Mattis calls for return of church bells taken from Philippines in colonial fight
Church bells seized by American troops during the Philippine-American war more than a century ago could soon be on their way back to their home country.
“Secretary of Defense (Jim) Mattis has notified Congress that the Department of Defense intends to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines,” Molly Koscina, a press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, told Stars and Stripes.
The bells were said to have rung on Sept. 28, 1902, to signal a surprise attack by Filipino rebels against soldiers of 9th Infantry Regiment, which left 48 Americans dead.
The Philippine government has long insisted on return of the bells, which belonged to the Roman Catholic church in the town of Balangiga. But some veterans and Wyoming’s members of Congress are against the move, seeing them as a memorial to U.S. troops.
In a statement last November, those groups declared that they “strongly oppose any efforts to deconstruct or disturb this veteran’s memorial that honors America’s fallen soldiers.”
U.S. troops brought two of the bells back to their base in Fort Russell, Wyo. This was later renamed F.E. Warren Air Force Base, and the bells remain there in an arched brick wall.
A third, smaller bell, which was also taken to the United States, is now at the 2nd Infantry Division Museum at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
No date has been chosen for the return of the bells, but the announcement came after years of lobbying from some American veterans and Filipino activists. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly called for their return, and the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 allows for their transfer to the Philippines if Congress does not object.
In the Philippine-American War, which began Feb. 4, 1898, and ended on July 4, 1902, 4,165 U.S. troops were killed and 200,000-600,000 Filipinos died.
After the deaths of 48 troops in the ambush at Balangiga, U.S. troops returned to the area and bombarded the town with cannon fire. U.S. General Jacob Smith then infamously ordered his troops to kill any male in the region over the age of 10 and turn the area into a “howling wilderness.”
Over the years, the bells assumed emotional significance in the Philippines, and in 1994, Manila first began insisting that the bells be returned. It has repeated the demand many times since. Although the two countries have traditionally been close allies, Washington sought to skirt the issue in the past because of opposition from some vets.
Eric Burke, a historian who served as the regiment’s guidon bearer, said the bells represent fallen American dead, even if the war they died in was messy and in some parts dishonorable. “These men, regardless of the individual causes that brought them to that war, were Americans,” Burke told Stars and Stripes. “Their sacrifice is still an American sacrifice, and thus is also symbolic of all American soldiers who have fallen throughout the history of this country. Hence why the whole thing is such a tangled mess symbolically.”
Some Filipino-American veterans welcomed the Defense Department move.
“I think the return of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines heals the animosity and hatred both nations share during the early days of occupation,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Nonie Cabana of San Antonio. “It shows America’s inclination to err on the side of human decency and humanity.”
The current offer returns the bells to the Catholic church. Advocates for the return believe this is a shrewd maneuver legally and politically.
“By returning the bells to the Catholic Church, the decision (softens) any attempt by the U.S. Congress to block the return,” said Bob Couttie, a historian who wrote an account of the Battle of Balangiga.