The Bells of Balangiga: From war trophy to goodwill symbol 2
Balangiga Massacre Monument via Wikimedia Commons

The Bells of Balangiga: From war trophy to goodwill symbol

It’s been a long road since the taking of the Balangiga bells to its planned repatriation. Historical consultant and Professor Xiao Chua gives us a timeline.
Michael Charleston “Xiao” Chua | Nov 17 2018

The return of the bells was a decades-long struggle. 

Leyte historian Roland Borrinaga gave us a rundown of past efforts to recover the bells.

As early as 1957, Fr. Horacio de la Costa had been writing Mr. Chip Wards, Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California, requesting the return of the bells. This was followed a year later by another request to the same person coming from American Franciscan priests in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental saying that the two big bells (dated 1863 and 1889, respectively) were originally Franciscan.

According to Atty. Rodel E. Rodis, who has taught Philippine history at San Francisco State University and Laney College, when West Pointer Fidel Ramos was still Secretary of Defense, he received a courtesy visit from his US counterpart Dick Cheney in 1997. Upon learning the Cheney was the long-time congressman of Wyoming, Ramos requested Cheney to help.  But the US Secretary of Defense found out later that he couldn't do much.

In 1989, a petition was drafted by the Balangiga Historical Society to the US Government saying, “The return of the bells would mean a great deal to the town people of Balangiga, as they represent the rich heritage of the town, the emblem and the aspirations of their forefathers for freedom and liberty.”

The Bells of Balangiga: From war trophy to goodwill symbol 3
Rolando Borrinaga, the Filipino historian from Leyte, is a prime mover of the Balangiga Research Group who helped bring back the bells. He led us in a tour of Balangiga on 28 October 2006.

Even if that petition was channeled by the National Historical Institute and the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, no action was taken.  So the society asked the help of Senator Heherson Alvarez, who in turn, contacted US Ambassador Richard Solomon in Manila.  Alvarez then officially visited F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, USA, in 1993 and wrote to US Ambassador John D. Negroponte and President William Jefferson Clinton the next year to return of the bells to the Philippines.

By September 1994, people realized that returning the bells would not be easy.  US Ambassador Negroponte disclosed that there was resistance to the return of the bells by the US Air Force.  There was also resistance from officials and residents of Wyoming as well. 

By this time, Borrinaga described the efforts of Filipinos as “unfocused.”

On 13 November 1994, Bill Clinton gave a verbal promise to return the bells to President Fidel V. Ramos, “in the spirit of fair play.”  But just immediately, some officials in the US State Department claimed that Clinton’s offer was “illegal.”

As the centennial of Philippine Independence on 12 June 1998 was fast approaching, an all-out media war side by side with diplomatic negotiations ensued between the governments of the two countries.  The Philippines wanted the bells to be home in time for the great milestone birthday of the Nation.  And just to appease everyone, Ramos proposed the “one original, one replica” formula, but even that did not make the US war veterans groups happy.

A certain Republican Senator, Craig Thomas of Wyoming, filed Senate Bill No. 1903, "A Veterans Memorial Physical Integrity Act of 1998," in the US Congress before Ramos came to the US in May of 1998 to retrieve the bells.  Basically the bill prohibits the return of veterans’ memorial objects such as war booty without exemption that would be made through legislation.


A Third Bell

Then in December 1997, a military historian David Perrine told the Associated Press that there was actually a third Balangiga Bell stationed at Camp Hovey near Tongduchon, South Korea, home of the 9th US Infantry Regiment station which was the company that was attacked in Balangiga.  The smaller third bell is believed to be the bell that signaled the attack in Balangiga by Filipinos.  Senator Thomas actually offered this third bell to be returned as long as the Philippines will not ask for the two bells in Wyoming.  But Ramos insisted on "one original, one replica" sharing formula which according to Borrinaga “proved to be a costly mistake.”


Reconciling History

In the heart of the problem during that time was that both the American and Filipino versions seemed to be irreconcilable, and both sides believed that their respective myths and exaggerations were credible.  Leyte’s foremost historian, Rolando Borrinaga, through a series of letters to the editors of the Philippine Daily Inquirer from 1994, highlighted the Filipino version as a way of drumming up the campaign to return the bells.  Subsequently, he met two other friends, Subic-based British filmmaker Bob Couttie who collected materials and documents from numerous US institutions intended for a Balangiga movie which was shelved; and Jean Wall, herself the daughter of the first American soldier to be attacked in Balangiga—Adolph Gamlin.

