Jean Wall, daughter of Pvt. Adolph Gamlin, receives a present from U.P. Tacloban College
Dean Viola Siozon. The lecturers in the front table are (from left) Ms. Rosario N. Cabardo,
Dr. Reynaldo H. Imperial, Prof. Rolando O. Borrinaga, and Mr. Bob Couttie.

Balangiga history not clear as a bell

Balangiga, Eastern Samar

(Banner article in the INQUIRER Visayas section, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Aug. 4, 2001, p. A14.)

WHEN the people of Balangiga, Eastern Samar, celebrate the centennial of the Balangiga Massacre on Sept. 28, they will understand better the circumstances behind the bloody incident and its bloodier aftermath, and a different story about bells.

They will also see a breakthrough in establishing the identity and location of three bells that hung at the church belfry during the Filipino attack on the American garrison in Balangiga.

Since 1998, members of a small group have been comparing notes and ideas by e-mail based on their own sources and documents about Balangiga. They have also debated on myths and hypotheses in evolving a body of knowledge that has reconciled most conflicting versions and interpretations of what actually happened in Balangiga a century ago.

The group is composed of Jean Wall, daughter of the first American soldier to be attacked in Balangiga; Bob Couttie, a Subic-based movie writer and former British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent who managed the Balangiga website; and this writer, an associate professor of the University of the Philippines.

The three first met at the "UP National Symposium on the Balangiga Attack of 1901," which this writer convened in Tacloban City on Sept. 26, 1998.

The Balangiga story

The Filipino in the group has this updated version of the famous Balangiga incident:

In the morning of Saturday (not the mythic Sunday), Sept. 28, 1901, hundreds of native fighters armed with bolos, some of them disguised as churchgoing women, staged a successful surprise attack on US troops while most of them were eating breakfast in Balangiga at the southern coast of Samar Island.

Described as the "worst single defeat" of the US military in the Philippines, that event became known in history as the Balangiga Massacre.

The natives fought to resist the destruction or confiscation and rationing of their food stocks and to free about 80 male residents who had been rounded up for forced labor and detained for days in crowded conditions with little food and water.

The US troops belonged to Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, who were stationed in Balangiga to keep its small port closed and prevent any trading. Their mission was to deprive the Filipino revolutionary forces of supplies during the Philippine-American War, which had spread to the Visayas.

An elite unit, Company C performed as honor guard during the historic July 4, 1901 inauguration of the American civil government in the Philippines and the installation as first civil governor of William Howard Taft, later president of the US.

They arrived in Balangiga a few weeks later, on Aug. 11.

The attacking force, coordinated by Valeriano Abanador, the local chief of police, was composed of around 500 men in seven different companies. They represented virtually all families of Balangiga, whose outlying villages then included the present towns of Lawaan and Giporlos, and of Quinapundan, a town served by the priest in Balangiga.

Some of the leaders, notably Capt. Eugenio Daza, were revolutionary officers under the command of Brig. Gen. Vicente Lukban, the politico-military governor of Samar who was appointed by President Emilio Aguinaldo.

The ringing of the church bell signaled the attack. Fierce fighting ensued, resulting in one of the biggest number of American casualties in a single encounter.

Of the 74 men of Company C, 36 were killed during the attack, eight of the wounded died later during the escape by bancas to Basey town, and four were missing and presumed dead.

Of the 26 survivors, only four were not wounded.

The natives suffered 28 fatalities and 22 wounded.

The bell was taken from the church belfry a day after the attack by US reinforcement troops from Basey and was brought by the survivors to the US as war booty.

“Howling wilderness”

Considered one of the worst defeats in US military history, the Filipino victory in Balangiga was followed by a shameful episode that was replicated in sensational but smaller scales by American soldiers in No Gun Ri, Korea, in 1950 and in My Lai, Vietnam in 1968.

US military authorities retaliated with a "kill and burn" policy to take back Samar, deliberately equating a victorious small town with an entire island, from October 1901 to March 1902.

Implemented by Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith of the US Army, the campaign resulted in the undocumented disappearance of some 50,000 people, the smallest increase in Samar’s population between 1896 and 1903.

Numerous men, women and children 10 years old and above were reported killed during the combat operations to reduce Samar into a "howling wilderness."

General Smith was eventually made the scapegoat for the shameful policy. He was retired from the US Army following a court martial.

Today, the Balangiga incident remains a largely forgotten episode of a forgotten war. Even the national government has not shown keen interest in commemorating the centennial of this truly proud moment in the Philippines’ bloody route to freedom.

As of this writing, no national or regional government office has actively prepared for the September affair.

The Balangiga incident is popularly associated with the two "Bells of Balangiga" displayed at the Trophy Park of the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The first Filipino known to have located these relics in 1957 was the late Jesuit historian Fr. Horacio de la Costa.

The municipal government of Balangiga formally sought the return of the bells in a resolution passed in 1989, the same year they started commemorating the annual "Balangiga Encounter Day."

