US returns church bells to Philippines

Philippine military personnel unloading one of the three Balangiga church bells after it arrived from the US at a military air base in Manila 	yesterday. The bells were seized 117 years ago as war booty by the US.
Philippine military personnel unloading one of the three Balangiga church bells after it arrived from the US at a military air base in Manila yesterday. The bells were seized 117 years ago as war booty by the US.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They were taken in 1901 during revenge attack after locals killed 48 US soldiers

Three church bells seized as war trophies from the Philippines by the United States following a routing of American soldiers more than a century ago arrived in Manila yesterday, bringing to a close a contentious chapter in the two allies' shared history.

"Now they are home and are going back to where they belong. It is a time for healing. It is a time for closure... It is our hope that they will no longer remind us of the painful episode of our joint history," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said during handover rites at an air base. The bells were taken after 48 American soldiers were killed during a surprise attack by machete-wielding Filipino guerillas, some disguised as women, on Sept 28, 1901, in Balangiga town in the central island province of Samar during the Philippine-American war from 1899 to 1902.

It was the worst defeat for US forces since the Battle of the Little Bighorn - or "Custer's Last Stand" - in 1876. According to historians, one or more of the bells were rung to signal the attack.

US occupation troops took them after a counterattack that killed thousands of Filipinos, mostly non-combatants. Villages were systematically burned, crops destroyed and farm animals slaughtered.

Two of the bells were shipped to the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. The third was placed at a US Army museum in South Korea.

All three will be on display at the Philippine Air Force's headquarters till Saturday, when they will be airlifted to Balangiga and installed temporarily in a public park.

Plans are being made to either reinstall them at the church where they were taken, or house at least one in a museum in Manila. Replicas will be installed in Wyoming.

The bells of Balangiga were returned as relations between Manila and Washington sour over President Rodrigo Duterte's often caustic remarks about the US.

The Philippines' unorthodox leader has pivoted away from the US and sought backing for economic and political programmes from China and Russia. The shift followed criticism from US officials and lawmakers of Mr Duterte's crackdown on the drug trade, which has left at least 4,000 suspects dead.

Mr Duterte responded by deriding the US as "a land of hypocrisy", citing atrocities committed in the Philippines by American soldiers more than a century ago - including at Balangiga. In his annual address to Congress last year, Mr Duterte said: "Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours."

Political analyst Richard Heydarian said of the bells' return: "It seems this is an effort by the US to signal some form of goodwill and acknowledge war atrocities."

US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim acknowledged at the handover rites Mr Duterte's "forceful appeal" for the bells' return, but added that "many Filipinos and Americans worked tirelessly to make today possible".

The Philippines had been asking for the bells' return since 1958.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2018, with the headline 'US returns church bells to Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe