Photo of Balangiga Bells Memorial in Wyoming, mysteriously overlayed
with items from Adolph Gamlin's grave in Nebraska. (Photo by Jean Wall)

The Balangiga Incident: Overview and Update on the Campaign for the Return of the Bells of Balangiga

Prof. Rolando O. Borrinaga
School of Health Sciences
University of the Philippines Manila
Palo, Leyte

(Paper presented at the Philippine Studies Association’s First Regional Seminar-Workshop on Philippine Studies in the Visayas, Golden Peak Hotel,Cebu City, September 9-10, 2005.)

In this paper, I present to you an overview of the Balangiga Incident in Samar in 1901, which I had labeled the “Balangiga Conflict” in my doctoral dissertation research that had been published as a book titled The Balangiga Conflict Revisited. I also provide you the latest developments in the campaign for the return of the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines.

The Balangiga Incident

The Balangiga Incident refers to a local event in the morning of Saturday, Sept. 28, 1901, when some 500 native fighters mostly armed with bolos staged a successful attack on soldiers of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, who were mostly eating or lining up for breakfast in their garrison in the town of Balangiga, in the southern part of Samar Island.

The result was the “worst single defeat” of the US Army during the Philippine-American War more than a century ago. This event was known in US official reports and publications as the “Balangiga Massacre.”

The attack was the culmination of an entire episode that is properly labeled the “Balangiga Conflict.” It was a suspense-filled real life drama, a running conflict in beliefs and perceptions between two peoples from different races and cultures, with many related developments and cause-and-effect factors both within and outside the town.

Of the 74 men of Company C, 36 were killed during the attack (including the three commissioned officers), eight of the wounded died later during the escape by bancas (outrigger boats) to Basey town, and four were missing and presumed dead.

Of the 26 American survivors, only four were not wounded.

The natives suffered 28 deaths and 22 wounded.

For a long time, it had been believed that the church bells of Balangiga were used to signal the attack on the US troops. But two recently published books about the Balangiga event had established that the attack had begun when a bell was rung as signal for the hidden reinforcements to join the attack on the garrison.

Considered one of the worst defeats in US military history, the Filipino victory in Balangiga was followed by a shameful episode inflicted by the US side, and which details remain controversial and hotly-debated until the present.

US retaliation

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 January 1902.

Implemented by the Sixth Separate Brigade under Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith of the US Army, which included a battalion of US Marines under Major Littleton T. W. Waller, the campaign was blamed for the alleged disappearance of some 15,000 people in Samar.

The general reportedly gave orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms (specifically, 10 years old and above) during the combat operations to reduce Samar into a “howling wilderness.”

Aside from the population loss, the Samar campaign resulted in massive devastation of the rural economic base in terms of hundreds of burned houses, destroyed native boats, and slaughtered carabaos, the draft animals of the Filipinos. US troops likewise burned and confiscated rice and food stocks and market-ready abaca (hemp) fibers, the principal source of local cash income.

General Smith was eventually made the scapegoat for the shameful policy on Samar. He was forced to retire from the US Army following a court martial.

“War trophies”

The three church bells of Balangiga were taken days after the attack by men of the 11th US Infantry, another US Army unit that occupied the abandoned town before being relieved by US Marines on Oct. 23, 1901.

These “war trophies” were shipped out of the Leyte-Samar region from the headquarters of the 11th US Infantry at the former Camp Bumpus, now the Leyte Park Resort in Tacloban City.

The camp was named after 1st Lt. Edward A. Bumpus, Harvard alumnus and second in command of Company C, who was also killed in Balangiga.

The smallest bell was turned over to the headquarters of the 9th US Infantry Regiment in Calbayog, Samar, in early April 1902. This relic is on permanent display at the traveling museum of the 9th US Infantry, now stationed in Tongduchon, South Korea.

The two bigger bells were brought to the US by returning 11th Infantry soldiers to their home station at the former Fort D.A. Russell, now the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Both are now displayed at the Balangiga Memorial in its Trophy Park.

The return of the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines remains the last issue of contention between the US and Philippine governments related to the Philippine-American War.

