Balangiga Bells homeward bound to Eastern Samar

by Joseph G. Lariosa

CHICAGO (JGL) – The United States Congress on Thursday (Nov. 9) gave President Trump a “gift with strings attached” that he can present to President Duterte when they hold summit talks in the Philippines over the weekend as it gave the U.S. Defense Secretary an option to return two of the three Balangiga Bells in Eastern Samar.

However, the authorization provides that the Secretary can certify the return if it is “in the national security interests of the United States and that appropriate steps have been taken to preserve the history of veterans associated with the objects on public display at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, including consultation with associated veterans organizations and government officials in the State of Wyoming.”

President Duterte during his State of the Nation Address last July called out the United States to return the Balangiga Bells. He said: “Give us back those Balangiga Bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo. masakit yon sa amin(Give them back to us. It’s painful for us.)”

Ben Evardone, Representative of Eastern Samar having jurisdiction over Balangiga, when reached by this reporter for comment, was shocked to learn of the condition that the Secretary of National Defense has still to consult with Wyoming officials for a “bill that allows the return of the bells.” Evardone had filed a bill in the Philippine Congress for the return of the Balangiga bells.

Modification of prohibition

The approval of the return of bells to Balangiga was contained in “SEC. 2864. Modification of Prohibition on Transfer of Veterans Memorial Objects to Foreign Governments without Specific Authorization in Law” of the 1,333-page $692.1-Billion, H.R. 2810 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018.

Section 2864 was embedded in the massive NDAA that was reported out by the Senate and House reconciliation committees last Thursday and sent out to President Trump for his signature.

The final version of the amendment was more generous than the House version being promoted during the reconciliation at the Senate-House committee when it barred “the veterans memorial objects brought to the United States prior to 1907 … and extend the prohibition on the return of veterans memorial objects to a foreign country or entity controlled by a foreign government until Sept. 30, 2022.”

The Senate committee, however, receded “with an amendment that would create an exception to allow for the transfer of the Bells of Balangiga to the Republic of the Philippines if the Secretary of Defense makes certain required certifications to Congress.

“These include that the transfer is in the national security interests of the United States and that appropriate steps have been taken to preserve the history of veterans associated with the objects on public display at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, including consultation with associated veterans organizations and government officials in the State of Wyoming. “

2 in Wyoming,  1 in South Korea

Two of the three bells taken from Balangiga are on display at the F.E Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. The third is on display at a U.S. Army base in South Korea.

Former U.S. Navy Captain Dennis Wright, Chairman of the Board of the Clark Veterans Cemetery Restoration Association and the Bells of Sorrow Association and Peregrine Development International based in Dubai Airport Freezone in the United Arab Emirates, who has been leading the advocacy for the return of the bells broke the news to this reporter.

Wright said, “The Wyoming Congressional Delegation has long fostered the inclusion of a Provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which prevented the return of the bells to the Catholic church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar.  This was most unfortunate as their views were seriously distorted based on disinformation.  This year, through the efforts of a small group of veterans and diplomats, the language has been changed.”

In 1998, former Gov. Stan Hathaway (1967-1975) of Wyoming in criticizing Wyoming Senator Craig L. Thomas for keeping the bells in Wyoming said Wyoming has no business keeping the bells, saying, “not one single veteran from the state of Wyoming served in either the 9th, or the 11th, and Warren, an Air Force Minute Man Missile Base, (and) had no relationship with the encounter, the bells or Balangiga.”

It was Senator Thomas, who inserted the provision in the bill 20 years ago, blocking the return of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines. Incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney (R) of the lone district of Wyoming reinserted Senator Thomas’s version in the current version.

According to Filipino historian, Prof. Rolando O. Borrinaga, in his article, Vintage View: the Balangiga Incident and Its Aftermath, “Tension rose when on September 22, at a tuba (coconut wine) store, two drunken American soldiers tried to molest the girl tending the store. The girl was rescued by her two brothers, who mauled the soldiers.”

In retaliation, the Company Commander, Capt. Thomas W. Connell, West Point class of 1894, rounded up 143 male residents for forced labor to clean up the town in preparation for an official visit by his superior officers.

The natives, then, attacked the U.S. Army garrison of Company C of the 9th U.S. Army Infantry, killing 48 either on the spot or due to injuries out of the 74 soldiers in the early morning of Sept. 28, 1901. They believed the bells were rung to signal the attack and took the bells as war trophies. About 20 natives were also killed.

In the aftermath of the Balangiga engagement, the bells later ended up in the custody of the 11th US Infantry.  They returned to the US in 1904 and took two of these bells to Fort D.A. Russell where they were assigned.  They were detached from Fort Russell to other Army Posts in 1915 ‐ ‐ and abandoned them in Fort Russell.  Today, Fort Russell is F.E. Warren AFB.  The third bell was given to the 9th US Infantry, whose last post was in Korea, where it remains today.

As a retaliation for the attack, U.S. Army General Jacob H. Smith’s issued a punitive order with “Kill Everyone Over Ten” and razed Samar, killing 2,500 natives, according to British writer Bob Couttie. Filipino historians believe the death was around 50,000.

Generals Smith and Littleton Waller faced court-martial as a result of their heavy-handed treatment of Filipinos; Waller specifically for the execution of twelve Filipino bearers and guides. Waller was found not guilty, a finding that senior military officials did not accept. Smith was found guilty, admonished and forced to retire.

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