Home after a century: The Balangiga Bells’ journey to the Philippines

December 11, 2018 - 11:17 AM
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Spirit of MacArthur
Like General Douglas MacArthur who quipped the famous words "I shall return," the Balangiga Bells return home on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Pictured is the US Air Force aircraft carrying the bells that arrived at the Villamor Air Base.

The Balangiga Church Bells taken by American forces during the Philippine-American War are back the Philippines, much to the relief of Filipinos who long sought for their return.

A US military plane carrying the bells taken as war booty from Balangiga, Samar in 1901 touched down at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City on Tuesday morning.

Balangiga Church Bells
US. soldiers of Company C, 9th Infantry Regiment who survived a Filipino ambush in 1901 pose with a church bell used to signal the attack. The young boy, named Francesco, accompanied the men back to New York. Taken from History of the Ninth US. Infantry, 1799–1909 (Wikicommons/public domain)

United States Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim in a statement said that returning that bells was the right thing to do, on account of the Philippines and US’ alliance that followed the war.

“This decision to return the bells is consistent with our values and overwhelmingly viewed as the right thing to do,” he wrote.

US Defense Secretary James Matthis at the send-off ceremony for the bells, which were kept in Wyoming, in November 2018 said that the move could repair ties between the Philippines and US.

“In returning the Bells of Balangiga to our ally and our friend—the Philippines—we pick up our generation’s responsibility to deepen the respect between our peoples,” he said.

Comedian Joey de Leon quipped about the bells’ prolonged stay abroad.

Some Filipinos argued that the bells actually represent Filipinos’ resistance against colonial rule.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier announced that President Rodrigo Duterte would be absent from the turnover ceremony upon the bells’ arrival but said he did not know the reason for the chief executive’s absence.

Duterte has a well-known antipathy toward the United States, having expressed it several time in his speeches. Observers noted that his attitude has translated to the Philippines’ foreign policy pivot toward China despite the two countries’ rough relationship over the South China Sea.

Home after a century

The Balangiga Bells have remained a grim reminder of one of the most brutal parts of the Philippine-American War: the Balangiga Massacre in 1901, where Gen. Jacob H. Smith ordered US troops to kill all persons above the age of ten in the Samar town in retaliation for a previous attack by Filipinos.

His order to “turn the interior of Samar into a howling wilderness” gained notoriety over the years. He received criticism in the US but was never jailed for the order.

Plans to return the bells were confirmed by the US and Philippine governments in August 2018, raising hopes in ending decades of clamor from Filipinos.

According to historian Ronald Borrinaga, public awareness about the existence of the bells grew in 1957 when historian-priest Horacio de la Costa wrote to Chip Wards, Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California to request for the return of the bells which were taken as war booty during the fighting in Balangiga. A group of Franciscan priests later issued the same request.

Similar requests from independent groups and public officials alike all resulted in futility.

A bill filed in the US congress titled “A Veterans Memorial Physical Integrity Act of 1998” which prohibited the return of US veterans’ war memorial objects with an exemption made through legislation dimmed hopes for the bells’ return.

Filipino historian Xiao Chua recently wrote about how American citizen Jean Wall, the daughter of a Philippine-American war veteran who fought in Samar , wrote to the administration of former US president George Bush Jr. to return the bells.

Wall worked with Borrinaga and the Balangiga Research Group on lobbying for the return of the bells. The group’s effort led to a vote by the Wyoming Veterans Commission on the possible return of the Balangiga Bells. Although the body voted 7-4 to return the bells, the move was eventually barred due to the law against returning veterans’ memorials.

In his 2017 State of the Nation Address, the Philippines’ Duterte motioned to US Ambassador Kim that the US should return the bells.

The necessary legislation was passed when the US’ National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 allowed the transfer provided that “the transfer is in the national security interests of the United States.”