In November 1994, US President Bill Clinton offered to return the two bells in Wyoming to the Philippines "in the spirit of fair play." However, this offer was deemed "illegal" in US military circles and was not heeded.

The bells were the subject of a spate of international publicity in 1998, when President Fidel Ramos actively sought their return in time for the centennial of the Philippine Independence. The presidential intervention failed because Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming filed a bill in the US Senate that effectively stalled any hope for the immediate return of the relics to the country.

Third bell

While the bells issue was heating up in December 1997, it took a totally different twist after a US military historian disclosed to the Associated Press the presence of a "third bell" of Balangiga with the US forces assigned in Korea.

The cited source was David Perrine, a West Point graduate and retired military officer.

Maj. Daniel Tarter, former commander of Company C, later affirmed Perrine’s revelation. In commenting on an Asiaweek article on the Bells of Balangiga, Tarter expressed doubts about the authenticity of the Wyoming bells and agreed to have the real bell returned to Balangiga.

Tarter said the bell of Balangiga was with the 9th US Infantry Regiment stationed at Camp Hovey near Tongduchon, South Korea. He last saw it in April 1997.

A son of a Manchu, as the 9th Infantry soldier was called after the unit helped quell the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, revealed in an Internet posting that the bell of Balangiga entered the US through the Madison Barracks at Sackets Harbor in New York. The facility was the Manchus’ home station from Oct. 9, 1891 to April 23, 1905.

In contrast, the Wyoming bells were brought by members of the 11th US Infantry Regiment from Tacloban, Leyte to their home station in the former Fort D.A. Russell (now F.E. Warren Air Force Base).

The new information about the "third bell" prompted a review of the documentary sources.

In a 1935 affidavit, Eugenio Daza mentioned that "one of the bells" rang to signal the attack on the American garrison in Balangiga was taken to the US.

Pedro Duran Sr., another Balangiga plotter, also recalled only one bell ringing in a 1957 interview with a priest-historian.

On the American side, only one bell with a differently worded plaque was originally displayed in Wyoming. This was the circa-1889 bell with the Franciscan emblem.

Private Gamlin

The account of Pvt. Adolph Gamlin, the first American soldier to be attacked and wounded in Balangiga, also mentioned that only one bell was rung to signal the attack.

A photograph of some Balangiga survivors with the church bell in their possession still exists. Gamlin said this was taken in Manila. Their bell is a smaller version of the Wyoming bell with the Franciscan emblem.

Sources from both sides of the Balangiga conflict now tend to acknowledge the key role of Gamlin in repulsing the attack and averting a rout of his company. Despite severe injuries in the head, belly and back, Gamlin appeared to be the first soldier to grab a rifle and start firing at the horde of native attackers, who were thus forced to retreat.

Jean Wall, Gamlin’s daughter, who visited Balangiga in 1998, is now lobbying for official recognition of the heroism of her father and his fellow survivors, who salvaged what was left of America’s honor in Balangiga. She favors the return of the signal bell of Balangiga to the Philippines.

Unknown to most Filipinos, the "third bell" was nearly returned to the country in 1998.

Senator Thomas initially offered to help return the relic if the Philippine government would lay its hands off the two bells in Wyoming.

However, President Ramos scoffed at the senator’s proposal and insisted on his "one original, one replica" sharing formula. That proved to be a costly mistake.

To protect his political flank, Thomas filed Senate Bill No. 1903, titled "A Veterans Memorial Physical Integrity Act of 1998," in the US Congress weeks before Ramos’ trip to the US in May 1998 trip to retrieve the bells. The bill prohibits the return of veterans’ memorial objects without specific authorization in law.

Thus, the Filipinos’ hope of ringing the "Bells of Balangiga" to launch the Philippine Independence Centennial festivities on June 12, 1998 was doused.

The "third bell" also became elusive thereafter. Efforts by independent parties to verify its existence and location were fruitless.

Another bell

The latest breakthrough was the identification of yet another bell with similar but differently placed details compared with the Wyoming bell and the small bell photographed with the survivors. All three have the Franciscan emblem and might have belonged to the same set of three bells.

The erstwhile unknown bell, which looks medium-sized, is mounted on a concrete pedestal in an open field in the old Madison Barracks in New York. On one side of the pedestal is carved "Balangiga."

This writer was sent a scanned copy of the bell’s photograph but was not allowed to release it for publication.

Thus, the three bells of Balangiga at the time of the 1901 attack have now been traced, including their points of entry to the US. But the mystery of only one bell ringing during the attack itself still persists.

In many rural Philippine towns, the smallest of three church bells was routinely allowed by parish priests to be used to call people to public meetings or civic and non-religious activities, such as communal street cleaning, or to alert them in cases of emergency, like fire or flood.

A repeated ringing of the small bell signified a non-religious activity.

The soldiers of Company C were probably familiar with the ringing of Balangiga’s small bell. This might have been used to coordinate the task of cleaning the town’s streets and surroundings by the detained male residents on orders of the American commander.

But when the same bell rang that fateful morning of Sept. 28, 1901, it was already intended to rid the town of the Americans. The rest remains contested history.