CHEYENNE — Twenty years ago this month, the Philippines ambassador to the U.S., Raul Rabe, visited Cheyenne in an effort to retrieve the Bells of Balangiga for his country.
The Catholic church bells were taken by American troops in 1901 as spoils of war.
Official accounts said they were seized in retaliation for a massacre in Balangiga, where Filipino guerrilla killed 48 of the 75 American soldiers attacked. Some who died were said to be mutilated or burned beyond recognition.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said recently that Americans retaliated by ordering the killing of all Filipinos who could bear arms.
Two of the bells wound up at the entrance of what is now Warren Air Force Base in West Cheyenne, originally Army Fort D.A. Russell.
A third is with a U.S. army unit in South Korea.
Getting the bells returned is a very big deal for the Filipinos, who consider them as a symbol of their fight for independence.
During his visit in 1996-97, Rabe called on then-Gov. Jim Geringer, Mayor Leo Pando, the Rotary Club, the Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce and Father Carl Beavers, then rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral, in his search for support.
Rabe’s compromise was to make duplicates of the bells that would allow dual monuments in Cheyenne and the Philippines.
The Wyoming military in general, as well as veterans’ organizations, opposed that or any other idea that meant losing any of the bells.
Although Rabe’s visit was unsuccessful, it revived the decades-old debate over the ownership of the church bells.
It also drew the attention of the national media.
Stars and Stripes magazine conferred the “Bloody Bells of Balangiga” title in an article that quoted several Cheyenne community leaders who opposed returning the war booty along with a handful who supported giving them back.
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times chimed in.
“To Wyoming veterans, the bells are reminders of the worst massacre of army soldiers in the decade after Custer’s defeat in 1876 at the Little Big Horn,” a Times story by James Brooke said. “The local veterans, younger people, many of whom never served in the military are rewriting history and adding a dollop of guilt.”
Most of the history I quote is from a small book, “The Bells of Balangiga,” by retired Air Force Colonel Gerald M. Adams, a historian, whose last assignment was at Warren Air Force Base.
He wrote that when the 11th Infantry Regiment returned from the Philippine Islands in 1904 to Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, they brought two bells and a cannon from the Philippines.
He quotes at length stories written by my former colleague at the Casper Star-Tribune, Kerry Drake, who is still the resident expert on the bells.
In the newest development, a moratorium on the bells debate will expire at the end of this month.
Gov. Matt Mead, in a letter to the Wyoming congressional delegation, recently reiterated his position that the bells should remain at Warren.
“Moving the bells will set a dangerous precedent for future war memorials,” Mead wrote in July. “In Wyoming, we never forget the sacrifices of our troops.”
Duterte, in his second state of the nation address in July in Manila (it was more than two hours long) demanded the U.S. government return the bells.
“Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process, Krag against bolo,” Duterte said, according to published accounts.
Krag was the standard rifle issued to U.S.
Bolo is the Bolo knife that was a popular weapon of the Filipino guerillas.
After Duterte’s speech, the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, told reporters the U.S. is “deeply committed that the bells are returned to the Filipino people,” but could not specify when that would happen, according to the Associated Press.
“In his letter to the delegation, Gov. Mead closed by emphasizing the matter is of ”critical importance to veterans, not only in Wyoming but throughout the United States.”
The battle of the bloody bells is not over yet.