medical treatment and died. Another man died in his cell, the others were returned to the Changi Camp hospital where 13 died as a result of starvation, beating and torture.

    Within days of liberation, on Monday September 3, 1945, the surviving civilian internees in Singapore, appointed a “commission of inquiry: into what happened to the former inmates at the hands of the kempeitai. This is how the commission described “the water treatment”

    There are two forms of water torture.
    In the first, the victim was tied or held down on his back and a cloth placed over his nose and mouth. Waters was then poured on the cloth. Interrogation proceeded and the victim was beaten if he did not reply. As he opened his mouth to breathe or answer questions, water went down his throat until he could hold no more. Sometimes he was then beaten over his distended stomach, sometimes a Japanese jumped or sometimes pressed it with his foot.
    In the second,
    The victim was tied lengthways on a ladder, face upwards with a rung of the ladder across his throat and his head below the ladder. In this position he was slid head first into to a tub of water and kept there until almost drowned. After being revived, interrogation continued and he would be re-immersed.

    Cyril Wild’s investigation torture in Singapore showed that similar water torture was a favourite tactic of the kempeitai:

    Wild questioned one of the those accused in the case, Sgt. Major Masuo Makizono.

    To Makizono, the most important aim was to discover how and what information was being passed from the civilian internees to the British guerrilla forces.

    Turning to the beating and torture, Wild asked: “Why were these cruelties practiced?”

    “None of them would say where the transmitter was,” Makizono said. “No information could be gotten from them about the location of British forces.”

    He told Wild beating was the most common form of abuse. If the kempeitai was dissatisfied with the answers or if they thought the prisoner was lying, they would use torture.

    Makizono denied ever using an iron bar to hit a prisoner, but admitted he used his fist and he had used a bamboo pole on the arms, legs and torso. He pointed to the spots on his own body.

    “Did you ever use the water treatment?” Wild asked.

    Makizono described how suspects were tied up and laid on the ground. A kempeitai would force open then the prisoners’ mouth, while another poured a bucket of water down the throat.

    “Did you block up the nose?” was Wild’s last question.

    No, Makizono replied hee preferred to leave the nostrils open so he could pour water into them as well.

    Wild noted: “He appeared to take personal pride in describing such methods.”

    The case was not just a war crime. It is a lesson in intelligence failure. The torture and imprisonment of dozens of innocent civilians and the inhuman treatment was used because the kempeitai could not conceive that regular force commandos, today’s equivalent of Special Forces, could attack Singapore. So they focused on civilians, civilians who were already imprisoned, civilians who were resisting their captors—as all prisoners do—but civilians who were not saboteurs or terrorists.

    The man who authorized those techniques at the Singapore YMCA, Lt. Col. Sumida, was sentenced to hang. Sumida, in his statement during the trial said, “I felt the state of peace and order and this serious incident were related and that a thorough measure should be taken to prevent the recurrence of such serious incidents.”

    Six other members of the kempeitai plus an interpreter were sentenced to hang. Three were sentenced to life, including one interpreter called “the fat American” (he was originally from California) One received 15 years, and one kempeitai and one interpreter eight.

    This form of torture was not limited to Singapore. The judgment of the Tokyo war crimes trial said “the water treatment was commonly applied…there is evidence that this torture was used in the following places: (spelling in the original)”

  3. You may ask yourself “How did I get here?”
    Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
    Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
    Into the pool again, after the money’s gone
    Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
    You may ask yourself “What is this house?”
    You may ask yourself “Where does this highway go?”
    You may ask yourself “Am I right or wrong?”
    You may ask yourself “My God… what have I done?”
    Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
    Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
    Into the pool again, after the money’s gone
    Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…
    Same as it ever was…

  4. Oh right! Because they were Bad Guys it’s OK! Still a civilised nation! Sure, you can cut off their foot in about 30 seconds with a decent bone saw. So that can’t count either!

    I’d like to see Mr Goldberg take a minute of intense waterboarding. See how he likes that. And, while we’re at it, let’s see if you would describe the public outrage as “hysterics” once it’s been done on you!

    Wtf with the quotes around waterboarding, too.