The Bells of Balangiga: From war trophy to goodwill symbol 4
British Filmmaker Bob Couttie collected Balangiga related materials and primary sources which helped clarify the exaggerations on Balangiga.
What would be known as the Balangiga Research Group (BRG) with Borrinaga, Couttie and Wall were first convened in September 1998 for the UP National Symposium on the Balangiga Attack of 1901 and the Balangiga Lakbay Aral.  It was the first ever sentimental journey of a descendant of the Balangiga incident to the place of contention. 

At first, Wall did not agree with her fellow BRG members that the two bells should be returned.  Towards the celebration of the centennial of the incident on 28 September 2001, when the three of them finally clarified the contrasting stories of Balangiga based on credible primary evidences, she finally agreed and became part of the campaign. 

For the centennial commemoration, the Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Manila was officially sent as a speaker, a first in the history of the town. 

In 2002, Borrinaga finished his Ph.D. dissertation on the “Balangiga Conflict” based on his own research and the help of Couttie and Wall.  It was eventually published by New Day Publishers in 2003 and became the definitive Filipino version of the conflict.  Then, they helped Bob Couttie write his own book on the Balangiga which became Hang the Dogs: The True Tragic History of the Balangiga Massacre in 2004 by the same publisher.  Jean Wall, on her part, according to Couttie in a recent post, “played a key role in getting the bells back. She deserves a medal.  She became a staunch supporter of the return of the bells and worked tirelessly for their return, educating veterans who opposed the return and backing Balangiga in every way.”

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The works by Borrinaga and Couttie are the most credible to date on the books on Balangiga. The work of historians and researchers made it possible for more undrerstanding on Filipino and American sides which paved the way for the return of the bells.

In October 2002, Senate Resolution 48 filed by Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and drafted by the BRG was approved.  It called for the return of the bells, but there was no counterpart resolution in the House of Representatives.

Eventually, the BRG realized that involving high-ranking politicians and religious leaders only “bungled” past efforts.  So a low-key approach was adopted.  The campaign to return the bells became a starting point for the reconciliation process between descendants of Filipino and American combatants at Balangiga.

But it was not only the BRG who was moving.  A group referred to as the “East Coast Group” sponsored two trips of Bishop Leonardo Medroso of the Diocese of Borongan to the United States. He visited the offices of the Wyoming congressional delegation and was received only by their staff. Aside from launching an internet signature campaign with an open letter to President Bush, the US Congress and the Helsinki Commission, he also brought in his second trip a petition signed by hundreds of his parishioners to return the bells and was turned over to the secretariat of the US Congress.  Although he never met a congressman, a House Resolution was filed in the US Congress by California Rep. Bob Filner on 13 June 2005 which, “Urg[ed] the President to authorize the transfer of ownership of one of the bells taken from the town of Balangiga on the island of Samar, Philippines, which are currently displayed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, to the people of the Philippines.”


Hope Began With A Vote

In December 2002, Jean Wall wrote a President George W. Bush clarifying the contentious Balangiga story for the American readers and proposed “repatriating the Cheyenne bells is right and proper today. …is surely more appropriate to repatriate the Cheyenne bells to the Church in Balangiga where the memories of the fallen Americans on September 28, 1901, have been honored, along with all those who died in that tragedy, for decades and will continue to be. And … in rites in which Americans, and especially American veterans, are welcomed to participate.”

She continued, “By returning the bells to Balangiga and showing by our actions our nation’s capacity for forgiveness and great-hearted magnanimity, we shall be completing [my father’s] mission.” 

The Department of Defense Wyoming representatives and the Department of Veterans Affairs then visited then met with the Wyoming Veterans Commission (WVC) to ask them to re-study and reconsider the return of the Balangiga bells.  They, in turn, created a Balangiga bells committee to study the matter and to consult with different veterans’ organizations in Wyoming.  The BRG provided historical material.  The three-month work commenced with a vote on 26 March 2005.  Jean Wall presented to the WVC two hard to contest arguments for the return of the bells: “1) None of the two bells in Wyoming were rung during the attack on Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment; the bell that was rung is in the museum of the 2nd U.S Infantry Division stationed in Korea; and 2) There is no connection between Wyoming and Company C, which had their regimental headquarters in New York in the early 1900s. No member of the ill-fated Company C came from Wyoming.”

