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Palace renews call for US to return bells

Malacañang renewed its call for the United States to return the bells seized by American troops in 1901 as the nation commemorated the 116th anniversary of the Balangiga massacre yesterday. File

MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang renewed its call for the United States to return the bells seized by American troops in 1901 as the nation commemorated the 116th anniversary of the Balangiga massacre yesterday. 

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the bells – taken by the US forces as war booty – are important to the Philippines’ heritage and collective memory. 

Two US veterans, however, said the bells were not taken by the Americans as war booty in 1901 but merely to prevent the Filipinos from melting and converting the bronze bells into weapons. 

The two – Dennis Wright and Dan McKinnon – have been working for the return of the bells to the Philippines.

In a press briefing, Abella reiterated the call for the “rightful return of the bells to the country,” noting that “the Balangiga bells are integral to our national heritage and the return of these historical relics is crucial to our collective memory and sense of nationhood.”

Malacañang also welcomed the approval of House Resolution 1337 expressing support for President Duterte’s appeal to the US government to return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.  

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A total of 48 American servicemen were killed by Filipino guerrillas in what is now known as the Balangiga massacre. 

The US military retaliated by ordering the killing of all Filipino males who can bear arms and transforming Samar into a “howling wilderness.” 

American soldiers also seized three church bells in Balangiga as war trophies based on accounts. Two of the bells are now in a US military base in Cheyenne, Wyoming while one is displayed at a museum in South Korea.

US Ambassador Sung Kim said his country wants a resolution on the Balangiga bells because it acknowledges their importance to the Philippines.  

Not spoils of war

But Wright and McKinnon, both retired US soldiers, said there are historical bases to dispute the claim of the government and Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone that the three church bells were taken by the Americans as “spoils of war” in 1901.

Wright, now president of Peregrine International in Clark Freeport, Pampanga, and McKinnon have been negotiating for the return of two of the Balangiga bells.

Some sectors in the US regard the bells as a tribute to American soldiers who died in the Filipino-American War and are against their return to the Philippines.

The three bells used to hang in the belfry of the church of San Lorenzo de Martir in Balangiga, Samar, but were carted off by the Americans after the Balangiga massacre.

Wright and McKinnon recently went to Warren air base in Wyoming where they saw for themselves the two Balangiga bells in their effort to have them brought back to the Philippines.

Wright provided The STAR with McKinnon’s 91-page research titled “The Bells of Balangiga” indicating that the bells were not taken as spoils of war.

In his study, McKinnon said that when men of the 11th Infantry left Balangiga on Oct. 18, 1901 for Tacloban, they did not take the three bronze church bells as souvenirs or for the purpose of the often misused phrase “war booty” – they just took the bells away from the enemy side because they were supposed to.

McKinnon noted “the foundries of the Philippines had a history of turning bells into weapons, especially ‘lantakas,’ the cannon of the islands of the archipelago, and weapons into bells.”

“During the insurrections against the Spanish, churches would be forced to, or sometimes voluntarily, give up bronze bells to be melted down for weapons,” he added.

McKinnon also noted that “(Emilio) Aguinaldo commended the skills of a comrade who could melt bells into guns and bayonets.” Aguinaldo was a Filipino revolutionary who became the first Philippine president.

In an email to The STAR, Wright said he and other Americans from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2485 have issued a resolution approved by VFW Department of Pacific Areas seeking the return of the Balangiga bells.

Wright also showed letters written by his compatriots to various US authorities seeking the return of the bells. 

One letter was from lawyer Stan Hathaway dated March 13, 1998 and addressed to former Wyoming senator Craig Thomas.

Hathaway appealed to the senator to return the bells to the Philippines “so that we can improve the friendship with the Philippines which was once a protectorate of the United States and help them celebrate their 100th birthday as a free nation.” 

The Philippine independence centennial was in 1998. 

Even before Duterte’s State of the Nation Address last July, yet another letter from Samantha Hoffman of Traverse City, Michigan was sent to Sen. Gary Peters in Washington. She identified herself as a cousin of Private Robert Booth who was part of the US military in the Philippines in 1901. 

Hoffman noted that “Wyoming has fought to keep these bells despite having no relationship to them nor to the Balangiga encounter.”

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