The campaign for the return of the Balangiga bells

Former Senator Rene V. Saguisag, who has collected archival materials about the Balangiga event in the US, claimed that the earliest recorded effort he had seen to get back the bells of Balangiga was in 1957. The Jesuit historian, Fr. Horacio de la Costa, wrote twice to Mr. Chip Wards, Command Historian of the 13th Air Force in San Francisco, California.

A year later, the American Franciscan Fathers in Guihulngan, Negros Oriental, also wrote to Mr. Wards, claiming that one of the two bells (dated 1863 and 1889, respectively) was of Franciscan origin.

Other groups and individuals have also worked, off and on, both to highlight the Balangiga event and to petition for the return of the bells to the Philippines.

In 1982, the National Historical Institute, upon the representation of Balangiga residents in Metro-Manila, authorized the installation of a historical marker in the plaza where the massacre occurred “to honor national heroes and perpetuate the glory of their deeds and to preserve historical sites.” This marker was inlaid at the pedestal of the monument in honor of Capitan Valeriano Abanador.

On his part, Representative Jose Tan Ramirez of Eastern Samar filed a bill that came out in 1988 as R.A. No. 6692, designating September 28 of every year as "Balangiga Encounter Day" and making this day an official non-working holiday in the entire province.

In 1989 the Balangiga Historical Society, through the National Historical Institute and the Department of Foreign Affairs, petitioned the US Government for the return of their town’s church bells. “The return of the bells would mean a great deal to the town people of Balangiga, as they represent the rich heritage of the town, the emblem and the aspirations of their forefathers for freedom and liberty,” the petition highlighted.

After sensing that their plea had fallen on deaf ears, the Balangiga Historical Society requested Senator Heherson Alvarez to intercede on their behalf. The senator obliged by communicating with then US Ambassador Richard Solomon in Manila and making an official visit to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, USA, in 1993.

In 1994 Sen. Alvarez wrote to both US Ambassador John D. Negroponte and Pres. Clinton for the return of the bells to the Philippines.

There had been a lot of support for the return of the Balangiga bells to the country. But there was also formidable resistance. Some opposition came from officials and residents of Wyoming. And last September 1994, US Ambassador Negroponte officially admitted that the US Air Force did not favor the return of the bells. The resistance stalled the unfocused Filipino efforts and placed them in limbo.

Suddenly, some hope flashed in the bells front when US President Bill Clinton agreed to return the church bells of Balangiga to the Philippines “in the spirit of fair play.” He made the pledge to return the bells during his one-on-one meeting with President Fidel V. Ramos in Manila on November 13, 1994. Pres. Clinton was then on his way to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference meeting in Indonesia.

But the hope was soon dashed after some US department-level officials claimed their president had made an “illegal” offer. The bells campaign was stalled once again.

Towards the end of 1997 and into the first half of 1998, the subdued Balangiga bells issue among historians and researchers became the subject of an all-out media war and intense political and diplomatic maneuverings between the US and Philippine governments. Our government wanted the two bells in Wyoming returned to the country in time for the centennial commemoration of the Declaration of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1998.

Then Pres. Fidel V. Ramos even proposed a “one original, one replica” sharing formula in the hope of appeasing both American and Filipino sides of the controversy. But influential US veterans and their groups held their ground and succeeded in keeping both bells on American soil and stalling once again their return to the Philippines.

Contrasting versions of the Balangiga story

At the root of the inter-governmental impasse on the bells issue were two parallel versions of the Balangiga story – one American, the other Filipino. Both versions, based on selective details and contrasting interpretations of phenomena by both sides, were deemed credible by their respective adherents, who were equally wary and suspicious of the other’s version.

In the light of the 1998 fiasco, it became imperative to integrate and clarify the contrasting versions of the Balangiga story for the bells controversy to be resolved amicably. This became the new thrust of my own advocacy for the return of the bells, which started in 1994 through occasional letters to the editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. My initial articles about Balangiga happened to highlight the Filipino version of events and were wary of the American version.

Since 1998, I expanded my Balangiga research by collecting eyewitness accounts, investigation reports, and primary documents and sources from the American side, to complement my collection of documents from the Filipino side. I was greatly helped in my quest by Bob Couttie, a British screenwriter and video director who is based in Subic, Zambales, and Jean Wall, the daughter of the first American soldier to be attacked in Balangiga in 1901. Couttie’s movie producer had financed the search for Balangiga-related materials from various libraries and archives in the US, which were originally intended for a feature movie on Balangiga. Wall is the keeper of her father’s archives related to the Balangiga Incident. We have shared our documents with each other since then.

The three of us met in Tacloban for the first time in September 1998, when I convened the University of the Philippines’ National Symposium on the Balangiga Attack of 1901 and co-coordinated the UP’s Balangiga Lakbay Aral, one of the university’s Philippine Centennial activities. For Ms. Wall, it was the first sentimental journey by a descendant of an American survivor to the scene of the Balangiga fighting.

We have since organized ourselves into the Balangiga Research Group (BRG) and extensively communicate with each other through the Internet. The agreed purpose of the BRG was to conduct in-depth research on the Balangiga Incident and related events, and to share our findings with interested parties, both Americans and Filipinos. At present, we have earned a high level of credibility such that we are regularly consulted for ideas and information by both Filipino and American groups and individuals interested in the issue.

New tack on the bells campaign

When Balangiga commemorated the centennial of their famous event on September 28, 2001, all the campaign efforts to have the bells returned had been stalled. A new tack was necessary to get things moving forward.

We the BRG members attended the Balangiga centennial commemoration, which featured an official American speaker for the first time, the Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Manila. Also for the first time, the BRG made public our position that the two bells in Wyoming should be returned to the town where they belong. Our last convert was Jean Wall who did not support the other members’ proposal in 1998. She only did so after the contrasting Balangiga stories had been clarified among the three of us and the Balangiga provenance of the three bells had been independently proven. We found the confirmatory proofs for the latter in the Balangiga parish records for the 1880s and 1890s that were displayed in public during the anniversary.

In the last quarter of 2001, I used my collection of Balangiga materials and the help of my fellow BRG members in writing my doctoral dissertation on the “Balangiga Conflict,” which I successfully defended in August 2002. I sifted the initial facts as could be established from later myths and wrote about other aspects of the event that still needed to be told to complete the picture. And I recreated or rewrote parts of the entire story from the available data whenever this was necessary.

As a result I had documented the most comprehensive and definitive analytical account of the Balangiga Conflict by a Filipino, through a series of ten essays that were chronologically and logically arranged to fill up major gaps and/or resolve the discrepancies. The dissertation was published as a book by New Day Publishers in Quezon City in 2003.

In turn, the other BRG members helped Bob Couttie with his manuscript for a complementary book on Balangiga that was also published by New Day Publishers in 2004. Its title is Hang the Dogs: The True Tragic History of the Balangiga Massacre.

Jean Wall has also planned to write her own book on the Balangiga event and her two sentimental journeys to Balangiga. In the meantime, she serves as resource person for American scholars and journalists who write about Balangiga. She also provides clarifications to the American side when occasional negative articles based on old and refuted data come out in the American or Filipino media. In like manner, I provide clarifications to the Filipino side, and Bob Couttie provides clarifications to the others who hesitate to contact the American or Filipino member of the BRG.

In July 2002, Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. filed Senate Resolution 48 calling for the return of the Balangiga bells to the country. The BRG provided him the draft for that document. But although the resolution was approved by the Senate early in October 2002, it failed to make headway because it had no counterpart resolution in the House of Representatives.

Letter to the President

Towards the end of 2002, the BRG decided to undertake a more direct but low-key approach, not only to petition for the return of the bells but also to start the process of reconciliation between the descendants of Balangiga and of Company C that was attacked in the town. We have likewise veered away from being involved in campaigns led by top-ranking politicians or religious leaders, which had only stirred controversy in the mass media and bungled the past efforts.

Jean Wall wrote a letter to US Pres. George Bush around December 2002. In it she clarified the contentious Balangiga story for the American readers and presented the latest BRG findings. Then she proposed that “repatriating the Cheyenne [in Wyoming] bells is right and proper today.”

