Wyoming lawmakers oppose return of Balangiga bells
CHEYENNE, Wyoming — The United States should not return church bells seized as war trophies from the Philippines over a century ago, Wyoming’s congressional delegation said on Monday.
It’s a position the state officials have repeated often over the years amid reports the Bells of Balangiga were to be repatriated. This time, however, the US Department of Defense appears intent on following through.
Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote members of Congress over the weekend, saying it was “in the national security interest of the United States” to return the bells taken by American soldiers from a church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, 117 years ago.
Two of the bells are at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The third is with the US Army in South Korea.
In Manila, two Samar lawmakers on Sunday cheered and Malacañang welcomed the decision to return the bells.
Symbols of freedom, justice
Rep. Ben Evardone said the bells “rightfully belong to us as a symbol of freedom and justice.”
Rep. Raul Daza, a relative of a Filipino guerrilla who led the attack on the US garrison in Balangiga, said the bells were “not merely religious relics. They are an eloquent symbol of the courage and patriotism of the Filipinos.”
On Sept. 28, 1901, Filipino guerrillas rang the bells of the church at Balangiga to signal the attack on the US troops occupying the town.
The assault left 48 US soldiers dead and drew a horrific counterattack from the American forces, who, on orders from Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith, killed all Balangiga residents aged over 10, turning the town into a “howling wilderness.”
After the massacre, the US troops seized the church bells as war booty.
“These bells are memorials to American war dead and should not be transferred to the Philippines,” the all-Republican delegation made up of US Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, and US Rep. Liz Cheney, said in a joint statement on Monday.
Most US veterans oppose returning the bells to the Philippines and the delegation is against any effort by US President Donald Trump’s administration to return the bells without veterans’ support, the statement said.
Groups, including the American Legion and Republican Gov. Matt Mead, opposed returning the bells when the idea came up in 2012, during President Barack Obama’s administration.
This time, the defense department consulted at length with veterans’ service organizations about possibly returning the bells, Mattis wrote.
No specific date has been set for the return of the bells, the US Embassy’s deputy press attaché, Trude Raizen, said in a statement on Saturday.
Filipinos revere the bells as symbols of national pride, and President Rdrigo Duterte has repeatedly called for their return.
In a speech to a joint session of Congress in 2017, the President described the Balangiga bells as part of the country’s national heritage and asked Washington to return them.
Speaking before local chief executives in Cebu City on Saturday, the President said he could never have good relations with the United States unless the bells were returned.
“Do not say, ‘Oh, it’s in the past.’… Do not say that. The bells would always remind us that [they are] ours. And you got [them] at the expense of the lives and the blood of the Filipino people,” he said.
“Until and unless you return it and for as long as I am President, there can never be a good rapport between us,” he said, addressing the Americans.
Fewer Filipino combatants died than the Americans in the Balangiga attack, but perhaps five times more than the 4,200 Americans were killed over the course of the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. The war also killed 100,000 or more civilians, according to some estimates.
The two bells in Wyoming followed a US Army infantry regiment based on Samar during the US occupation. The 11th Infantry arrived in 1904 at Fort D.A. Russell, which in 1930 became Fort Francis E. Warren and in 1949 F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
The third bell followed the 9th Infantry to Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
Hoping for return of bells
Balangiga Mayor Randy Graza on Sunday said he hoped no one would block the bells’ return.
The Ramos administration, backed by Filipino lawmakers, initiated government efforts to get them back.
Graza said local officials were hoping to see the bells back for the 117th anniversary of the uprising on Sept. 28.
Joy Campanero, a Balangiga resident whose ancestors were among those who participated in the uprising, said the bells “will continue to ring in our hearts to overcome and move forward against all forms of poverty be it opportunities, education and economic poverty.” —Reports from AP, Julie M. Aurelio and Joey A. Gabieta
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