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The saga of the Balangiga bells

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One of the most – if not the most – atrocious massacreS committed against Filipinos occurred in Eastern Samar during the Philippine-American War.  The order was to “kill and burn” the Filipinos insurgents and burn the town to serve as punishment for what the American forces suffered at the hands of Filipino revolutionaries earlier.

 It all began on August 11, 1901, with the arrival of Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment in the coastal town of Balangiga.  The purpose of the Americans’ deployment to Samar was to close its port and prevent supplies from reaching the Philippine revolutionaries under the command of General Vicente Lukban, who served under Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo while at war with the U.S.

 Consequently, U.S. Brig. Gen. Robert P. Hughes, commander of the Department of the Visayas, instigated an aggressive policy of food deprivation and property destruction on the island of Samar and the closure of key ports, which included Balangiga.  Hughes’ objective was to force the end of Filipino resistance.  

 Relations between the American soldiers and the townspeople were amicable for the first month of the American presence.   It was marked by extensive fraternization between the two parties. This took the form of “tuba” (a local concoction) drinking among the Americans and the villagers.  The Americans taught the villagers how to play baseball, while the villagers taught the Americans the martial art of “arnis.”

 Balangiga massacre

 On September 21, 1901, an incident occurred that broke the friendly relationship between the Americans and the townspeople.  As the story goes, a Filipino girl named Catalina was selling tuba in her family’s tuba store when two American troopers who had been drinking tuba tried to make some advances on the girl. Catalina shouted for help.  Her brother and some friends came to her rescue and a brawl started.  The two troopers ran to their barracks.  Their commander, Capt. Tomas Connell ordered his troops to round up all the men in the town and detain them.  

 A few days later, Valeriano Abanador, the town’s police chief, met with Captain Eugenio Daza of Lukban’s revolutionaries, to plan a coordinated attack on the Americans. 

 In his research of the Balangiga Massacre, filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz, said: “Reinforcements were covertly slipped into town, under the guise of workers who were helping to prepare for a fiesta. The Americans were fed and given tuba to ensure that they would be drunk. The women were evacuated and replaced by men dressed in women’s clothes. They hid their bolos and other weapons in small coffins, passed off as the coffins of children who were victims of a cholera epidemic. Everything was ready.”  

 At around 6:45 in the morning of September 28, Lukban’s revolutionaries, who numbered around 400, ambushed the American troops.  The Balangiga bells were used as a signal for the Filipino revolutionaries when to attack the U.S. barracks.  Disguised as laborers, they surprised the Americans who were eating breakfast.    

 The townspeople and revolutionaries killed 48 soldiers, wounded 22 of the 78 men of Company C.  The rest escaped by sea. The Filipinos captured about 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition. The revolutionaries and villagers suffered 28 dead and 22 wounded.  They then abandoned Balangiga for fear of reprisal. 

 Howling wilderness

 And true enough the Americans returned… with vengeance.  U.S. General Jacob H. Smith ordered that Samar be turned into a “Howling Wilderness.”  The bloody operation resulted in the death of more than 2,500 Filipinos.  The Americans then looted the three bells in the church, which they took back to the United States as spoils of war.

 General Smith and his subordinate, Major Littleton Waller, were court-martialed for “illegal vengeance” against the civilian population of Samar.  Waller was acquitted while Smith was found guilty, admonished, and retired from service.  However, the charges against Smith were dropped later.  He was later hailed as a “war hero.”

 But a soldier who participated in the massacre described his testimony: “The major said that General Smith instructed him to kill and burn, and said that the more he killed and burned the better pleased he would be; that it was no time to take prisoners, and that he was to make Samar a howling wilderness. Major Waller asked General Smith to define the age limit for killing, and he replied ‘everyone over ten.’”

