US, Philippines to Hold Handover Ceremony for Balangiga Bells

Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
181113-PH-bells-1000.jpg Two of the Balangiga bells, which were taken by American soldiers from a church in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War in 1901, are pictured at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Sept. 28, 2001.

The United States this week will begin the process of handing back to Manila three church bells that American soldiers stole as war booty in the central Philippines more than a century ago, officials from both governments said Tuesday.

The Philippine ambassador to Washington said he would join U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at a ceremony at an air force base near Cheyenne, Wyo. for the handover of the so-called Balangiga bells. Their 117-year absence from Philippine soil has been a thorny issue in bilateral relations between the two longtime allies.

“I will be going to Wyoming with Defense Secretary James Mattis for the formal turnover of the bells at Warren Air Base,” Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez, said Tuesday.

Separately, the Pentagon issued a statement saying that Mattis was scheduled to travel on Wednesday to the air base in Wyoming to attend “a ceremony marking the beginning of the process to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines.”

In August, the U.S. Defense Department (DoD) informed Congress that it intended to return the bells to the Philippines. American forces took them from a church in the town of Balangiga, in what is now Samar province, as trophies during the Philippine-American War in 1901.

DoD’s move three months ago followed the signing of the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act in 2018, which authorized the defense secretary to return the bells to the Philippines.

In Manila, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo welcomed the latest development but withheld further comment until the church bells were brought back home.

“We welcome any movement towards the return of the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines. In the words of the President himself, ‘It ain’t here until it’s here,’” Panelo said.

“[W]e are withholding any further comment on the matter until the last bell has been properly delivered to the country,” he added.

‘No more obstacle’

Filipino historian Rolando Borrinaga, who has devoted much of his professional life fighting for the return of the bells, welcomed the news and said this was made largely through a “veterans to veterans effort.”

“There is no more obstacle for the return of our bells,” he told BenarNews. “The bells will first be refurbished and shipped so we still don’t have the exact details of their return.”

Two of the bells ended up at Warren air base and the third one wound up at Camp Red Cloud, a U.S. military installation in South Korea that was deactivated earlier this year, according to reports. On Tuesday, the whereabouts of the third bell were unclear.

After the bells arrive they will be placed in a memorial erected in Balangiga, an impoverished town on Samar island, Borrinaga said.

The bells were seized by American forces under the command of Jacob H. Smith, who ordered his troops to turn Balangiga into a “howling wilderness,” saying they could kill any able-bodied Filipino males above 10 years old. The violence was carried out as revenge for a surprise attack by Philippine forces that left nearly 50 American military personnel dead earlier in 1901.

President Rodrigo Duterte, the modern-day Philippine populist leader, has lobbied hard for the return of the bells since winning the presidency two years ago. He has signaled a policy of less dependence on the U.S., its traditional military ally, and a shift towards China and Russia.

“The church bells of Balangiga were seized by the Americans as spoils of war,” Duterte said in his annual address to Congress in 2017.

He also warned of kicking out all American troops serving as consultants at Philippine bases, but later softened his tone after U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he considers a “good friend,” took office in early 2017.

Duterte raised the issue of the Bells of Balangiga with Trump when the two leaders met in Manila last year.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.