US confirms plan to return Balangiga bells to Philippines

Janvic Mateo - The Philippine Star
US confirms plan to return Balangiga bells to Philippines
Image from the book ‘History of the Ninth US Infantry, 1799-1909’ by Fred R. Brown shows American soldiers posing with a Balangiga bell in Calbayog, Samar in April 1902.

MANILA, Philippines — Taken as war booty by American soldiers more than a century after they last tolled to signal an attack on their comrades, the Balangiga bells may finally return home.

The United States embassy in Manila yesterday confirmed the intention of the US Defense Department to return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.

Trude Raizen, the embassy’s deputy press attaché, said Defense Secretary James Mattis has notified the US Congress of their intention to return the bells more than a century after they were removed by US soldiers from the church of Balangiga town, Eastern Samar in 1901.

“No specific date has been identified for the return of the bells. We’ve received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve,” Raizen told The STAR.

“We are aware that the Bells of Balangiga have deep significance for a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines,” she added.

The return of the Balangiga bells was among the constant demands of President Duterte from the US government.

On Friday, prominent Eastern Visayas historian Rolando Borrinaga shared initial information about the possible return of the bells.

He cited Bellevue, Nebraska Mayor Rita Gomez Sanders, a Filipino-American, who heard of the news from her district congressman.

Borrinaga said the announcement was apparently made to time with the fiesta of San Lorenzo de Martir in Balangiga last Friday.

Asked why Mattis has to notify the US Congress of their intention, Borrinaga said concurrence of the legislators is necessary as provided for in the US National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018.

“I think the lobbying for the concurrence would not be as ‘bloody’ as the lobbying for inclusion of the provisions to return the bells in the NDAA 2018,” he told The STAR yesterday.

Several US lawmakers are expected to oppose the return of the bells, with some even possibly citing the alleged human rights violations under the Duterte administration as possible justification for keeping the bells.

The ringing of the bells signaled an attack by Filipino guerillas on US troops belonging to the 9th US Infantry Regiment. The attack killed 48 US soldiers, including their commander.

In retaliation, Gen. Jacob Smith ordered troops sent on a punitive mission to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness.” The US soldiers set the town on fire and killed all Filipinos 10 years old and above or those fit enough to carry a rifle, as ordered by Smith. The operation left more than 2,500 Filipinos dead.

One of the bells is currently in the possession of the 9th Infantry Regiment in South Korea, while the other two are in F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

It was in 1994 during the Ramos administration that a request for the return of the bells was first made. No action was taken on Ramos’ request, which was repeated in 1996.

In 2012, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead wrote a letter to then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opposing the return of the bells.

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