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A fitting end to the story of Balangiga and its bells

bells

THE Philippine-American War is not generally known to the generations of Filipinos who lived at the turn of the 20th century, through the decades of American colonial rule, the Japanese Occupation in World War II, and finally Philippine independence in 1946.

During all these years, Americans were seen as friends and allies, who introduced our system of public education, set up a government patterned after that of the US, with a Constitution carrying the basic principles of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights. We went through WW II as allies against the Japanese. Millions of Filipinos went on to live and work in the US; some 2 million of them live there today.

The Americans came to the Philippines in the course of their war against Spain. The American fleet led by Admiral George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay where it defeated the Spanish fleet on May 1, 1898, and American troops landed. It was, however, at this same time that Filipino revolutionaries under Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo were winning in the Revolution they launched in 1896. He proclaimed Philippine independence on June 12, 1898, just a month after the Americans arrived.

Spain chose to surrender to the US rather than to the Filipino revolutionaries in the Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898. The Filipino and American troops now faced each other in the next three years in the Philippine-American War, which lasted until March 2, 1901, with the capture of Aguinaldo by the Americans in Palanan, Isabela.

During that Philippine-American War, Filipino guerrillas under Gen. Vicente Lukban attacked the US garrison in Balangiga, Samar, killing 48 and wounding 22 men of the US 9thInfantry on Sept. 28, 1901. It was the US Army’s worst defeat since the Battle of Little Bighorn against the Indians in the US in 1876. In the subsequent American retaliation, 315 American Marines killed thousands of Filipinos – with estimates varying from 2,500 to 50,000 – as the American Gen. Jacob Smith called on his troops to make Samar “a howling wilderness.” General Smith was later court-martialed on orders of President Theodore Roosevelt and forced to retire.

The Americans took as war booty the three bells of the Balangiga town church, which had tolled all during the guerrilla attack in 1901. One of these is now in a US camp in South Korea; the other two are in an Air Force base in Wyoming. Philippine officials from President Fidel V. Ramos to President Duterte have asked the US for the return of the bells but many American officials have refused all these years due to the painful memories associated with them.

Last Sunday, the US Embassy announced that the US Department of Defense had decided to return the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines. “We have received assurances that the bells will be returned to the Catholic Church and treated with the respect and honor they deserve,” the embassy’s Deputy Press Secretary Trude Raizen said. “We are aware that the Bells of Balangiga have deep significance to a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines.”

It will be a fitting end to the long and bitter story of that killing in Balangiga and the rest of Samar. It will be just a footnote in the historic event that was the Filipino-American War which has since led to the very close relations we have today between the Philippines and the US.

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