US returns revered church bells to Philippines 117 years after war

During a battle of the Philippine-American war in 1901, the US Army reportedly killed thousands of villagers and took three church bells. On Dec. 11, the United States returned the Bells of Balangiga in a symbolic gesture of friendship and understanding. 

Bullit Marquez/AP
Philippine Air Force personnel unload three church bells seized by American troops as war trophies more than a century ago and returned on Dec. 11, 2018 in suburban Pasay city, southeast of Manila, Philippines.

For over a century, the Bells of Balangiga have not rung in the Philippines, a silence that the president last year called "painful." Now, the revered bells will once again be heard in the country.

Hundreds of Filipino villagers in 1901, armed with bolos and disguised as women, used one of Balangiga town's church bells to signal the start of a massive attack that wrought one of the bloodiest single-battle losses of American occupation forces in the Philippines. The US Army brutally retaliated, reportedly killing thousands of villagers, as the Philippine-American War raged.

After the violence, the Americans took three church bells as spoils of war that Filipinos would demand for decades to be handed back.

On Dec. 11, a giant US Air Force cargo aircraft brought the Bells of Balangiga back to the Philippine capital in a poignant ceremony that saw US defense officials and the American ambassador to Manila return the war relics 117 years after they were seized. A military brass band played the Philippine national anthem, followed by "The Star Spangled Banner."

The treaty allies then swept aside a dark episode in their long relationship with joint photographs and handshakes.

"It is my great honor to be here at this closing of a painful chapter in our history," US Ambassador Sung Kim said. "Our relationship has withstood the tests of history and flourishes today."

US Defense Secretary James Mattis has said the handover is an important gesture of friendship and is in America's national security interest. Some US veterans and officials had opposed the return of the bells, calling them memorials to American war dead.

At the Dec. 11 handover ceremony at a Philippine air force base, the bronze bells stood atop a red platform like silent symbols of a bygone era of hostilities, as American and Philippine flags flapped in the wind. Officials from both sides called for a minute of silence for the war dead.

The bells are revered by Filipinos as symbols of national pride, and their arrival on a US C-130 plane and the ceremony were shown live on national TV. Two of the bells had been displayed for decades at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., and the third was with the US Army in South Korea.

After being colonized by Spain for more than three centuries, the Philippines became a US possession in 1898 in a new colonial era that began with the outbreak of the Philippine-American War.

American occupation troops seized the bells from a Catholic church following an attack by machete-wielding Filipino villagers, who killed 48 US soldiers in Balangiga, on central Samar island off Leyte Gulf, according to Filipino historian Rolando Borrinaga.

The Americans retaliated, with a general, Jacob Smith, ordering troops to shoot villagers older than 10 and turn the island into a "howling wilderness," Mr. Borrinaga said. Thousands of villagers were reported to have been killed.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has had an antagonistic attitude toward the US and has revitalized ties with China and Russia, asked Washington in his state of the nation address last year to "return them to us, this is painful for us."

"Give us back those Balangiga bells.... They are part of our national heritage," Mr. Duterte said in the speech, attended by the US ambassador and other diplomats.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at the ceremony that with the resolution of the issue, "It's time for healing, it is time for closure, it is time to look ahead as two nations should with a shared history as allies."

Duterte has referred to violence by Americans in Balangiga and on southern Jolo island in the early 1900s in public criticism of the US government after it raised concerns about his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs in which thousands have died.

A breakthrough on the bells issue came with an amendment to a US law banning the return of war relics and memorials to foreign countries. That allowed the homecoming of the Balanggiga bells, said Mr. Lorenzana, who saw the bells last year in Wyoming, where he was notified by Mr. Mattis of the US decision.

Philippine officials led by Duterte are to turn over the bells on Dec. 15 to officials and the church in Balangiga, a small coastal town where villagers, some in tears, applauded while watching troops on TV screens pry open the wooden crates containing the bells.

"The Bells of Balangiga will once again peal, it will still remind the people of Balangiga of what happened in the town square more than a century ago," Lorenzana said. "But we would also look at that history with more understanding and acceptance."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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