 War trophies

 The three bells were brought to the U.S. as war trophies.  Today, they’re displayed in two places.  One bell is in the possession of the 9th Infantry Regiment at their base in Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.  The other two are displayed on a former base of the 11th Infantry Regiment at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  

 The return of the bells is one of the most contentious issues and irritants in US-Philippines relations.  The Philippine government’s demands for the return of the bells fell on deaf ears.  After decades of attempts to get them back, the bells continue to wander in the “howling wilderness” in the minds of Filipinos.  

 In 1994, then President Fidel V. Ramos initiated attempts to recover the bells during the time of U.S. President Bill Clinton.   The U.S. government replied that since the bells were U.S. government property, it would take an act of Congress to return them.  Further attempts were made in 2002, 2005, 2006, and 2007. 

 A century of denial

 For more than a century after the heinous massacre in Balangiga, America stood pat on her stand that the Balangiga belongs to her, to be displayed as trophies of war. But to the Filipinos, it was a grim memory of how their ancestors fought mighty America with their bolos.  It left a lasting reminder of their ancestors’ willingness and readiness to die for freedom and independence. 

 In the past few years, memories of the Balangiga bells began to ring again… louder.  Their tolls are heard again in the psyche of the Filipinos — “We want the bells back!”  The least the Americans could have done was to return one or two of the three bells.  But many Filipinos, proud as ever, wouldn’t settle for that, it’s “all or nothing.”  And “nothing” it was.  The U.S. simply wouldn’t budge. 

 In 2014, interest in the Balangiga bells was renewed when then President Barack Obama visited the Philippines.  More than 3,000 signed an online petitioner urging the U.S. to return the bells.   But there was no response.

On July 24, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his State of the Nation Address (SONA) that was quite different from past SONAs.  He told the U.S. to return the iconic Balangiga bells.  “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage,” he said in the presence of U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim who showed no reaction.

 The return of the bells

 The following year, on August 10, 2018, a breakthrough happened!  A prominent Eastern Visayas historian, Rolando Borrinaga announced a message he received from Bellevue, Nebraska Mayor Rita Gomez Sanders, who told him about the supposed announcement from US Defense Secretary James Mattis.  “Good news today!” she said, “The Secretary of Defense announced the return of the Bells!  Keep you posted for announcements, etc!  I am so happy for you!” Mayor Sanders is Filipino-American.  Borrinaga said that Sanders got the information from Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, who got the information from Mattis. In his Facebook account, Borrinaga noted that August 10 was the fiesta of San Lorenzo de Martyr, the patron saint of Balangiga.  “The final clincher is the recommendation of the Secretary of Defense to the President for the bells to be returned,” he said. “The final push was brought about by the concerted efforts of U.S. veterans working for goodwill and understanding between both countries.”

 The following day, August 11, it became official. The U.S. Embassy in Manila confirmed the intention of the U.S. Department of Defense to return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.  The embassy also said that Defense Secretary Mattis has notified the U.S. Congress of their intention to return the bells, which was necessary to get the concurrence of the U.S. Congress as provided for in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act for 2018.   However, several U.S. lawmakers — Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, Sen. Mike Enzi, and Sen. John Barraso — expressed “strong disapproval” of the plan.  They are expected to oppose the return of the bells.

 But the Philippine Department of National Defense (DND) looks at it differently.  In a statement issued by the DND, it said: “We call on the American people not to allow the bells to serve as trophies for atrocities that were committed by both sides on Philippine soil a very long time ago. “The return of the Balangiga Bells will be a strong indicator of the sincerity of the Americans in forging a lasting relationship with the Filipino people and truly symbolic of what their government has referred to in the past as an ironclad alliance between our two countries.”  The DND also reminded its American counterparts of the time both countries fought side-by-side during World War II and its current work fighting terrorism today.

 The saga of the Balangiga bells is an epic story that has defined Filipino nationalism and heroism.  For 117 years, the bells traveled from a town ravaged by war to the other side of the world where they were displayed as war trophies.  “Return the Balangiga!” became the battle cry of generations of Filipinos whose pride have been hurt deeply by the indignity suffered by their forefathers. 

 Now, the bells will soon make their trip back to where they came from, the historic town of Balangiga.  It’s time to rejoice!

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