Go around the rural areas of Davao region and chances are the carabao (Bubalus bubalis carabanesis), a swamp-type animal scientists introduced to the country by Malay immigrants, remains the farmer’s beast of burden.
To protect the animal from decimation and to honor its contribution to Philippine agriculture, then Sen. Joseph E. Estrada authored Republic Act 7307, the Philippine Carabao Law, the only piece of legislation he passed as a legislator.
But the most significant credit bestowed on the animal took place in 1900 when a handful of American army officers met at the iconic Army and Navy Club in Manila to form the Military Order of the Carabao “to satirize the pompous and pretentious Military Order of the Dragon” which was created by the veterans of the Boxing Rebellion in China.
Col. Joseph M. Heller, in an article he wrote for the Philippines magazine (Vol. 1, No. 3, 1941) titled ‘Meet the Order of the Carabao,’ said the organization, which later became popular in Washington, was originally meant to be a joke but it later became an illustrious society that included every chief of staff since 1900, most corps and division commanders of the US forces in World War I, the High Command of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and even the Secretary of the Navy.
By 1941, the Order, which conferred the rank of Veteran Carabaos to its members, was open to “any person who shall have honorably served in the Philippine Islands between May 1, 1898 and July 4, 1913, both dates inclusive, or who participated in any campaign or expedition in the Philippines for which a campaign medal is authorized by the War Department.”
The Order had two categories. The first included the “commissioned officer of the United States Regular or Volunteer Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, or as a Naval Cadet or Midshipman, or as Acting Assistant Surgeon, Contract Surgeon, Dental Surgeon, or any person who so served as an enlisted man in the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coat Guard, or Public Health Service, and subsequently received a commission for appointment in any of the above named classes.”
The second category, meanwhile, known as the Compañero Carabao, “includes men who served in the [Philippine] Islands after July 4, 1913, Sons of Veteran, Compañero, or Associate Carabaos, [who] are eligible for membership as Ternero (calf) Carabaos.”
Honorary membership is also conferred on the US President and the US envoys to the Philippines. By 1940, the total membership of the Order in the country already totaled 991!
Interestingly, the Order carries unique positions for its set of officers, among them the Grand Paramount Carabao (national commander), Grand Patriarch of the Herd (1st vice-commander), Bell Carabao (2nd vice-command), Grand Councillor of the Herd (3rd vice-commander), Grand Jefe de los Baños (4th vice-commander), Grand Commander de los Bebidos (5th vice-commander), and Grande Jepe de los Cargadores (6th vice-commander).
In Spanish, baños means ‘bathrooms,’ bebidos is ‘drunk,’ and cargadores, chargers or carriers.
There were also subsidiary ranks such as Main Guard, Winder of the Horn, Carretonero (‘bogie’ in English), Camboling Carabao, Veterinario, Jefe de la Cuadra (literally, chief of the stable), Director de Fiesta, and Grand Lead & Wheel Carabao (secretary-treasurer).
Annually, since its establishment, the Order holds its Wallows, an assembly in Washington where the Main Corral is situated. To this day, the group remains active and accepts eligible members, regardless of military service, for US$50 annual dues.
Col. Heller added the Order also “recognizes the serious nature of national defense, past and present” such that the annual Wallows became a gridiron that, in 1913, drew “a stinging official rebuke from the White House.”
More notably, the choice of the carabao as organizational icon was due to its contributions to the war effort, especially when “conscripted to drag artillery and supply wagons over jungle trails,” earning for it the tribute as “the most useful and damned animal in the Philippines.”
Among the early American prewar pillars of the Order who were assigned in the Philippines were military governor of Mindanao and Sulu General John J. Pershing, US Army Officer Brigadier General A. Owen Seaman, US Navy commander Rear Admiral Walton R. Sexton, US Marine commander Major General Thomas Holcomb, and the military governors of Davao.
In recent times, according to the Wikipedia, the roster of distinguished members include US former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard B. Myers, former CIA director and defense secretary James Schlesinger, Congressman Ike Skelton, Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge, NASA director Sean O’Keefe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace, General P. X. Kelley, General Alfred M. Gray, Jr., former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Admiral James M. Loy, General Jack N. Merritt, General Billy Mitchell and General Carl Mundy.
Historically, there’s also a local version of the award, known simply as the “Order of the Carabao.” On May 6, 1957, the Philippine Rural Action for National Regeneration bestowed on President Carlos Garcia the award “in recognition of his contributions to the uplift of the rural areas” and “symbolic of the backbone of the nation.” On that same day, a similar award was given posthumously to President Magsaysay through his daughter Milagros.