The two bells of Balangiga, shown in a file photo from May 2001, at F.E. Warren Air Force Base outside Cheyenne, Wyo., signaled an attack by Filipino insurgents on occupying American troops in 1901 in the Philippines. The 100th anniversary of the attack is Sept. 28, 2001. Veterans from Wyoming are resisting demands that one or both bells, taken as war trophies, be returned to the Philippines. Photo by AP
Bells of Balangiga still thorn in U.S.-Philippine relations
By Mead Gruver/AP
A hundred years has not silenced the patriotic fervor between the United States and the Philippines over the Bells of Balangiga.
Many American veterans say the bronze church bells on the grounds of F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., memorialize 46 soldiers who were massacred by Filipino insurgents on Sept. 28, 1901.
Filipinos and Filipino Americans see the two bells as symbols of the beginning of the end of a centuries-long pursuit of independence, not unlike how Americans regard the Liberty Bell.
With the centennial of the massacre on Sept. 28, the Philippines request for the United States to return the war trophies remains a touchy diplomatic issue between nations that otherwise are friends.
Officials at the air base say it is a matter only Congress can resolve.
But with the world shaken by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the United States embarking on a war against terrorism, a resolution anytime soon seems more unlikely than ever.
Former Philippines President Fidel Ramos recalled trying to work out an answer with President Clinton in 1998.
The win-win formula I suggested is not for one bell to be sent here and one bell to be retained in Wyoming. I said, We will cut the bells in half. You keep two halves and you send back to us two halves and then we rebuild them as best as we can. And then we end up with two pairs that are almost identical to the original, Ramos recalled.
He said Clinton liked the idea, but no action was taken. And plenty of veterans in Wyoming are opposed.
Folks that are of the feel-good, do-good, wouldnt-it-be-nice-type think that we should give a lot of these things back, said retired Col. Dave McCracken, who was commander of F.E. Warren in the early 1980s.
Thats not how a conservative military guy thinks.
Spain colonized the Philippines for 377 years. The people wanted independence, but instead the country became a colony of the United States after the Spanish-American War. As a result, Filipino Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo turned against his American allies.
Resistance continued despite Aguinaldos capture on March 25, 1901.
That summer, American troops were sent to tiny Balangiga on the backwater southern coast of Samar. After several uneventful weeks the scene was set for an episode that would be unparalleled in the Philippine-American War, according to Brian McAllister Linn, a Texas A&M University history professor who has spent 20 years researching the war.
On the night of Sept. 27, several women carrying small coffins were seen hurrying to the village church and were stopped. A sergeant looked inside one coffin and was told the child inside had died of cholera.
He let them pass without noticing that the coffin also contained bolos large knives and that the women were not really women.
Four days after the Balangiga attack, a report by 9th Infantry Capt. Edwin V. Bookmiller fingered local Chief of Police Pedro Sanchez as the instigator of the assault at 6:20 a.m. Sept. 28.
As the Sentinel passed him, [Sanchez] seized the Sentinels rifle, gave a loud call, the Church bells rang and a rush was made by the natives simultaneously on the different barracks, officers quarters and on men at the breakfast table and kitchen, Bookmiller wrote.
He estimated the attacking force at 400. Company C tried to fend off the attackers with kitchen utensils, chairs, cans of food and anything else on hand. They made a run for the rifles and reached some before the rebels.
Those who made it to five canoes on the shore of Samar faced a grueling, 25-mile paddle up the coast. Some men drowned, others succumbed to their wounds along the way.
The next day, Company G, 9th Infantry, steamed back down the coast on the USS Pittsburgh. The soldiers retook Balangiga and burned the village to the ground.
What happened over the next three months is much debated.
Rodel Rodis, national chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations Bells of Balangiga Task Force, pointed out that Gen. Howling Jake Smith ordered that no one over the age of 10 be spared. In the Philippines it is estimated that for the 46 or so Americans who were killed in the revolt, American troops killed between 250,000 to 1 million Filipino civilians.
I guess every American life is worth thousands of Filipino lives, Rodis said with sarcasm.
Linn, however, claims the number of Filipinos who were killed in the massacre was not that high, citing U.S. Army records that say 759 rebels were killed or captured.
One fact is clearly documented, however. Smith was court-martialed for his take-no-prisoners order. Marine commander Major Littleton Waller said the general put it to him this way: I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.
Smith did not contest the charges against him. He was convicted and admonished and soon retired. Waller was also court-martialed. He said he was just following orders and was acquitted.
At the center of F.E. Warren Air Force Base, antelope graze near Trophy Park, where a crescent-shaped monument of crumbling brick holds the Bells of Balangiga. A glass case nearby houses the 444-year-old British Falcon cannon that was also taken from the village.
It was the 9th Infantry that was attacked in Balangiga, but it was the reoccupying 11th Infantry that took the bells and the cannon home to Wyoming in 1904. The oldest continually used Air Force installation, F.E. Warren oversees 50 Peacekeeper and 150 Minuteman missiles in three states.
The plan most often talked about for resolving the debate over the bells is to duplicate them. Each nation would keep an original and a replica.
I say, lets give one back, said Nelinda Evaristo-Dahmke, of Sheridan. She is one of Wyomings few citizens of Filipino descent. (The U.S. Census puts the number at 472.)
Giving one back doesnt take a position that what we did as a government was wrong. To me it says we have developed, we have progressed since then, she said.
Bishop Joseph Hart of the Roman Catholic diocese in Cheyenne and Bishop Leonardo Y. Madroso, his counterpart in the Diocese of Borongan on the island of Samar, have also campaigned for the bells return.
The whole thrust of my interest is that these two bells are religious articles, Hart said. They belong to the church and as such they should not be trophies of war.
Veterans from Cheyennes American Legion and VFW posts have scheduled an afternoon ceremony at the bells in memory of the American dead.
Most Wyoming veterans wish the debate would end altogether and that the bells would stay put.
The bells have been kind of abused and accused again in a manner like when they were used to signal the attack, McCracken said. It should not be an issue any longer.
Robert Nab, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, said most of his fellow American Legion members in Cheyenne believe the bells are legitimate war trophies.
But Rodis said the United States must reaffirm respect for religion and the right of people to worship by returning the bells.
When the United States took the bells, we view that as a desecration of a place of worship, he said. It was morally wrong. The bells should be returned so that they can call people to prayer, instead of being used for political purposes on a military base.