The WVC members voted 7-4 in favor of the return of the two bells to the Philippines.  But before formally informing Wyoming Governor David Freudenthal of the decision so Wall, WVC and the governor can have a joint statement, a disgruntled member of the commission told the governor to inform the media that he actually oppose the return of the bells.  One of his political analyst said, “The governor believes the two Bells of Balangiga … represent a significant part of Wyoming’s military heritage, honoring members of the military, and he respectfully believes they should stay where they are now located. [However,] the fate of these bells, situated on a federal facility, has been for many years and is at the discretion of the federal government and the ultimate decision to return the Bells of Balangiga or leave them as they are at F.E. Warren AFB is one over which Governor Freudenthal has no authority. A decision to return the bells to the Philippines would come from the United States Congress.”

The legislation on prohibition of transfer of war booty to a foreign country complicated the negotiations on the return of the bells, but legal experts around the world were unanimous in saying that based on custom law, military law, and international treaties, the bells belong to Balangiga.  In fact, silently, all US officials including US Army senior leaders in diplomats agree that the right, legal and ethical course that their government should do was to return the bells.

The Bells of Balangiga: From war trophy to goodwill symbol 6
Members of the Balangiga Research Group and sons of Balangiga local historian, Archie and Ted Amano, Prof. Herman Kraft of the UP Department of Political Science and myself discuss with Boy Abunda in The Bottomline with Boy Abunda the varying narratives--the oral and the historical accounts of the Victory of the Filipinos against the Americans at Balangiga and the retaliation that followed.

The Last Leg (Hopefully)

Enter President Rodrigo Duterte.  Despite the fact that he used the Balangiga issue to deflect to the Americans the human rights issue that was being hurled at him by the Americans, we historians were delighted when he made the Balangiga Bells a part of his second State of the Nation Address in 2017, “Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process… 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.”

But earlier than that according to a recent interview with Borrinaga, two major war veteran organizations in the US have started the campaign to convince fellow veterans and concerned citizens to return the bells, “They committed resolutions ...This basically influenced US politicians to pass the law allowing the return of the bells to the Philippines.”

The legislation referred was called the US National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018.   It includes a section on the “Modification of Prohibition on Transfer of Veterans Memorial Objects to Foreign Governments without Specific Authorization in Law”:  “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.”  It was passed last year.

 With the clause “the transfer is in the national security interests of the US,” Journalist Joseph Lariosa emphasized that this gift by the US government is a “gift with strings attached.”  If there was a bargain, whatever our deal in the bargain is still not disclosed.

Still, according to Wyoming reporter Austin Huguelet, the resistance among some US officials and groups continues.  Representative Liz Cheney and Senators John Barrasso and Mike Enzi all Republicans from Wyoming, gave a joint statement, “a dangerous precedent for future veterans’ memorials.”  They continued, “We oppose any efforts by the Administration to move the bells to the Philippines without the support of Wyoming’s veterans community.” 

According to a former national vice commander of the American Legion, Todd White, “They’re disturbing a war memorial, those bells have been there for 113 years, and to arbitrarily give them back the Philippines … I don’t understand that.”

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead’s spokesperson reiterated that his principal’s stand did not change from his 2012 letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, where he strongly opposed “any efforts to deconstruct our war memorials that honor our fallen soldiers.”

In the meantime, Filipinos continued discussing about Balangiga. An episode of The Bottomline with Boy Abunda was aired on 30 September 2017 with Archie and Ted Amano, members of the Balangiga Research Group and sons of Balangiga local historian, Professor Herman Kraft of the UP Department of Political Science and myself discuss with Tito Boy the varying narratives—the oral and the historical accounts of the Victory of the Filipinos against the Americans at Balangiga and the massacre that followed.  Taping that episode made me revise a previous Xiao Time video that I did and I uploaded a new corrected version in time for the anniversary.

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This was days after the 116th anniversary of that historic event was attended by President Rodrigo Duterte in Balangiga.

A feature film entitled Balangiga:  Howling Wilderness, a creative fiction showing the aftermath of the incident, was created and directed by Khavn de la Cruz in 2017.

Today, a ceremony will happen in Wyoming to begin the journey of the return of the two bells.  The small bell in South Korea will also return.  We only wanted one.  Now we are getting not one, not two, but three bells. I never knew I will live to see this day!  So many people had gone already who worked through the decades for this to happen.

The Balangiga incident brought a scar in the psyche of Samar, and Filipino-American friendship has always been clouded by the issue of the bells.  May this event bring some sort of national closure, at last.