  5. There are apparently many different versions of waterboarding. The video I saw of a reporter being waterboarded did not involve water actually being forced into his body. The Japanese version described here sounds like water was actually forced into their body and they were beaten. This could very easily be fatal. The techniques demonstrated on the reporter were much safer as water was kept from actually entering the body.

    None of it is good, but the term “waterboarding” is being used to describe such a broad range of techniques that it is in danger of becoming meaningless.

    Just like the term “torture” is being used to describe anything from cutting off fingers to adjusting the thermostat in prison cells.

  6. The Philippine-American war is remarkable for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that practically no one in this country has ever heard of it.

    The article on wikipedia at is full of horrific detail:

    “…buried alive, or worse, up to their necks in anthills to be slowly devoured”

    “…deliberately infected with leprosy before being released…”

    “…510,000 civilian deaths…”

  7. I’m sorry, Inasne, but sourcing National Review? Not exactly the most neutral source. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of “source” that would claim to deliver the “facts,” as you say.

    No spin zone, anyone?

    This is the only quote you need from the article,

    “The reason these facts are important is simple. For several years, human rights groups, the media, and partisan opponents of the Bush administration and the war on terror have tried to portray the U.S. as a “torture state” that has completely abdicated its decency, its principles, and even its soul under the leadership of a president who believes in an ominous-sounding “unitary executive” branch. We’ve been barreling down a “slippery slope,” making America indistinguishable from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.”

    The author succumbed to Godwin’s law within the first 500 words of his article, faster than the comments sections on any given Digg post.

  8. Regarding Insane Husayn’s link, an article by Jonah Goldberg at the National Review, I’d like to point out some of the more dubious quotes:

    “But I do not weep that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed spent somewhere between .03 and .06 seconds feeling like he was drowning for every person he allegedly helped murder on 9/11.”

    Word to note in that sentence: allegedly.

    “It’s not a technique that should be used for punishment.”

    Ok, that’s the Scalia argument. That somehow torture is ok if it isn’t used as punishment. That it’s ok for interrogations.

    Have Scalia or Goldberg ever read the Constitution? There’s that whole innocent until proven guilty, due process of law thing.

    Do Scalia and Goldberg really think that the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t extend to cruel and unusual interrogations?

    I think the founding fathers probably assumed that since we were treating suspects as the presumed innocent until their trial by peers, it would go without saying that we wouldn’t be cruel or unusually punitive to a presumed innocent human.

    Now before the local Neo Con goes off on me: No, I don’t think our soldiers should have to stop and hold a trial before they shoot back at bad guys.

    However, kidnapping an intelligence target from their home country, flying them to another country, and torturing them… maybe before we even know if we’ve got the right guy.

    To me that *does* seem like a slippery slope, even if Jonah Goldberg doesn’t think so.

  9. #5:

    I’m more than weary of the hysterics surrounding “waterboarding” by U.S. interrogators. See the article at…

    So morality can now be measured in seconds?

    Because a gunshot is pretty damn quick. If you look at it that way, war isn’t such a big deal.

  10. Torture is terror. You can’t fight terror and be terror at the same time. And yet there’s all this discussion as if it all hasn’t been sorted out yet. There are no letters big enough to express the spirit of my WTF!

  11. @9…Jonah’s article is stupid, but he didn’t succumb to Godwin’s law…rather he’s claiming that critics of the Bush administration are reduce to that style of argument.

    @10, in contrast, provides a reasonable objection to Goldberg’s argument. Goldberg is essentially arguing that torture is okay as long as it only last for brief periods of time and is only done to Bad Guys(TM).

    Goldberg is also rightly pointing out that torture has had bipartisan support.

    He also glosses entirely over the effectiveness of waterboarding in producing reliable confessions. The evidence strongly suggests that waterboarding is so traumatic that people will confess to anything. See, for example, this ABC News report and the section about Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi’s false confessions after being tortured by the CIA that had a direct impact on US actions in Iraq:

    So we violate international law, provide an affront to human decency, and provide a tacit assent to torture by other regimes, all in order to extract information from suspects which the very nature of the interrogation makes it highly likely to be fabricated.

