"Must their return to Balangiga spell the end of the story?"
Last October 1, we wrote in this space about the imminent return of the Balangiga bells in time for Christmas. As a result, Manila Standard scooped every other paper about the return of the national treasures.
We could not however give out details or the source of our information as our sources in the US preferred anonymity, as they still do. It is enough for them that soon it would be “mission accomplished,” and they have done their part in furthering the friendly relation of our peoples.
The bells were taken from the church of San Lorenzo de Martir in Balangiga, Samar (now Eastern Samar) and thence brought by US forces to their country as “war booty.”
There are actually three bells –-- two large ones and a smaller bell. The two large bells ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at the entrance of F.E. Warren Air Force base, while the smaller bell became a signal bell of the US Second Infantry Division which is now posted at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
The common belief among Americans particularly in Wyoming is that the three bells were rung to signal the attack on September 28, 1901 by Filipino “insurrectos” upon the American soldiers of Company C who were then stationed in Balangiga.
Scholars have since learned from oral history and other accounts that only the small bell was rung.
The local priest at the time, a Fr. Donato Guimbaolibot was not present at the time of the attack.
To many Filipinos, the Balangiga Massacre refers to the reprisal inflicted by the American forces which resulted in the burning down of Balangiga including its church. The reprisal was done upon orders of Gen. Jacob Smith who exhorted his men to turn Samar into a “howling wilderness” and to kill all males above ten years of age. Most chilling was his exhortation that “the more you kill and burn, the more pleased I will be.”
Smith was subsequently court-martialed for this, but was merely given a slap on the wrist – a dishonorable discharge and retirement.
Balangiga also stands out as among the few military victories exacted by the Filipino side against US forces during that war.
Long after that incident, the belief among many veterans in Wyoming was that the US soldiers were the object of a savage and perfidious attack, that the Filipinos used “bolos” to mercilessly hack their soldiers to death. They dismissed the fact that the Filipinos only had bolos for weapons and a surprise attack was the only way of effectively fighting soldiers armed with “Krag” rifles.
The journey of the Balangiga bells back home to Samar has been long and arduous. It entailed Philippine Catholic church leaders making representations with the US military for the return of the bells many decades back.
The 1990s saw the first earnest efforts by the Philippine government for the return of the bells, spearheaded by then President Fidel V. Ramos, who ordered the Philippine Embassy in Washington D.C., then headed by Ambassador Raul Ch. Rabe to mount an active campaign.
Trips by Ambassador Rabe and other officials to Cheyenne, Wyoming were undertaken and representations made with local officials, businessmen, and Filipino residents of the area.
Many Fil-Am organizations also joined the campaign, writing and visiting their local political leaders. In fact, a draft of a US presidential order to be signed by then POTUS Bill Clinton was already prepared in time for the last official visit of Pres. Ramos to the country in 1999.
However, Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas filed a bill in the US Congress prohibiting the removal of artifacts from US war memorials for return to foreign countries unless with the express authorization of the US Congress. This became law until 2017 when it finally expired and opened the doors to a renewed campaign.
This time a group of retired US military officials formerly assigned at Clark and Subic bases in the course of their career took it upon themselves to continue the effort for the return of the bells.
Then came the State of the Nation Address of President Rodrigo Duterte where he asked for the return of the bells to our country.
The resistance to their return came from a small but active group of war veterans in Cheyenne. But our American friends lobbied to convince fellow veterans of the need to “do the right thing” and return the bells to the church to which they ought to belong. The appeal had a good ring to it and they were joined by other Americans who had ties to the Philippines.
They lobbied the national organizations of US veterans and an American businessman undertook a lobby in the US Congress to prevent the revival of the “Thomas” law and insert instead a provision in the US Defense Appropriations Act giving the US Defense Secretary the power to return the “artifacts” to foreign countries.
Much has been written about this group of principled Americans and those who preceded them and there is no need to mention their names here.
All that needs to be said is that we Filipinos are grateful to them for their help in getting back the Bells of Balangiga.
Must the return of the bells to Balangiga spell the end of their story?
The bells have become national treasures, and there are voices saying they should be celebrated to commemorate our struggle for independence against the American invaders.
There are also those who feel that the return of the bells should spell closure to that part of our history when Filipinos and Americans were enemies at war against each other.
Maybe we should set up in Balangiga a memorial to Philippine-American friendship. Ominously at odds?
This has been done earlier in Baler, Quezon where the last valiant Spanish soldiers were marooned inside a church but stood in defiance, and now commemorates the historical ties between the Philippines and Spain.
Let me congratulate in this column my good friend Teodoro Locsin Jr., “Teddy Boy” as he is often called, for his swift confirmation as our Foreign Affairs Secretary. Much has been said in praise of the man during the confirmation and I shall not add more to the encomiums, other than to say he deserves them.
But I regret I have to end this piece with sadness. For while we were having an investment summit of big Taiwanese businessmen in the Taipei Le Meridien on Wednesday night last week, SBMA Chair Amy Eisma called to ask if MECO Director Rommel Sytin was around.
Rommel decided to leave for home earlier after our Joint Economic Conference that day, and it was while he was on board a PAL plane for Manila when Eisma called to break the tragic news that his older brother, my friend Dominic Sytin was dastardly and fatally shot as he went out of a hotel in SBMA.
Dominic, the eldest of the Sytin brothers who pioneered their fledgling used equipment venture into the country’s largest truck and heavy equipment auction house, United Auctioneers, was a man of grit and imagination who bucked economic adversity and triumphed.
Our profound condolences to the bereaved family and the entire Sytin clan.