She argued that “(I)t is surely more appropriate to repatriate the Cheyenne bells to the Church in Balangiga where the memories of the fallen Americans on September 28, 1901, have been honored, along with all those who died in that tragedy, for decades and will continue to be. And … in rites in which Americans, and especially American veterans, are welcomed to participate.”

“By returning the bells to Balangiga and showing by our actions our nation’s capacity for forgiveness and great-hearted magnanimity, we shall be completing [my father’s] mission,” Ms. Wall emphasized. She was referring to the “peaceful penetration” and “policy of attraction” mission statement for the US soldiers in Samar in 1901.

Wall’s letter was thereafter referred to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs for appropriate action.

Reconciliation efforts

In the Philippines, with the concurrence of the Balangiga officials and key residents, Couttie and I served as go-between for the process of healing and reconciliation between the descendants of Balangiga and of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment.

In March 2003, Balangiga Mayor Catalina M. Camenforte wrote a letter to Col. Daniel P. Bolger, Chief of Staff of the Korea-based 2nd US Infantry Division, the mother unit of the 9th US Infantry Regiment. She invited their town’s former enemy unit to conduct a sentimental visit to Balangiga on August 10 and 11 of that year. August 10 is the town fiesta, and August 11 is the date of arrival of Company C in Balangiga in 1901.

During the September 28, 2003 anniversary, Balangiga had another US official visitor in the person of the Museum Curator of the 2nd US Infantry Division in Korea. This guest had custody of the third bell of Balangiga in the possession of their military unit. The visitor carried with him a copy of a letter to Mayor Camenforte from Capt. Parik, the commander of Company C. The captain’s letter expressed friendship and the need for a “long overdue reconciliation” for the 1901 event.

But though the Balangiga mayor’s invitation had been accepted by Company C, the sentimental visit may not be forthcoming soon. Last year, the 9th US Infantry Regiment, including Company C, was dispatched to Iraq to fight a war that has parallels with the bloody Samar battlefield a century ago.

The Wyoming front

In December 2004, Wall’s letter to Pres. Bush resulted in a visit to Wyoming of representatives of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. These officials met with the Wyoming Veterans Commission (WVC) and requested the latter to re-study the Balangiga bells issue and consider the return of the artifacts to Balangiga.

A Balangiga bells committee was created within the commission, and was tasked to conduct in-depth study of the issue and to consult with the different veterans’ organizations and their members in Wyoming over a period of three months. The BRG, through Jean Wall, provided the committee with documents, including the two recently-published Balangiga books. Wall also provided other data and information on “as needed” basis. As agreed, the committee’s activities were to be kept away from the media.

The time of reckoning came last March 26, 2005, the scheduled date for the Wyoming Veterans Commission to decide on the fate of the bells. Before the vote was made, Jean Wall presented her case for the return of the bells, based on two uncontested arguments backed by BRG findings as follows:

1) None of the two bells in Wyoming were rung during the attack on Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment; the bell that was rung is in the museum of the 2nd U.S Infantry Division stationed in Korea; and

2) There is no connection between Wyoming and Company C, which had their regimental headquarters in New York in the early 1900s. No member of the ill-fated Company C came from Wyoming.

The result was a 7-4 vote among the commission members favoring a resolution to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines. The next step would have been for the commission representatives and Jean Wall to call on Wyoming Governor David Freudenthal and brief him on the decision, after which they would release a joint press statement on the issue.

Unfortunately, a disgruntled member of the commission broke internal rules and persuaded the Wyoming governor to issue a press statement opposing the return of the bells even before he was formally briefed and given the opportunity to examine the evidence supporting the commission’s decision.

As a result, the Balangiga bells issue exploded again in a sour note especially in the US media from March to May this year.

Damage control

Away from the media glare, Balangiga Mayor Camenforte, through the BRG, sent an e-mail to Gov. Freudenthal, expressing her people’s “appreciation to the Wyoming Veterans Commission for its decision to recommend the return of the two bells.”

The response was made by a political analyst of the Wyoming governor. It stated: “The governor believes the two Bells of Balangiga … represent a significant part of Wyoming’s military heritage, honoring members of the military, and he respectfully believes they should stay where they are now located. [However,] the fate of these bells, situated on a federal facility, has been for many years and is at the discretion of the federal government and the ultimate decision to return the Bells of Balangiga or leave them as they are at F.E. Warren AFB is one over which Governor Freudenthal has no authority. A decision to return the bells to the Philippines would come from the United States Congress.”

