The boys of Balangiga
First of all, a number of friends correctly pointed out that Dec. 8, 1941, actually fell on a Monday. I should have remembered that Dec. 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy,” was a Sunday.
Last Tuesday, I went out to Villamor Air Base for the arrival of the Balangiga bells. The program held at the Philippine Air Force grandstand specifically stated that the “Handover of the Balangiga bells” was from the US Department of Defense to the Philippine Department of National Defense, and not from the United States to the Republic of the Philippines. Perhaps that was one reason President Duterte decided to skip the Villamor ceremony.
After 117 years, the bells are home. A lot of people helped in making this possible but two individuals deserve much of the credit.
Mr. Duterte in his 2017 State of the Nation Address told the Americans: “Give us back the Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines.” No other Philippine president ever came out publicly using such strong and straightforward language calling for the return of the bells. The others always brought up the subject in polite, diplomatic discourse. This was answered with polite, diplomatic talk including a few notes verbale. Nothing happened! There must be some lesson to be learned from this experience.
The other individual is US Defense Secretary General James Mattis, whose personal initiatives and actions in monitoring developments led to the fulfillment of promises made to the President during the Asean Summit in Manila last year.
Last week I wrote about “December 1941.” I narrated how, as a boy, I had the time of my life playing and running around the City of Pines, or looking for fighting spiders in the bushes surrounding Burnham Park. Suddenly, my world was turned upside down with the arrival of fierce-looking men wearing strange uniforms and carrying long rifles. Each time we came across their presence in checkpoints, we tried our best to avoid them. If this was not possible, we learned to slow down and perform the ritual of bowing to the soldiers, simply out of fear. Can anyone imagine what goes on in the mind of a boy when confronted with such a situation? Life under enemy occupation is a stressful form of existence.
As I took a closer look at the bells, my thoughts went back to over a century ago. Perhaps the boys of Balangiga are also playing and running around the town plaza, maybe searching for fighting spiders in the nearby forest. Suddenly, tall white men wearing blue shirts and khaki pants with canvas leggings and carrying long firearms arrive in their town. They occupy the entire plaza, moving into the municipio and the nearby convent, using the buildings as barracks and headquarters. The boys’ playground has been taken away. They are told by their parents in curt language to steer clear of the plaza. I know how they must have felt.
One Sunday morning, the church bells are ringing wildly.
After an hour, 48 soldiers of the garrison are slain by freedom fighters, mostly armed with bolos. Some people refer to them as rebels, or insurrectos.
But they are not rebelling against anyone. They are fighting for freedom in their own land. The United States must have thought that after paying $20 million to Spain for the Philippines, ending the Spanish-American War, it had an entire nation at its feet.
Reprisal is swift. A separate command — the Sixth Separate Brigade — is formed to handle the situation. The commander, Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith, issues simple orders to Marine Maj. Littleton Waller: “I want no prisoners… I want all persons killed 10 years and above capable of bearing arms.” With those instructions, we must assume that quite a number of those killed are boys. In war, soldiers do not ask for the age of the enemy, or check if they are capable of bearing arms. They kill and move on. We must also assume that among the freedom fighters carrying out the attack on the Balangiga garrison were boys capable of handling a bolo in close combat.
The bells are home. The nation rejoices. I mourn for the boys of Balangiga who lost their youth in a conflict they could not understand and who endured suffering and deprivation when they should have been enjoying some of the best years of their lives.
P.S.: In April 1902, both General Smith and Major Waller were tried by court martial for their actions in the Samar campaign. Smith was charged with “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” He was found guilty and “retired from the active list.” Waller was tried for murder in violation of the 58th Article of War. He was acquitted but he would never make it as commandant of the Marine Corps, a position that was his
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