By Roy Mabasa and PNA
The United States on Thursday (Manila time) will officially start the transfer of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines during a ceremony in Wyoming to mark its return to the Philippines after keeping it as a war booty for more than a century.
According to the US Department of Defense, Secretary James Mattis will be traveling on Thursday to Texas and Wyoming, with a last stop at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base.
“The secretary will attend a ceremony marking the beginning of the process to return of the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines,” the Defense department said in a statement Wednesday.
The bells were taken as war booty by US troops following the Balanginga Massacre in 1901.
The return of the bells comes months after Mattis signed documents favoring the return of the historic church bells to the Philippines after receiving the authority from US President Donald Trump via the US National Defense Authorization Act of 2018.
President Duterte has repeatedly called on the United States to return the Balangiga bells to the Philippines.
The US Embassy in Manila said no specific date has been set for the return of the historic bells. But US Embassy Press Attache Molly Koscina told the Manila Bulletin that “the Department of Defense is committed to a timely resolution in accordance with U.S. laws and policy.”
One of the Balangiga bells is on display at the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Cloud in South Korea while the other two are in the former base of the 11th Infantry Regiment at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base.
Mattis notified the US Congress on Aug. 9 that the Department of Defense intends to return the war artifacts to Manila.
“The decision follows a year-long consultative process with associated veterans’ organizations and government officials to ensure appropriate steps are taken to preserve the history of the veterans associated with the bells,” Koscina told the Philippine News Agency Tuesday night.
“The Bells of Balangiga have deep significance for many people in the United States and the Philippines,” she added.
The Diocese of Borongan led by Bishop Crispin Varquez has expressed happiness and excitement on the impending return of the Balangiga Bells.
“I hope that the bells will be returned soon to the St. Lawrence Church in Balangiga where they belong. We will be very happy when the bells are finally returned to the country,” Varquez said over Church-run Radio Veritas.
The prelate said that although no one has coordinated with the diocese on the return of the Balangiga Bells, they are grateful to those who have helped in appealing to the United States government for the return of the bells to the country.
But not only the parishioners but the physical church of Balangiga in Eastern Samar is awaiting the return of its bells.
“The physical church of Balangiga is ready for the return of its bells,” Monsignor Pedro Quitorio III, Mass Media and Communications head of the Diocese of Borongan said in an interview.
The church which was reconstructed after it was devastated by super typhoon Yolanda in 2013, has two belfries but the other is empty.
“It has two belfries. The other one is empty, but awaiting for the return of its bells,” said Quitorio.
“It’s a welcome development. The parishioners of Balangiga have been patiently waiting for its eventual return,” Quitorio said.
“The bells’ coming home will bring a lot of opportunities to us. The influx of tourist is highly expected and we have been preparing for it,” said Fe Campanero, Balangiga town tourism officer and granddaughter of one of Filipino fighters who massacred the American soldiers in 1901.
Historian Rolando Borrinaga, one of those who worked for the bell’s return, confirmed that the Balangiga bells team in the US will go to Cheyenne, Wyoming to join Secretary of Defense James Mattis for a ceremony at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base on November 15.
“This will mark the beginning of the journey of the two Wyoming bells back to the church from which they were taken. The bells will now be able to begin their journey home. The third Balangiga bell at a US Army museum in South Korea had been crated weeks ago and is also ready for shipment home,” Borrinaga said
The latest successful campaign for the return of the Bells of Balangiga was largely a veterans-to-veterans effort, according to Borrinaga. Among those in the US veterans’ community that supported the plea are the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Borrinaga, secretary of the Committee on Historical Research of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, hopes the bells will be back to Balangiga town before Christmas Day. He said the return of the Balangiga Bells to Eastern Samar will give closure to the Philippine-American war.
DOT Eastern Visayas Regional Director Karina Rosa Tiopes said the bells’ journey home is a big celebration since they are symbols of faith and sacrifice.
“We all should celebrate with the return of the bells. And as we celebrate we should also look back at our history and salute the bravery of our forefathers. These bells serve as a symbol of their willingness to sacrifice their life in their struggle against oppression. The patriotism of our forebears is something that we should emulate and be inspired of,” Tiopes added.
Over a century ago, American soldiers took the bells from Balangiga town’s church as war trophy. The bells’ ringing signaled the attack by the villagers against the invaders.
The Balangiga Encounter happened on Sept. 28, 1901, when town residents led by Valeriano Abanador initiated an attack against US soldiers. The villagers killed 54 American soldiers using bolos. It was the biggest defeat of the foreign troop during the Philippine-American war.
Around 2,500 Filipinos were killed by the US retaliatory attack. The Americans took the Balangiga Bells after they turned the town into a “howling wilderness”.
Balangiga town is about 98 kilometers east of Tacloban City. It is a 4th class town in Eastern Samar, with a population of 14,085. (With reports from Christina I. Hermoso and Leslie Ann G. Aquino)