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The Bells of Balangiga

THERE is a dark chapter in the history of Philippine-American relations which few people today know about or want to bring out into the open. Americans see it as part of the worldwide Spanish-American War, in which US troops fought Spaniards in the Spanish colonies of Cuba and in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.

An American fleet led by Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and American troops continued the war on land. But the Americans came just as Filipinos led by General Emilio Aguinaldo were winning their revolution against 350 years of Spanish colonial rule. As the Spaniards faded from the scene, Filipino and American forces faced each other on the battlefield in what is now known as the Philippine-American War.

It was in Balangiga, Samar, that Company C of the 9th US Infantry Regiment suffered 48 dead and 22 wounded in an attack by Filipino guerrillas sent by General Vicente Lukban. US President Theodore Roosevelt ordered Major Gen. Adna R. Chaffee, military governor of the Philippines, to pacify Samar. Chaffee appointed Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith who proceeded to order Major Littleton Waller, commanding officer of a battalion of 315 US Marines: “I want no prisoners.

I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn, the better it will please me. The interior of Samar must made a howling wilderness.”

This particular order was reportedly countermanded by Major Waller, but in the ensuing campaign, the number of Filipinos killed by the American troops varied from 2,500 to 50,000. President Roosevelt was moved to order an investigation, saying that while he would back the Army in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work, the most rigorous care must be exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality and those who are guilty must be punished. General “Howling Wilderness Smith” – as he came to be known – was subsequently court-martialed, found guilty, admonished, and forced to retire. American military historians later recorded that the indiscriminate violence of the US Army and Marine forces in Samar “stained the memory of the United States pacification of the Philippine Islands.”

The US Army took the three bells of the Balangiga town church as war booty. One is now at the 2nd Infantry Division Museum in a camp in South Korea, while two are at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Philippine officials, including President Fidel V. Ramos in 1994 and the Senate in 2002, have called for negotiations to have the US government return the bells to the Philippines. But American military officials and veterans groups argue that the bells are an important memorial to the US soldiers who died in Balangiga.

Last Monday, President Duterte became the latest Philippine official to raise the issue and he did it in his State-of-the-Nation Address in Congress. Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone said, “It’s about time the bells are returned to the people of Eastern Samar to erase the last vestiges of the Philippine-American War….”

There are painful memories associated with the bells and historic positions taken by various officials of both countries over the years. But it may be time to allow those memories to fade in the interest of our close relationship that was forged in the battlefields of World War II and in subsequent conflicts around the world.

The Bells of Balangiga are not fit symbols of war, like a captured cannon or an enemy general’s saber. They are part of Filipino faith and culture. If, after over a hundred years, they were to return to their old place in the church tower in Samar, it would be a great and historic act of friendship and humanity between our two countries.