MANILA, Philippines – Three church bells seized by American troops as war trophies more than a century ago arrived in Manila on Tuesday to be handed back to the Philippines in a move long demanded by Filipino leaders, including the current president, who is critical of Washington and has moved closer to China.
A representative of Defense Secretary James Mattis is to turn over the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippine defense chief in a ceremony at an air force base in the capital, closing a dark chapter in the treaty allies’ love-hate relationship.
Mattis has said the handover is an important gesture of friendship and is in the U.S. national security interest. Some U.S. veterans and officials had opposed the return of the bells, calling them memorials to American war dead.
The bells are revered by Filipinos as symbols of national pride, and their arrival on a U.S. military transport plane was shown live on national television.
Two of the bells were at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the third was with the U.S. Army in South Korea.
After being colonized by Spain for more than three centuries, the Philippines became a U.S. possession in 1898 in a new colonial era that began with the outbreak of the Philippine-American War.
American occupation troops took the bells from a Catholic church following an attack by machete-wielding Filipino villagers, who killed 48 U.S. troops in the town of Balangiga on central Samar island in 1901 in one of the U.S. Army’s worst single-battle losses of that era.
One of the bells had been sounded to signal the attack by the villagers, some of whom were disguised as women who hid in the church near an American garrison, said historian Rolando Borrinaga, who has studied the history of the bells.
The Americans retaliated, reportedly killing villagers above the age of 10, and a U.S. general, Jacob Smith, ordered Samar to be turned into a “howling wilderness,” Borrinaga said.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has often lashed out at U.S. security policies, asked Washington in his state of the nation address last year to “return them to us, this is painful for us.”
“Give us back those Balangiga bells. … They are part of our national heritage,” Duterte said in the speech, attended by the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats.
The Philippine ambassador to the U.S., Jose Manuel Romualdez, told The Associated Press last week that with the bitter issue of the bells now resolved, he expects the U.S.-Philippine alliance to strengthen.
Duterte has had an antagonistic attitude toward the U.S. and has improved ties with China and Russia. Last year, he raised the bells’ return in a meeting with Mattis, who pledged to give them back, Romualdez said.
A breakthrough came when an amendment was made to a U.S. law banning the return of war relics and memorials to foreign countries to allow the homecoming of the Balanggiga bells, said Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who saw the bells last year in Wyoming, where he was notified by Mattis of the U.S. decision.
Philippine officials led by Duterte are to turn over the bells on Saturday to the church in Balangiga.
“This is a closure of that brutal and tragic episode during the Philippine-American war,” Borrinaga said. “It’s like starting a new relationship premised on peace, friendship and reconciliation.”