The quest for Balangiga’s bells

The three Balangiga bells (photo courtesy of the author)

The quest for Balangiga’s bells

By Rolando O. Borrinaga


On the morning of September 28, 1901, hundreds of native fighters, mostly armed with bolos, and some disguised as women church worshippers, staged a successful surprise attack on American troops who were eating or lining up for breakfast in Balangiga, a town in southern Samar.

Described as the “worst single defeat” of the US military during the Philippine-American War, that event came to be known as the “Balangiga Massacre.”

AMERICAN TROOPS IN SAMAR

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

A glamor unit, Company C was assigned to guard the captured President Emilio Aguinaldo upon their return to the Philippines in June 1901, after fighting the rebels and capturing Peking during the Boxer Rebellion in China. The unit performed as honor guard during the historic July 4, 1901, inauguration of the American civil government in the Philippines and the installation of William Howard Taft as first civil governor.

Company C, commanded by Capt. Thomas W. Connell, a West Point graduate, arrived in Balangiga on August 11.

NATIVE RESISTANCE

The natives plotted against the American forces to resist forced starvation on a famine season due to the destruction or confiscation of their rice and food stocks, 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, and to fight for honor after being shamed by these faulty military impositions.

Only two of the eight main plotters were identified as revolutionary officers under the command of Brig. Gen. Vicente Lukban, politico-military governor of Samar appointed by Aguinaldo. They were Capt. Eugenio Daza, a former teacher who became Lukban’s area officer for tax collection and food security in southeastern Samar, and Pedro Duran Sr., a Balangigan sergeant under Daza.

Contrary to the century-old attribution that Daza masterminded the attack, the essentially all-Balangigan plot appeared to be the handiwork of Abanador, a Letran dropout who played chess opposite Company C’s surgeon, Maj. Richard Sill Griswold, and a tournament caliber arnis (stick fighting) master.

Abanador’s deft move to neutralize the moving armed guard, Pvt. Adolph Gamlin, by grabbing his gun from behind and hitting him unconscious with its butt on the head, served as the cue for the communal laborers positioned in and around the town plaza to make the rush at the two other stationary armed guards and the unarmed men of Company C.

Abanador picked up his rattan cane, waved it above his head, and yelled: “Atake, mga Balangigan-on! (Attack, men of Balangiga!)”

A church bell was rung seconds later to announce that the attack had begun.

Fierce fighting ensued, resulting in one of the biggest number of American casualties in a single encounter. Of the 74 men of Company C, a total of 48 Americans died from the encounter. The Filipinos suffered 28 deaths and 22 wounded.

“HOWLING WILDERNESS”

From October 1901 to March 1902, US military authorities retaliated with a “kill and burn” policy to take back Samar. Carried out by the Sixth Separate Brigade under Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith of the US Army, the campaign was blamed for the death of at least 2,500 people in Samar. The general gave orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms during the combat operations to reduce Samar into a “howling wilderness.” From October 1901 to March 1902, US military authorities retaliated with a “kill and burn” policy to take back Samar. Carried out by the Sixth Separate Brigade under Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith of the US Army, the campaign was blamed for the death of at least 2,500 people in Samar. The general gave orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms during the combat operations to reduce Samar into a “howling wilderness.”

The Samar campaign resulted in massive devastation of the rural economic base. Hundreds of houses were destroyed as were native boats. Carabaos were slaughtered. US troops confiscated and burned 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 this shameful policy. He was forced to retire from the army following a court martial.

THE BELLS AS WAR TROPHIES

The three church bells of Balangiga were taken days after the attack by members of the 11th US Infantry, another army unit that occupied the abandoned town. These war trophies were shipped out of the Leyte-Samar from the headquarters of the 11th Infantry at the former Camp Bumpus, now the Leyte Park Resort in Tacloban City. The camp was named after Lt. Edward A. Bumpus, a Harvard graduate and second in command of Company C, who was killed in Balangiga.

The smallest bell was turned over to the 9th US Infantry in Calbayog, Samar. This bell became part of the travelling museum of the 9th US Infantry, now stationed in Korea.

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

Decades later, the return of the bells to the Philippines became an issue of contention between the US and Philippine governments.

THE RETURN OF THE BELLS
The call for the return of the bells became sensational and political in 1997 and 1998. Despite the offer of then President Bill Clinton, then President Fidel Ramos failed to have the two bells in Wyoming returned in time for the Centennial of the Declaration of Philippine Independence in 1998.

Many Wyoming veterans refused to part with the bells, alleging that the Filipinos might use these bells to disrespect the memory and sacrifices of the US soldiers who died or were injured during the Balangiga massacre.

The Wyoming delegation in the US Congress filed a bill prohibiting the transfer of veterans’ memorial objects without specific authorization in law. This provision in the US Code was the major obstacle to returning the bells.

The latest campaign involved intensive veteran-to-veteran efforts to educate and disseminate new information and research findings in the context of soliciting support for the return of the bells. Veterans across the US were invited and encouraged to write to their senators and congressional representatives to support legislation for the return of these bells.

The US-Philippine Society was involved during the lobbying. The law firm Squire Patton Boggs provided pro bono support for the campaign. Letters from the Balangiga parish priest were sent to the commanders of the US military bases in Wyoming and Korea asking for the return of the bells.

The support of the US Senate was also solicited for the bells campaign. The result was a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2018, signed in December 2017, which allowed for the transfer of the bells of Balangiga to the Philippines and to the church where they belong, subject to some conditions.

On August 10, 2018, as Balangiga celebrated its town fiesta, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis notified Congress about his intention to return the three bells of Balangiga.

The bells finally arrived home and were formally turned over to the Balangiga community on December 15, 2018.

 
The Balangiga memorial statues (photo courtesy of the author)

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