Regarding the legalities, experts around the world that the BRG had consulted were one in saying that based on custom law, military law, and international treaties, the contested bells belong to Balangiga.

All US officials directly involved in the Balangiga issue on both sides of the Pacific, including US Army senior leaders and diplomats, have also been one in saying, although quietly, that their government knows that the right, legal and ethical course of action is to return the bells to their rightful place - that is, in Balangiga.

On top of these, the US Congress, through the Unified Code of Military Justice, has provided the US president with the required authority to return the bells regardless of the status of the property rights involved.

New parallel initiatives

Of course, there are parallel campaigners for the return of the bells. One is called the “East Coast Group” by the BRG. This group has sponsored two US trips of Bishop Leonardo Medroso of the Diocese of Borongan. The first trip was conducted around the time of the Balangiga anniversary in September last year. The bishop and his sponsors visited the offices of the Wyoming congressional delegation and were received by the politicians’ aides. Nothing was heard about the outcome of that visit.

The second trip of Bishop Medroso was made after the March 2005 vote of the Wyoming Veterans Commission. The bishop brought with him a petition signed by hundreds of parishioners of Balangiga, requesting the return of the bells to their town, which he had reportedly turned over to the US Congress secretariat. At the same time, a signature campaign in the Internet was launched, prefaced by an open letter of Bishop Medroso to Pres. Bush, the United States Congress and the Helsinki Commission pertaining to the return of the bells to the Balangiga Parish. The letter cited the efforts of Jean Wall as well as the BRG research.

Like the first visit, the bishop apparently failed to meet any congressional level politician during his trip this year.

A recent development traceable to the sponsors of Bishop Medroso’s US trips was the filing of House Resolution 313 in the US Congress by California Rep. Bob Filner on June 13, 2005. The resolution “Urg[ed] the President to authorize the transfer of ownership of one of the bells taken from the town of Balangiga on the island of Samar, Philippines, which are currently displayed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, to the people of the Philippines.”

The resolution is consistent with the existing “one original, one replica” sharing formula that dates back to the Ramos presidency. This still seems to be the existing Philippine government position on the issue, whatever our officials have been telling us on the contrary.

But the Eastern Samar bishop, the sponsors of his two US trips, and the US congressional politicians may not have the last say on the bells issue.

Unfinished business

The Wyoming Veterans Commission’s decision last March, which favored a resolution to return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines, left some unsettled business. Although the decision favored the return of two bells, the details were not settled during the meeting because of time constraint.

The next point of contention is the definition of the “two bells” to be returned. This could mean any of the following:

a) Both original bells in Wyoming would be returned because of the cost of keeping them up and their being not available to the general public. The bells would then be substituted with a plaque or memorial of some sort at the State House or some other suitable place; or

b) Keep the memorial where it is, with two bells, one of which would be substituted by a replica, in an exchange that has always been discussed in the past by both sides.

The details would be worked out in the next meeting by members of a new veterans’ commission appointed by the Wyoming governor, because the two-year term of the previous commission that decided the fate of the bells expired last June.

If the new set of commissioners would decide to return both original bells in Wyoming to Balangiga (note, to Balangiga!), it is likely that their recommendation will be heeded by the politicians and would override the “one original, one replica” recommendation of House Resolution 313 and the known position of the Philippine government on the issue.

The BRG favors the return of the two original bells in Wyoming to Balangiga, as recommended by Jean Wall in her letter to Pres. Bush. We hope it is this wish that would be granted.

Thank you and good afternoon.

(NOTE: After the above paper had been delivered, Jean Wall clarified in an e-mail that the Wyoming Veterans Commission approved in its March meeting the motion to return both original bells to the city (sic) of Balangiga. There was some discussion about sending an original and a duplicate, but this did not become part of the approved motion. The pre-agreed plan after the WVC decision was to move in an orderly fashion through State and then National-elected officials, but this did not happen after one or more of the opposition voters went to the governor and persuaded him against sending the bells back.)