  12. Jonah Goldberg is the stupidest fucking man in America. This is the man who argues that liberals are really fascists. That Mussolini, who invented fascism and coined the word, was a liberal. That Hitler was a vegetarian, liberals are often vegetarians therefore Hitler was a liberal.

    He is just another self-hating closeted homosexual wingnut who, if it wasn’t for his mother’s trust fund would be asking you “You want fries with that?”

  13. Wow this is totally freaking me out. I just came out of history class 20 minutes ago and we just saw a video about this with this exact picture.

  14. Takuan:

    America killed three million in bringing civilization to our little brown brothers.

    Famously, the Marines upgraded their sidearms to 45 caliber because the little 22’s didn’t knock down the determined terrorists, um, insurgents.

    Our President decided to undertake the conquest after we defeated the Spaniards there. The Filipinos were distrustful of our intentions, as were the Cubans, and were proven right as we Brought Capitalism and Civilization to their world, now our world. Our elected Freedomizer decided we owed our “little brown brothers” the fruits of civilization. So we drowned them and shot them until they were free. They were by then, as I said, down three million young men.

    I believe I learned all that from Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Nation”. The good news was that the President in question was assassinated, I seem to recall. Sigh. She’s Violet Parr and a genius writer. My kind of woman. Call me.

  15. I don’t care what your argument is. If you say it’s okay for America to torture, I feel the need to put your head in a vice and slowly turn the crank until you pop like a melon.

    Oh, call me a hypocrite. Okay. I can live with these feelings. Can you live with a government that actually puts feelings of vengeance into practice, and pretends it’s all for the good of its citizens?

  16. Conservatives cannot logically claim torture is OK and at the same time that the US is a “Christian nation.”

    Unless of course, we only use crucifixion as the preferred means of torture.

    Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.

  17. If you say it’s okay for America to torture, I feel the need to put your head in a vice and slowly turn the crank until you pop like a melon. Oh, call me a hypocrite.

    More likely an INFJ than a hypocrite.

  18. To save time, I cross posted from, and combined two posts…

    I have been waterboarded, as a student at the US Navy’s SERE school in Warner Springs, California.

    Although I suffered no lasting effects, and I was fine within 30 seconds of it ending, part of that recovery stems from the fact that I knew it was a training exercise and that they wouldn’t let me die.

    Despite that foreknowledge, the experience was, for me at least, VERY panic inducing. Some people handled it worse and caved more quickly than I did, and some people handled it a lot better. Being led to believe it was going to happen a second time was even worse than waiting for it the first time.

    Whether it can be considered torture or not is up for debate, and it’s really dependent on the mental strength of the victim. For some, it’s torture, and for others, it’s not.

    I still believe it should not be employed in a real-world scenario. It was applied to us (probably in a slightly “watered down” form — pun intended) in order to show us what could potentially happen if we were captured by potential enemies.

    I believe it was a useful instructional tool, but I don’t believe it’s a useful interrogation tool, and I certainly don’t believe it buys our country any international credibility, considering the humanitarian image we’re trying to portray to the rest of the world.


    Waterboarding is as effective as any other similar level of coercion — you may get true intelligence, or you may get lies. In my case, I finally gave up my Social Security number and maybe another couple of bits of useless information, but it took about five minutes (not long in the overall picture) and I believe three “doses” before that.

    It’s true that waterboarding is (or, more accurately, can be) safe. And as EW-3 said, “to consider waterboarding torture is to not know what real torture is.” I’d rather be waterboarded than have my nails pulled out any day.

    My biggest objection to waterboarding isn’t so much what the captives are experiencing (if they’re truly guilty, and there are plenty of doubts about the guilt of some of them in the current situation), but what world opinion has to say. I know there are a lot of people that will bash me for worrying about that, but the US really is in a position of world leadership, whether we like it or not, and we need to set the example for other countries to (hopefully) follow. It’s our responsibility as a nation.

    It was drilled into me in my training that we wouldn’t subject our prisoners to that sort of treatment, primarily so that our example would to better treatment of our military members who had been captured.

    The questionable value of torture along with our tarnished reputation convince me that torture, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t the right thing.

  19. #4, i dont think “once in a lifetime” applies to this story. if anything, “born under punches” contains more unnecessesary waterboarding references.

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