Cicero A. Estrella
The passage of more than a century has failed to quell the passion attached to three bronze church bells that were commandeered by American soldiers as trophies of war during a bloody conflict in the Philippines. For Filipinos demanding their return, the 500-pound bells have come to symbolize their forefathers’ struggle against American colonization. For Americans in Wyoming and in an infantry division in South Korea, where the bells are displayed, they serve as memorials to 48 soldiers killed during the 1901 Balangiga “Massacre” in the island province of Samar, Philippines.
Thousands of Filipinos died during the independence struggle. After more than a century, the Balangiga Bells are symbol of the USA’s historical expropriation.
Bay Area Filipino community leaders held a special Mass Thursday night at St. Patrick’s Church in San Francisco in memory of those who died during the battle. The Mass was hastily arranged to coincide with President Bush’s eight- hour visit to Manila today, during which he and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo were expected to discuss issues of security and economic cooperation between the long-time allies—as well as the possible return of the bells.
“The Bells of Balangiga” have as much significance to the Filipino people as the Liberty Bell does to the American people,” said Rodel Rodis, San Francisco Community College trustee and organizer of the event, to the gathering of about 50 in the church. “The ringing of the Bells of Balangiga signalled the people of Samar to fight for their freedom. And just as the Liberty Bell belonged not only to the people of Philadelphia but of the United States, this issue belongs not only to the people of Balangiga or Samar but to all Filipinos.”
The controversy began with the ringing of the bells, an event that has been used as justification for their seizure. On the morning of Sept. 28, 1901, the church bells signalled about 500 Balangiga villagers wielding bolos, native machete-like weapons, to attack the unsuspecting Company C, 9th Infantry Regiment. The soldiers had garrisoned the town hall and convent during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), which broke out when Filipinos rebelled against American colonization after 300 years under Spanish rule. Spain had ceded control of the Philippines to the United States as part of the 1899 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.
The regiment fought back. Filipino casualties have been estimated at 50 to 250, but Filipinos considered the attack a success because of the 48 American soldiers killed and 22 injured. “It was our one victory,” Raul Suzara said after the Mass. Suzara, 63, is a great grandson of Gen. Miguel Lukban, who led the Filipino attack.
Retaliation by U.S. forces came swiftly and hard. Under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith, the 11th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Wyoming Volunteers,” and U.S. Marines turned the province into a “howling wilderness,” as described by Smith in his orders. U.S. Army records say 759 Filipinos were killed or captured. Some Filipino estimates say the number was 50,000. Like the bells, the term “Balangiga Massacre” has a different meaning for each side. The Americans stripped the bells from the church and brought them home. Two went with the Wyoming Volunteers and are prominently displayed at “Trophy Park” inside F.E. Warren Air Base, formerly Fort Russell, near Cheyenne, Wyoming. The third went with the 9th Infantry Division, first to Washington state and then to South Korea.
Yolanda Ortega Stern, national chair of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce, spoke at the church of the Philippine government’s many attempts to reclaim the bells. She says the current movement, spearheaded around 1990 by then-President Fidel Ramos, has been the most “ferocious.” A compromise seemed at hand in the late 1990s. The Philippine government had proposed making replicas of the Wyoming bells; the air base and Balangiga each would receive an original and a replica.
Rodis said the American Legion in Wyoming has managed to block all compromises. In 1997, Senator Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) countered a House resolution to return one of the bells with a Senate measure that banned the return of veterans’ memorial objects without specific authorization. “As far as the legion is concerned, we want to keep the bells,’’ said Chuck Payton, American Legion commander in Cheyenne. “The way I feel, it was more or less retaliation for what they did to our troops. They came in without warning.’’ Payton added that it was a “hard subject” to discuss.
Filipino politicians and Catholic Church leaders have taken up the cause. Bishop Leonardo Medroso, whose jurisdiction extends to Balangiga, has visited the air base and has written letters to Bush. “Records tell that the bells were the property of the Roman Catholic Church when they were taken by the U.S. Forces,” Medroso wrote. “They were religious artefacts with considerable significance in the Catholic tradition and practices. … As such, they were inappropriate trophies of war.”
In June, the House of Representatives passed a resolution urging Bush to authorize the return of one of the bells as a “measure of friendship, goodwill and cooperation.” Jean Wall, daughter of Adolph Gamlin, the last American survivor of the massacre who died in 1969, also advocates the return of the bells. Wall addressed the Mass-goers via phone from her home in Phoenix. Wall recalls her father waking from nightmares of the attack with screams of “They’re coming! They’re coming!” “I grew up with Balangiga,” she said. A solution is long overdue, she says. “It must be done soon. It can’t drag on any longer.”