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U.S. Returns Balangiga Bells to the Philippines after 117 Years

By Clara Longo de Freitas

The national anthem of the Philippines played, followed by the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the Philippine Chancery Annex. To the left of the panel was the Philippine flag; to the right, the American. It was a fitting backdrop to commemorate the return of three church bells known as the Balangiga bells that were taken by U.S. soldiers as war trophies in 1901 and returned 117 years later as a gesture of U.S.-Philippine friendship.

On Jan. 22, the US-Philippines Society and the Philippine Embassy in D.C. co-hosted a forum on the “Return of the Balangiga Bells: A Historical Perspective and Significance”

“What a wonderful way to close out 2018, “seeing [the Balangiga bells] return to their rightful owners,” US-Philippines Society Executive Director Hank Hendrickson said. “And what a great way to start 2019 by recognizing this important step.”

Balangiga Bells Philippines
From left, US-Philippines Society Executive Director Hank Hendrickson; US-Philippines Society Director Henry Howard; Ambassador of the Philippines Jose Manuel G. Romualdez; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter; and U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Daniel McKinnon Jr. headline the discussion “Return of the Balangiga Bells: A Historical Perspective and Significance.” Photo: Philippine Embassy

The panelists were U.S. Rear Adm. Daniel McKinnon Jr., who talked about the significance of the bells during the Philippine-American war period; US-Philippines Society Director Henry Howard, one of the main actors who spearheaded the repatriation; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joseph Felter; Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel G. Romualdez; and U.S. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who supported the legislation to return the bells.

The bells have a complicated history rooted in America’s occupation of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century and the war that followed, as Filipino nationalists fought for independence from 1899 to 1902. The conflict, which ended in victory for the United States, killed over 4,200 Americans, 20,000 Filipino combatants and an estimated 200,000 Filipino civilians who died from violence, famine and disease.

It was a brutal conflict, according to the State Department, which wrote that, “U.S. forces at times burned villages, implemented civilian re-concentration policies, and employed torture on suspected guerrillas, while Filipino fighters also tortured captured soldiers and terrorized civilians who cooperated with American forces.”

Balangiga Bells Philippines
The three Balangiga bells, seen on display at the Philippine Air Force Aerospace Museum in Pasay, were returned to the Philippines on Dec. 15, 2018, 117 years after U.S. soldiers took them during the Philippine-American War. Photo: By Rhk111 - Own work, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

On the morning of Sept. 28, 1901, the Balangiga bells rang out as a call for a secret attack. A group of Filipino villagers, once they heard the bells toll, invaded the U.S. Army base and killed and wounded more than 50 American soldiers. In retaliation, Gen. Jacob Hurd Smith ordered his soldiers to kill everyone over the age of 10 who was capable of bearing arms. The resulting scorched-earth campaign was among the most gruesome chapters of the war.

“[After the attack,] the soldiers took three bells with them.” McKinnon said “Those are the bells the stories are all about.”

In 1902, one of the bells was given to the 9th Infantry Regiment, at the  American base in South Korea, and the other two were given to the 11th Infantry Regiment at Wyoming. But they remained a sore spot for Filipinos, who saw them as a symbol of national pride and resistance to foreign invasion.

“There were four efforts in the last several years to get them back,” McKinnon said. “President [Fidel] Ramos, followed by President [Gloria Macapagal] Arroyo, followed by President [Benigno] Aquino, and more recently by President [Rodrigo] Duterte.”

Balangiga Bells Philippines
In this photo taken in April 1902 in Samar, Philippines, U.S. soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment pose with one of the Balangiga bells seized as a war trophy.

The US-Philippines Society became involved with the effort to repatriate the Balangiga bells through its director, Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador who now works at Squire Patton Boggs.

Howard said that the US-Philippines Society asked Squire Patton Boggs to do an analysis on the legal impediments under the U.S. law to returning the bells.”

They then discovered that Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, both Republicans from Wyoming, altered an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that allowed the Air Force base to keep the bells. Republicans from Wyoming warned that repatriation could serve as a dangerous precedent for other veterans’ memorials in the U.S.

Language was put into the 2018 NDAA that described the Balangiga bells as veterans’ memorial object, Howard explained. But the US-Philippines Society discovered that the deputy assistant secretary of defense had the power to return the three bells, “provided that it was in the national security interests of the United States, and further provided that the Department of Defense engaged in consultations with veterans’ groups in the United States … to provide for some alternative memorial,” Howard said.

Balangiga Bells Philippines
Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel G. Romualdez shakes hands with Defense Secretary James Mattis during the repatriation of the Balangiga bells. Photo: Philippine Embassy

This new language was incorporated into the NDAA and passed by the House and Senate. “For the first time, there was language that expressly permitted the return of the bells, that expressly provided that the secretary of defense was the decision maker, and nobody else,” Howard said.

The three church bells were returned to the San Lorenzo de Martir Parish Church on Dec. 15, 2018, 117 years after the Philippine-American War. Rep Bacon of Omaha worked closely to rewrite the NDAA. After seeing the ceremony and the emotional response of the Filipinos, Bacon said that the return of the bells was “an answer to prayer… [and] the right thing to do.”

“The long wait is over,” President Duterte said at the ceremony. “The bells are returned. The credit goes to the American people and the Filipino people. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank all the stakeholders who contributed to ensure the return of the Balangiga Bells to the country.”

His gratitude was echoed by Ambassador Romualdez at the D.C. forum.

“We never forget friends. Once you are a friend of ours, you are a friend forever,” he said. “The latest survey indicates that 85 percent of Filipinos trust the United States as an ally. We trust this country will do what is right.”


Clara Longo de Freitas is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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