Returning the Bells of Balangiga

On November 14, 2018, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis shook hands with Jose Romualdez, the Philippine Ambassador to the United States. The two had met on the windswept Francis E. Warren Air Force Base just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. Two objects loomed large behind the men as they posed for photos – not armament, as one might expect on a strategic-missile base, but bells. 

In 1901, 117 years earlier, the bells were looted by U.S. forces from the town of Balangiga, on the island of Samar in east-central Philippines, during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War. The 11th Infantry Division brought the bells back to America, housing them since 1904 at F.E. Warren AFB. In 1992, the bells had been accessioned into the U.S. Air Force Museum System. 

For over a century, the people of the Philippines, along with the Philippine government, demanded the bells’ return. Now, they were finally heading home.

Bells of Balangiga return to the Philippines

Image: Philippine military personnel arrange the bells of Balangiga upon their arrival at the Philippine Air Force Grandstand in Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, Philippines, on December 11, 2018. Courtesy: Joey O. Razon, Philippine News Agency.

The story of the Bells of Balangiga

With the cessation of the Spanish-American war in 1898, the lands of the Philippines were passed from Spain to the United States. Filipino nationalists were not content to be hustled from one colonial power to the next and rose up to fight the U.S. for independence. The United States fought to hold on. A small company of occupying American troops staged in the town of Balangiga had appropriated various municipal and ecumenical buildings for their use.

The evening preceding September 28, 1901, a group of Filipino men disguised as women crept inside the St. Lawrence the Martyr Church. The following day, the tolling of the bells announced the start of the assault. As they sat eating breakfast in the Catholic church, 70 American soldiers of Company C, U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment, were ambushed – 48 were slaughtered or died of their wounds. 

The American retaliation was as swift as it was blistering. Brigadier General Jacob F. Smith ordered the 11th Infantry Regiment to turn Eastern Samar into a “howling wilderness.” The island was set alight, homes were burned, buildings were razed, crops were destroyed, and thousands of Filipinos were killed. 

American servicemen seized three bells from the St. Lawrence the Martyr Church, the scene of the attack, as war trophies. The 11th Infantry took two bells to the Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 1967, these bells were hung in a curved red brick wall constructed as a memorial, replete with a bronze plaque recounting the massacre at Balangiga. The third bell was given to the 9th Infantry, which displayed the bell at the U.S. Army’s Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, South Korea (deactivated in 2018).

The return of the Bells of Balangiga

In 1998, the townspeople of Balangiga rebuilt the Roman Catholic belfry on the site of the 1901 ambush, hoping for the return of their historical bells. But resistance from U.S. Veterans groups and the Wyoming congressional delegation was strong, and for years they persisted in holding on to the bells.

On August 9, 2018, Defense Secretary Mattis notified Congress in a confidential letter to members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees of his intention to repatriate the bells. That November, he followed through, officially presenting the bells to the Philippine government.

Defense Secretary Mattis with Philippine Ambassador and Bells of Balangiga

Jose Romualdez, Philippine Ambassador to the United States (left), and U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis stand for a photo on November 14, 2018, in front of the bells of Balangiga on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Courtesy: Airman 1st Class Braydon Williams, U.S. Air Force.*

“History teaches us that nations with allies thrive,” Gen. Mattis said. “It reminds us too that all wars end. By returning the bells of Balangiga to our ally and our friend the Philippines, we pick up our generation's responsibility to deepen the respect between our people.” He added that “bells mark time, but courage is timeless” – an aside to those still bristling at the bells’ return.

The two bells in Wyoming were first shipped to Philadelphia for restoration, before flying to South Korea, where the third bell rejoined the set. The three bells, reunited for the first time in a century, flew to a military base in Manila onboard an Air Force plane called the Spirit of MacArthur – named for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Allied forces commander who liberated the Philippines from the Japanese in World War II. 

One of the bells of Balangiga is loaded onto a U.S. Air Force aircraft

Image: Airmen assigned to the 51st Fighter Wing airlift support function load cargo, including a Balangiga bell, into a C-130J Hercules aircraft on Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, on December 7, 2018. Courtesy: Staff Sgt. Benjamin Raughton, U.S. Air Force.*

On the afternoon of December 15, 2018, the three bells were lifted into the belfry at Balangiga once again. The next day, a Sunday, the bells rung for Mass for the first time in 117 years. One of the most enduring and contentious quarrels between the United States and the Philippines had finally come to a close.

Cover image: U.S. soldiers of Company C, 9th Infantry Regiment, pose with one of the Balangiga bells seized as a war trophy, in Calbayog, Samar in April 1902.

*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.