The United States has formally turned over three bells that American soldiers seized as war booty from a central Philippine church more than a century ago, closing a bitter chapter in shared history between the two allies.
Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez received the bells during a ceremony attended by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at an Air Force base in Wyoming on Wednesday (U.S. Mountain Time).
“In returning the bells of Balangiga to our ally and friend, the Philippines, we pick up our generation’s responsibility to deepen the respect between our two people,” Mattis said in a statement.
“Ambassador, bear these bells home, back to their Catholic Church, confident that America’s ironclad alliance with the Philippines is stronger than ever,” he said during the ceremony at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, near Cheyenne, Wyo.
The bells were taken in 1901 by U.S. troops commanded by Gen. Jacob H. Smith, who ordered the sacking of the central town of Balangiga, in retaliation for an attack by Filipino guerrillas that left nearly 50 American soldiers dead. Smith ordered the troops to turn Balangiga into a “howling wilderness” and he instructed soldiers to kill any Filipino males 10 and older who could carry a weapon.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016, had used the brutal incident to challenge the U.S. government after officials expressed alarm over his administration’s war on drugs that has left thousands dead.
During his annual address before Congress in 2017, Duterte called for the return of the bells. Previous administrations had ignored earlier calls to return the bells, but he raised the issue with U.S. President Donald Trump when they met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Manila.
Ambassador Romualdez said the bells represented the long history between the two allies, stressing their return “brings to a close the part of our history in the Filipino-American war in the 1900s.”
“The secretary just simply said in not so many words, ‘Ambassador, these bells are now officially going to return to the Philippines,’” Romualdez said of Mattis.
The ambassador said the bells would be restored in Philadelphia before being sent to South Korea, where the third Balangiga bell has been kept at a U.S. military museum.
“We should expect all three bells of Balangiga to be back in the Philippines by the end of the year,” Romualdez said.
Rebels: ‘False gesture’
Communist rebels who have been battling the Philippine government for nearly half a century, said Thursday that the return of the Bells of Balangiga was nothing more than deceit because there was no formal apology from the United States.
“It is grievously hypocritical for the U.S. to return the Balangiga bells without a modicum of apology,” the Communist Party of the Philippines said.
“To return the bells as supposed ‘symbols of peace’ aim only to placate the Filipino people. It will serve as a false gesture of ‘friendship and alliance’ to obscure the fact that the Philippines remains an American semi-colony and continues to suffer from U.S. economic domination and policy dictates, political interference and military interventionism,” the party said.
Karl Romano and Luis Liwanag in Manila contributed to this report.