Return of Balangiga Bells Requires Act of U.S. Congress

by Joseph G. Lariosa
CHICAGO (JGL) — In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte 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.)”

A little-known law passed during the Gilded Age in the United States in the late 19th century continues to shadow the futility of having back those bells after the 54th Congress during its first Session adopted on May 22, 1896 a law, Chapter 231, “An act To authorize the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy to make certain disposition of condemned ordnance, guns, and cannon balls in their respective Departments.”

The law authorized the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy, “in their discretion, to loan or give to soldiers’ monument associations, posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, and municipal corporations, condemned ordnance, guns, and cannon balls which may not be needed in the service of their of said Departments.

“Such loan or gift shall be made subject to rules and regulations covering the same in each Department, and the Government shall be at no expense in connection with any such loan or gift.”

Since then, this law has been restated in 1928, 1933, 1940, 1947, 1948 and 1951.

In 1999, an amendment to this law was introduced and restated in 2006, establishing “a moratorium period during which the President was prohibited from transferring a veterans memorial object to a foreign country or an entity controlled by a foreign government unless specifically authorized by law, prior to repeal by Pub. L. 112–239, div. A, title III, §355(b), Jan. 2, 2013, 126 Stat. 1702.”

The amendment defined veterans memorial object as any object, including a physical structures or portion thereof, that –

“(A) is located at a cemetery of the National Cemetery System, war memorial, or military installation in the United States;

(B)  is dedicated to, or otherwise memorializes, the death in combat, or combat-related duties of members of the United States Armed Forces; and

(C)   was brought to the United States from abroad as a memorial of combat abroad.”

The period of the moratorium began on the enactment of “this Act (1999) and ending on Sept. 30, 2001.”


But in H.R. 2810, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, introduced by Rep. Mac Thomberry [R-TX-13] in the current 115th Congress his proposal under “Subtitle E—Military Memorials, Monuments, And Museums SEC. 2841. Modification of Prohibition on Transfer of Veterans Memorial Objects to Foreign Governments Without Specification Authorization in Law, this amendment shall take effect on Oct. 1, 2017 and is “amended by striking “from abroad” and inserting “from abroad before 1907,” which specifically prohibits the return of Balangiga Bells which were brought to the United States after the Balangiga Massacre in 1901.

To overcome this amendment, a Filipino American Veterans group, especially, the Chicago Filipino American Veterans group led by Rose San Diego, a Filipino nurse, which has been assisting in lobbying for the return of the Balangiga Bells, should be pressed into service by contacting their Senators and Congressmen in their states and their districts to delete altogether the amendment “from abroad before 1907” as proposed by Thomberry, chair of the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives, and to pass a stand-alone law that would call for the return of the Balangiga Bells back to the Philippines.

The amendment also mandates that a veterans memorial object, like the Balangiga Bells, should be turned over to a veterans group, who will shoulder the expenses of its transport to its destination, to the Philippines, in this case.


The proposed National Defense Authorization Act amendment being pushed by Thomberry as does previous amendments will only allow the return of veterans memorial objects if there is such an “authorization in law” that would be passed for such transfer.

The Thomberry’s amendment being inserted, “before 1907,” must be deleted altogether as it singles out the Balangiga Bells.

The Filipino American Veterans groups around the nation should write and lobby U.S. Senators and Congressmen, who have been friendly to Filipino World War II veterans, to throw their support behind the return of the Balangiga Bells.

Among them are Sen. Mazie Hirono [HI-D], who is also a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Representatives Jackie Speier [D-CA-14] and Tulsi Gabbard [D-HI-02], both members of the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hirono, Speier and Gabbard have been very supportive of Filipino American Veterans causes, notably the passage of the Congressional Gold Medal bill, which was unanimously passed by the House as P.L. 114-265.

Two of the three Balangiga Bells have remained silent at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming for the last 115 years while the third is at a U.S. military camp in South Korea.

Although, the Balangiga Bells are not “condemned ordnance, guns and cannon balls” owned by the U.S. military, subsequent amendment to this 1896 law put these bells under the definition of “veteran memorial objects” as the bells were seized as “war trophies” by the U.S. soldiers after retaliating from the surprise attack by the Filipino guerrilla forces in Balangiga, Eastern Samar during the Philippine American War in 1901.

Some 43 U.S. soldiers were killed while about 24 Filipino guerillas were also slain during the “Encounter,” the word used by former Balangiga Mayor (now Vice Mayor) Viscuso S. De Lira of the massacre. The unsuspecting U.S. soldiers were careless when they challenged the Filipino guerillas dressed as women, asking the guerrillas what they had in their coffin that was being brought inside the Balangiga Church.

Instead of inspecting the coffin, the U.S. sentry pulled back after hearing the bluff that the remains inside the coffin died of cholera, an incurable plague at that time.


It turned out the contents of the coffin were bolos and other weapons.

Inside the church, the Filipino guerillas waited for the pealing of bells that signaled the attack on a Sunday morning of Sept. 28, 1901 who surprised U.S. soldiers who were having their breakfast.

But the bells have also became symbols of excessive vindictiveness by 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.

After the bloody six-month retaliation, surviving U.S. soldiers took down the bells of Balangiga from the Church tower and brought them to the United States as symbols of the martyrdom of their comrades.

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