Let Balangiga Bells Ring

CHICAGO (jGLi) – This week, on September 28, two of the three Balangiga Bells would have remained silent at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming for the last 110 years as a mute reminder of the surprise attack and killing of the more than 40 United States Army soldiers by Filipino natives some of them dressed as women in a remote town of Balangiga in Samar province in the Philippines.

But the bells have also become symbols of excessive vindictiveness of the U.S. military when U. S. Army Gen. Jacob H. Smith ordered to kill and burn villagers, including boys aged 10 years old, and turn the village into a “howling wilderness,” resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent natives in the middle of the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century.

U. S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA-51) has introduced House Congressional Resolution 18, urging President Obama to authorize the return to the people of the Philippines of two church bells that were taken by the U.S. Army in 1901 from the Balangiga to Wyoming as war trophies.

The no-money resolution sponsored by Filipino American Republican Rep. Steve Austria (OH-7) said, “The bells of Balangiga, when restored to their original setting in Balangiga Parish, could again ring, after 108 (sic) years of muteness, as a symbol of the bond that exists between the Philippines and the United States.”

The resolution is trying to mitigate the stigma that calls to mind the horrific Biblical accounts of the killings of newborns during the births of Moses and Jesus Christ. But Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, thru his spokesman Renny MacKay, told this columnist, “Governor Mead would prefer that the bells remain in Wyoming.”

IN 2005, WVC OPTED FOR BELLS’ RETURN

In 2005, the Wyoming Veterans Commission had reversed course when it endorsed the return of the bells to the Philippines. When I inquired from WVC’s current director, Col. Larry Barttelbort, if WVC has changed its stand on the return of the bells, I did not get a response.

I also reached out to the two senators of Wyoming – Senators Michael Enzi and John Barrasso – and the lone Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, seeking comments on the bill filed by Rep. Filner but I never heard from any of their spokespersons.

When I asked the Wyoming Tourism Office if the return of the bells will lessen the tourist traffic in the state, its Deputy Director, Alan Dubberley, said, “We don’t have any information that would allow us to respond whether or not the bells should be kept in Wyoming or be taken back to the Philippines. We would leave that decision up to the proper authorities and contacts at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.”
When I contacted Bishop Paul D. Etienne of the Diocese of Cheyenne for comment, the Diocese’s Chancellor Carol Delois referred me to Bishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Archdiocese for the U.S. Military Services in Washington, D.C. But I never heard from Bishop Broglio as of press time either.

For her part, Jean Wall, one of the daughters of the survivors of the 11th U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as the “Wyoming Volunteers,” that brought the bells to the U.S. told me, “I have always felt that church bells were meant to be hung in their house of worship (and) not used as a memorial to bittersweet incident in our history that so few are aware of today and even less, no doubt, in the future.” Ms. Wall, one a few direct descendants of a survivor, has been long advocating for the return of the bells to Balangiga.

OLD REMINDER OF AN OPEN WOUND

I believe, the bells will only remind an open wound between the Philippines and the United States. It is a testament that the U.S. military has been engaged in a “culture of concealment” (omerta) in some of their involvements in foreign wars.

In 1950, when some North Korean soldiers disguised themselves as refugees and would approach UN forces asking for food and help and then open fire at the UN forces, U.S. forces acted under a “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” policy against any civilian refugee, leading U.S. forces to kill up to 400 civilians in No Gun Ri.

This would be followed in Vietnam in 1970 when U.S. Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster and 13 other American officers were charged with suppressing information related to the massacre in My Lai of between 300 to 400 women and children suspected of protecting Vietcong’s although no Vietcong was found among the massacred. Brig. Gen. Oran K. Henderson was the only officer tried in the cover-up but was acquitted in 1971.

Despite claims that he was following orders from his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Lou Medina, to kill and burn the villagers, Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder for ordering the shootings. Calley was initially sentenced to life in prison but his sentence was adjusted so he would eventually serve four and one half months in military prisons.

In 2009, Lt. Calley made his first public apology for the massacre, saying “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

In the Balangiga massacre, General Smith got a slap on the wrist when he was merely forced to retire while in the No Gun Ri massacre, an investigation was conducted in 1999 but no result of the investigation was ever reported.

The Balangiga, the No Gun Ri and the My Lai massacres suggest that the punishment in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of “crimes against peace, “conventional war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” do not apply to American soldiers.

Why not put closure to this sad chapter of the Philippine-American relations that have been trivialized by American historians as a mere “insurrection,” instead of Philippine-American War, that had killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the early part of the colonization of the Philippines by the U.S. by returning those bells?

If those Balangiga bells are not returned, they will only remind the world of American military’s “culture of concealment” and vindictiveness, not the heroism that symbolizes a war trophy. (lariosa_jos@sbcglobal.net)

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