Extant photograph of some American survivors with their bell of Balangiga. This photo was taken
in Calbayog, Samar, sometime in April 1902. (Published version in the Leyte-Samar Studies.)

U.S. to return the bells of Balangiga

By Rolando O. Borrinaga

(NOTE: This article originally appeared in the maiden issue of Bankaw News dated January 16-22, 1995 and reprinted in Eastern Visayas Quarterly, September 1995 issue, and in the 1996 commemorative program of the "Balangiga Massacre". This was written at a time when the hopes of getting back the Bells of Balangiga were high after US Pres. Bill Clinton, during a visit to Manila, agreed to return these relics. Years and several debacles later, the hopes are at an all time low. Still the struggle must go on.)

At long last, the quest is over.

US President Bill Clinton, in the spirit of "fair play," has agreed to return the church bells of Balangiga, Eastern Samar to the Philippines.

The two bells, each more than three feet in height, were carted off to the United States as war booty by returning US Cavalry troops 90 years ago. They are now mounted on a granite monument near the flagpole at the Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

The bells were rung to signal a successful attack by native bolo fighters that almost wiped out a company of US Marines during the infamous "Balangiga Massacre" on September 28, 1901.

The massacre of US troops at Balangiga was the worst single defeat of the US Army during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the century. It was followed by the extermination of thousands of Samareños, mostly civilians 10 years old and above, when the American military retaliated with a "kill-and-burn" policy imposed by General Jacob Smith. This policy of hatred and revenge was aimed to reduce Samar into a "howling wilderness."

Delayed announcement

Pres. Clinton pledged to return the bells of Balangiga during his one-on-one meeting with President Fidel V. Ramos in Manila on November 13, 1994. The information was revealed more than a month later by Pres. Ramos himself, and the news was published by The Manila Times in its December 17, 1994 issue.

However, the report did not explain the one-month delay in issuing the official announcement.

Ramos said Clinton "has assigned his military staff to look into the matter."

In the same report, Foreign Affairs Secretary Roberto Romulo (now resigned) said he was instructed by the president "to follow up the matter (of the bells)." He added that the Department of Foreign Affairs was already working with the US Government to facilitate the return of the relics to the country.

"The bells are of historic importance because they were used by ill-equipped Filipino revolutionaries, under General Vicente Lukban, as a means of coordinating an attack against American troopers who were at the time herding civilians into hamlets in Balangiga, Eastern Samar," The Manila Times report elaborated.

US military sources cited that only 48 American soldiers, including their commander Capt. Thomas Connel, perished during the Balangiga Massacre. The other members of Company "C", 9th Infantry Regiment of the US Army, were reported to have escaped on native boats with varying degrees of injury.

However, the official figures have been contradicted by folk information that insisted only two out of the 74 men assigned in Balangiga survived the attack.

The natives suffered 28 deaths during the same attack.

The Americans reported that the attack happened on September 28, 1901. But this date had also been disputed by folk information, telling that it occurred on "Saturday, September 29, 1901, the feast day of St. Michael Archangel." The native attackers, led by Capitan Valeriano Abanador, reportedly prayed for the divine protection of St. Michael to enhance their success.

The American defeat at Balangiga was followed by swift and brutal retaliation of the US Army. With Gen. Smith’s "kill-and-burn" policy, between 500 and 1,000 natives, mostly civilian men, women, and children 10 years old and above, were killed for every American who perished during the Balangiga attack.

The church bells were extracted from the belfry by reinforcement troops a few days after the attack. They were transported to the US in 1904, long after the Philippine-American War had ended.

Return the 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 1883 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 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 had stalled the unfocused Filipino efforts and placed them in limbo.

"A doomed cause"

The media focus on the 50th Leyte Landing Anniversary last October 20, 1994 provided an opportunity to renew the call for the return of the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.

On August 11, 1994, a letter by this writer was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Entitled "Bells of Balangiga," the letter linked the Balangiga bells episode and MacArthur’s return as bloody contradictions of the American heritage in Leyte and Samar. To resolve this contradiction, the letter appealed for the magnanimous commitment of the US Government to return the bells to the country.

His message stuck. It was repeated in several other letters and in a full feature published by the Inquirer during the week of the Leyte Landing celebration.

This writer’s call was paralleled by former Senator Saguisag, who had written about the Balangiga bells in several of his previous columns in The Manila Times. On October 12, 1944, he wrote the column item "Leyte and the Balangiga bells," wherein he cited his common concern with this writer and alluded to the US Government to commit the return of the bells, either during the Leyte Landing writes or during Pres. Clinton’s visit last November.

"Let freedom ring once more from those bells, back in Balangiga where they belong, to punctuate America’s generosity of spirit and the gallantry of our forebears, and complete the healing," Saguisag appealed.

Saguisag’s article caught the attention of Father David Turnbull, OFM, former parish priest of Naval, Biliran, and a friend of US Ambassador and Mrs. John D. Negroponte. After reading the article. Fr. Turnbull wrote to this writer, his former spiritual ward, and asked information about the Balangiga bells. He offered to make personal representation on the matter with some US Embassy staff.

After receiving the information materials from this writer, Fr. Turnbull eventually brought up the Balangiga bells issue with the US ambassador and his wife, Diana. In a letter, the priest advised this writer to keep up his hopes for the return of the bells. Meanwhile, the latter’s local critics sneered at his "doomed cause."


Indeed, the quest for the bells of Balangiga appeared doomed.

The hint came from Pres. Ramos himself. Last September 1994, when he came to Leyte to oversee the preparations for the Leyte Landing commemoration, the president was asked about the bells during a press conference. His answer was: "Let us forget the past (memorialized by the bells) and look to the future."

October 20, 1994 came and went. The Leyte Landing speeches made no mention about the bells. But November 13, 1994, the date of the Clinton visit, also came and went without any official announcement about the fate of the Balangiga bells.

One week later, this writer wrote his column for another local weekly newspaper. He said he had given up his own quest for the return of the bells. He reasoned that since the two best opportunities to pressure for the return of the bells had come and gone, any future related effort looked futile.

Thus, when the news broke that Pres. Clinton had agreed to return the bells of Balangiga during his November visit, it came as an anti-climax.