CFO PRESS RELEASE
Three Balangiga Bells arrived at the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City. Photo courtesy of Sen. Koko Pimentel
12/11/2018. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) lauds the US government’s efforts and for fulfilling its promise to return the historic Balangiga Bells to the Philippines after more than 117 years.
Led by Secretary and Chairperson Justice Francisco “Nick” Acosta and Usec. Astravel Pimentel-Naik, the CFO is one of the government agencies that has been lobbying for the return of the Bells for the past years, and has been supportive of the diplomatic endeavours of the Office of the President, Department of Foreign Affairs and other related agencies and organizations.
During his July 2017 State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte asked the US government to return the Bells, which are part of the country’s national heritage and reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process. For Filipinos, the Bells are not only sacred, religious relics. They symbolize the country’s aspiration and struggle for freedom and national independence.
A year after, following a series of consultations and joint efforts both from the Philippines and the US to ensure appropriate and legal steps are taken, the three Bells have finally returned home on December 11, 2018. After the turn-over ceremony at the Villamore Airbase, the Bells are scheduled to be brought to Balangiga, Eastern Samar on December 14, where President Duterte will attend the homecoming and reinstallation of the Bells ceremony. Previous administrations have worked so hard in lobbying for the Bells’ return, but the culmination of several decades of pleas and petitions happened during the strong and able leadership of President Duterte.
The return of the Balangiga Bells signify closure of Filipino-American War (1899-1901), one of the darkest chapters of Philippines’ history, a war that marred the long history of alliance between the two countries. The capture of the Bells traces its roots to the war between American soldiers and Filipino guerrillas on September 28, 1901 in the coastal town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar. The bells were taken as war trophies from the Church of Balangiga, following a surprise attack by hundreds of local Filipino residents on the US war veterans of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment. The attackers, led by Katipunan General Vicente Lukban, were protesting the starvation forced on them by the destruction and seizure of their food stocks, the rounding of villagers for forced labor and detained in crowded cells with little food and water, and their having been humiliated by the foreign intruders. They were disguised as women, carrying coffins with bolo and machete-like knives when they attacked the army base. The bloody conflict became popularly known in history as the “Balangiga Massacre,” described by the US military as its “worst single defeat” in the Philippines and among the worst defeats in its entire history.
The Americans were initially driven off with heavy losses. However, they counter-attacked over the next few weeks. General Jacob Smith instructed that Samar be converted into a “howling wilderness.” All persons over 10 years of age who have not surrendered and were capable of carrying arms were to be shot. This directive caused the deaths of ten of thousands of Filipino civilians and the total destruction of the town. After razing the town of Samar, the church Bells in Balangiga, which were used to signal the surprise attack by Filipino guerillas were seized as war booties in 1901 by the US 11th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Wyoming volunteers.” The bells were previously enshrined at the Trophy Park of the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The third bell was in the possession of a US Army unit in Tongduchon, South Korea.
Since 1950s and after the country gained independence from the US, the Philippine government, religious organizations and several good-hearted groups and individuals (both in the Philippines and US) have been working assiduously to gain US support for the return of the bells. It took more than a century for the return of the Bells mainly because of the two contrasting versions (Filipino and American) of the Balangiga Massacre. The American group opposing it has analyzed it as a dastardly, cowardly act carried out against naïve and kindly Americans doing pacification work in the Philippines. For the US military, the Bells are spoils of war, compensation for the loss of life on that terrible day, and badge of honor to the American soldiers who died in the hands of the Filipinos. The Filipinos, on the other hand, view the Balangiga attack as a courageous uprising against a cruel, foreign oppressor. For some Filipinos, the bells are symbol of the long, hard struggle for independence. For Catholics and people of Balangiga, they are religious relics that need to be returned to its proper home in the church.
On November 14, 2018, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced the return of the Bells to the Philippines during a ceremony at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, following the support and endorsement by the Members of US Congress, Department of State and National Security Council, and the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez attended the ceremony which marked the beginning of the process to return the Bells to the Balangiga Church.
The return of the Bells is not only an act of goodwill from the US, but a symbol of mutual respect and friendship from both countries who have become allies during World War II and in many other international wars and conflicts in South Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, even the current war against terrorism. It is a laudable historic moment, and a milestone in Philippine-US relations that will strengthen diplomatic ties and mark a promising future between the two countries.
Secretary Acosta and Usec. Pimentel-Naik thank those who have worked bravely and tirelessly to make this day happen. Finally, the Bells of Balangiga, an unexpected early Christmas gift for the Philippines and the town of Balangiga, will be heard ringing once more to where it rightfully belong.