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Bells of Balangiga, forgotten treasures

/ 12:25 AM September 15, 2014

We remember how Filipino rebels gathered at the home of Tandang Sora in August 1896. At the urging of Andres Bonifacio, they tore up their cedula, symbolizing repudiation of Spanish colonial rule. It signaled the start of the revolt against Spain. The fourth Monday of August is designated as National Heroes Day to mark this particular event.

We remember the valiant stand of Filipino soldiers fighting alongside Americans in Bataan during the early days of the Pacific War. A day in April known as “Araw ng Kagitingan” has been set aside to honor their memory.

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For some reason, we are shy about remembering and commemorating the battles we fought against American colonizers who came after the end of Spanish rule. Officially, the Philippine-American War covered a period of three-and-a-half years, from 1899 to 1902. It had cost American taxpayers more than six hundred million turn-of-the-20th century dollars, and 4,234 soldiers killed in action. (This is roughly the same as recent losses in Iraq that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.)

One of the more significant actions that took place during the war was in the town of Balangiga, province of Samar. A detailed account of what happened is found in “The Ordeal of Samar,” by Joseph L. Schott.

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Samar, the third-largest island in the Philippines, was one of the hotbeds of rebel activity with Gen. Vicente Lukban, a native of Camarines Sur, leading the resistance movement in the region.

In a bid to pacify the island, Maj. Gen. Adna Chaffee decided to establish more garrisons in the province. Company “C,” Ninth US Infantry, under the command of Capt. Thomas W. Connell, was sent to the town of Balangiga. Connell unlike most other military men of his time, believed in President William McKinley’s “benevolent assimilation” policy, and in the mission of civilizing the native.

The US party was met by the town presidente, Pedro Abayan, the police chief, Pedro Sanchez, and the parish priest. Outwardly cordial, they offered the Americans use of the municipal building, as well as part of the church convent.

On Sunday morning, Sept. 28, 1901, some 500 Filipino rebels who had slowly gathered inside the church, some dressed in women’s clothing, waited for the signal to attack. While the US troopers were having breakfast, police chief Sanchez grabbed a sentry’s rifle and fired it, signaling the insurgents to begin their assault on the garrison. The church doors burst open, with screaming rebels brandishing bolos and other improvised weapons such as picks and shovels. It was combat at close quarters; bolos against Krag rifles. The only advantage held by the rebels was the element of surprise.

An hour later, the town plaza was a bloody mess with dead US troopers all over the place. Of the 74 members of Company “C,” only 26 would survive. I have not come across any account of any other single action during the Philippine-American War where US forces suffered similar or more casualties.

Reprisal was swift in coming. First on the scene was Company “G,” also of the Ninth Infantry, stationed at Basey. The force entered Balangiga, firing away with Gatling machine guns and light cannon. Twenty natives captured at the edge of the town were brought to the plaza and executed. All houses were torched to the ground.

A separate command—the Sixth Separate Brigade—was formed to handle the problem. The brigade was headed by Brig. Gen. Jacob Smith. Under Smith was a Marine Battalion led by Maj. Littleton W. T. Waller. In his orders to Waller, General Smith declared: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better you will please me.” In his handwriting were the words “The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness.” For this, he was dubbed by the anti-imperialist press in the United States as “Howling” Jake Smith. Both officers would be court-martialed in connection with the Samar offensive. Waller would be nicknamed the “Butcher of Samar.” He would be acquitted but his reputation would cost him the post of commandant of the Marine Corps. Brigadier General Smith was found guilty, and retired from the army with no additional punishment.

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Shortly after the Samar campaign, US troops “appropriated” the church bells of Balangiga and shipped them home. They are kept at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 1993, President Fidel V. Ramos made serious efforts to recover the bells. At about the same time, our man in Washington, Ambassador Raul Rabe, visited Cheyenne to see the bells and meet with various officials to see whether the people of Wyoming would consider parting with at least one of the bells on a sharing formula. Under this formula originally suggested by President Ramos to President Bill Clinton, two copies would be cast and the Philippines and Warren Air Force Base would each get one original and one copy. This initiative was unsuccessful.

The Americans argued that the bells were part of the spoils of war, paid for with the blood of American soldiers. We, too, paid a terrible price for a war not of our own making. Theirs was a war of conquest; ours was a fight for freedom. The bells of Balangiga are a reminder of the fighting spirit and determination of our people. Their struggles during the Philippine-American War cannot be considered of lesser significance than the battles we fought in Bataan and Corregidor alongside Americans. We must keep on remembering those bells until they are returned to their rightful owners.

Last week, an article on stolen statues caught my attention. The report said that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott would return to his Indian counterpart two statues allegedly looted from ancient temples, ending a long-running battle over the pieces.

Abbott will return the sculptures during his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Returning the objects “is testimony to Australia’s good citizenship on such matters and the importance with which Australia views its relationship with India,” Abbott’s office said.

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TAGS: andres bonifacio, Balangiga, Balangiga bells, Bataan, Gen. Jacob Smith, howling wilderness, Philippine Revolution, Philippine-american war, Samar, Tandang Sora, Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne
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