Return of bells signals strong U.S.-Philippine alliance

Return of bells signals strong U.S.-Philippine alliance

Joseph Hammond

In a show of respect between two former combatants, the United States returned three ornate church bells to the small Philippine town of Balangiga, 117 years after U.S. Soldiers took them out of the country as a war prize.

Tearful residents and children waving bell-shaped signs heralded the return of the bells in a ceremony on December 15, 2018, according to an Agence France-Presse report. “Nobody, but nobody, can claim a singular credit for the generous act of the Americans,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said after ringing one of the bells before a crowd of thousands. “The bells are returned. The credit goes to the American people and to the Filipino people — period.”

The bells controversy dates back to a pivotal moment in the Philippine-American War. On September 28, 1901, townspeople of Balangiga — possibly augmented by guerrilla fighters — launched a surprise assault on U.S. Soldiers, killing 48 Americans. During the battle, church bells rang out to rally the Filipinos and to inflict psychological damage on the U.S. Soldiers.

Filipino forces briefly held the village before the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment reoccupied it. The U.S. 11th Infantry Regiment later removed the bells from Balangiga.

The Philippine government and the Catholic Church have lobbied for the bells’ return since the 1950s. In his 2017 State of the Union Address, Duterte specifically called for the return of the bells. Their repatriation was long delayed, however, by U.S. lawmakers who considered the bells tributes to fallen Soldiers.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis strongly supported their return in a manner befitting the dignity of the situation. The U.S. funded restoration of the bells before returning them to the Philippines. “We return these bells with consideration of our present, but also with the utmost respect of our past, one of shared sacrifice as co-equal brothers in arms,” Mattis said at a ceremony earlier in 2018 in Wyoming.

Before their return, two of the bells were displayed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the base of the 11th Infantry Regiment, while the third bell was displayed by the 9th Infantry Regiment in South Korea at Camp Red Cloud. (Pictured: Balangiga residents touch one of the church bells after a ceremony marking their return.)

The Philippine-American War from February 1899 to July 1902 left as many as 6,000 American and 16,000 Filipino Soldiers dead. Civilian casualties were estimated as high as 1 million, although exact numbers remain in dispute.

“It was a dark chapter in the shared history of our peoples, which should never be allowed to happen again,” Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said when the possible return of the bells was announced. “Let us not forget, however, that the time came when we set aside our differences and fought side by side against a common enemy in World War II. Currently, we are again working together to fight terrorism.” 

Joseph Hammond is a FORUMcontributor based in London. He recently returned from a reporting trip in the Indo-Pacific region.