Killing and burning in Balangiga
In his recent State of the Nation Address President Duterte made a demand for the return of the Balangiga bells taken as war booty during the Philippine-American War. There are three bells displayed as trophies of war in US military bases: two in Wyoming and another in Korea. But hardliners want all and get nothing. I believe we should initially work for the one in Korea and leave the rest for later.
In April 1998 then President Fidel V. Ramos negotiated for much less—half a bell! In a discussion with then US President Bill Clinton he proposed “…what, in my view, was a win-win solution—cut both bells in half, and each country to keep two halves to be restored to their original shapes afterwards.”
Ramos recalled: “President Clinton favored the sharing proposal, but was stymied by an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (Pentagon Budget) to ‘prohibit the return of veterans’ memorial objects to foreign nations without specific authorization in law.’ The rider was introduced a few weeks before by then Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming who intoned, ‘History brought the bells to Wyoming, and there they should stay.’
“To be sure, as there were groups who objected to the bells’ return, being ‘legitimate spoils of war that enshrine the memory of American soldiers,’ there were more who strongly supported their return to the Philippines—among them, the Wyoming State Senate and House of Representatives, Wyoming Veterans Commission, and National Bishops Conference of America. To his credit, Bishop Joseph Hart of the Cheyenne Diocese, who consistently supported the return of the Balangiga bells, said: ‘Religious objects are inappropriate trophies of war. Church bells are religious artifacts with considerable significance in Catholic tradition. These bells should be returned to the place and purpose for which they were cast and blessed.’”
Two decades after the Ramos visit, the bells are still abroad. They are significant as a reminder of the Balangiga Massacre and the reprisal that arose from it. I shudder to even imagine it.
Balangiga was manned by the US 9th Infantry Company C led by a West Pointer, Capt. Thomas O’Connell. Some members of this company saw action in the Cuban War and the Boxer Rebellion, so they thought their battle experience was sufficient to handle Filipinos they belittled as “gugus” or “niggers” or “monkeys with no tails.” On Sept. 28, 1901, the enemy was roused from bed by reveille at 6:30 a.m. and headed to the mess hall as usual. It was a particularly happy day because mail had arrived, the first in months, carrying letters and packages from America. All was normal until a Filipino police chief grabbed the rifle of an enemy sentry and used it to smash the poor man’s head in. Then he yelled and the church bells rang. From afar, conch shell horns could be heard and before the enemy could make sense of what was going on, the Filipinos attacked them with bolos.
On the second floor of the convento commandeered as officers’ quarters, O’Connell was still in his pajamas when he realized what was happening. He rushed out, only to be stabbed and hacked to death. His head was chopped off and thrown into a fire. One gruesome account mentions that one of his fingers was bitten off to get his West Point ring.
Lieutenant Bumpus, second in command, was on an easy chair about to open a letter when a bolo man lopped off his face and threw his corpse out the window. When it hit the ground, others gouged the eyes out, and the head was later smeared with jam to attract ants. Elsewhere in the camp, enemy soldiers were killed still holding their breakfast spoons. One had his severed head on a plate; another severed head was dunked in a kettle of boiling water, the feet cut off so his shoes could be stolen.
Some enemy soldiers fought back, scalding the Pinoys with boiling hot coffee. Another, a hometown baseball pitcher, pelted the Pinoys with canned goods until he ran out of ammunition and was killed.
In retaliation, Gen. Jacob Smith razed Balangiga and gave the infamous order to kill all Filipino males above 10, or anyone old enough to carry arms: “I want no prisoners… I wish you to kill and burn. The more you burn and kill, the better it will please me… I want Samar turned into a howling wilderness.”
A century after the Balangiga Massacre we find ourselves asking not just what to remember but also how we should remember, and why.
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