AT his second State of the Nation Address on July 24, President Rodrigo Duterte demanded from the U.S. government the return of the Balangiga bells. “That’s why I say today—give us back those Balangiga bells. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo, masakit yon sa amin…. Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process,” he said.
Whatever the political ends of Duterte, mentioning the Balangiga bells in his SONA gave a ray of hope to advocates and stakeholders that have been clamoring for the return of the historic bells for several decades now. Now, will the American government be politically pressured to return the three Balangiga bells?
After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the US decided to retain possession of the Philippines instead of giving it independence. This provoked an insurrection that lasted three years and the death of 4,200 US soldiers and some 20,000 Filipino combatants. Balangiga figures in history when in the morning of September 28, 1901, Filipino insurgents attacked the American soldiers—Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment—garrisoned at the town of Balangiga. This left 48 dead, 22 wounded and 4 escaping unhurt among the Americans.
Of course, several Filipino combatants died too during the attack. But the biggest blow was during the retaliation. General Jacob Smith ordered that Samar be turned into a “howling wilderness” and that any Filipino male above ten years of age capable of carrying arms be shot. Several towns and villages were burned during the reprisal and three bells of Balangiga were confiscated as trophies of war by the American soldiers. Reportedly, one of the bells was used to signal the attack. For 116 years now, the bells are still in the possession of the U.S. military. One of the bells is with the 5th Infantry Regiment in Camp Red Cloud at the U.S. military base in South Korea, while the other two are enshrined in the former base of the 11th Infantry Regiment at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, U.S.A.
The earliest efforts of Filipinos to ask for the return of the Balangiga bells date back to 1957 when Fr. Horacio de la Costa, SJ, wrote twice Mr. Chip Wards, the Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California. This was followed a year after by another letter to Mr. Wards from American Franciscans stationed in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental, claiming that the two bells were of Franciscan origin.
The new wave of initiatives clamoring for the return of the bells came in the 80s from various Filipino groups here and abroad. There had been initiatives, too, from government officials, the more substantive being that of President Fidel Ramos who negotiated for the bells’ return as the country was about to celebrate the Centennial of the Proclamation on Philippine Independence in 1998. While he could not bring home the bells despite relentless diplomatic negotiations with then US President Clinton, he was able to bring back to the country the 18-inch ivory statue of the Madonna and Child Jesus which was reportedly rescued by an American soldier from a fire that razed Borongan during the Spanish-American war and ended up, like the bells, also in Wyoming. The ivory statue of the Madonna is presently enshrined at the Cathedral grounds in Borongan City.
No doubt, there is a very strong resistance from some sectors of the US military and American Veterans for the return of the bells. An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act prohibits “the return of veteran’s memorial objects to foreign nations without specific authorization in law.” Capt. Kathleen Cook of the Warren AFB public information office puts it this way: “The Catholic Church has no say in the matter. The bells are property of the US government. Only Congress can change the disposition of those bells.” A legislation from the US Congress is obviously needed for the return of the Balangiga bells.
The Diocese of Borongan, since the time of Bishop Leonardo Medroso, has been lobbying for such legislation. He has visited several offices of congressmen and senators in Washington D.C in 2005. He has also taken the support of the Bishop of Wyoming, the US Bishops’ Conference, the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. and the CBCP. Bishop Medroso says, “It is my belief that a religious article should never be made as an instrument of war nor does it become a trophy of the victors. Religion transcends war; in fact, it always pleads for peace and reconciliation.”
In 2016, the US Military Academy at West Point sent back a bell also taken in 1901 to the Saints Peter and Paul Church in Bauang, La Union. Is this any signal that the Balangiga bells may follow suit?