Joe Sestak believes Wyoming’s controversial Bells of Balangiga belong in only one place.

Balangiga.

Specifically, the church in the Philippine village where the bells were seized in 1901 by American troops after Filipino freedom fighters ambushed an army regiment, killing 48 of the

78 men as they ate breakfast.

Sestak, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Laramie, didn’t always feel this way. In fact, while he was serving as the department commander of the Wyoming American Legion 15 years ago, he firmly believed it would be a grave injustice for his nation to acquiesce to Philippine President Fidel Ramos’ request to ship the bells back.

After all, two of the three bells that had been taken were on display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, as a symbol of the brave Americans who were slaughtered that morning in the previously peaceful town of Balangiga.

Disguised as women, the Filipinos stashed their weapons in the coffins of children who they said died of cholera. Fearing the plague, the soldiers didn’t inspect the coffins as they were carried to the Catholic church.

Once the “mourners” were in the church, a 23-year-old sentry, Adolph Gamlin, walked past the Balangiga police chief. The Filipino suddenly grabbed the soldier’s rifle and smashed the butt across his head.

The church bell rang out, signaling the Filipino forces to attack. Gamlin was one of the few who survived without serious injury, but all of the officers were killed.

“We’re opposed to dismantling memorials to our fallen comrades,” Sestak told Wyoming officials back in 1997.

He particularly didn’t like a compromise plan that would have allowed both the military base and the Philippines to keep one bell and one replica.

“In 100 years, are we going to dismantle the Vietnam Wall and send half of it to Vietnam?” Sestak asked.

Wyoming’s veterans service organizations unanimously opposed returning the bells, and the state’s congressional delegation agreed. The two bells at F.E. Warren stayed put at Trophy Park on the parade ground.

The retired officer explained last week that his biggest objection then was that Ramos only wanted to obtain the bells for political reasons, to help keep his party in power. “(Ramos’) requests were denied for the right reasons,” Sestak said.

But Philippine officials didn’t give up their quest, and to the shock of many observers, in 2005 the Wyoming Veterans Affairs Commission voted 7-4 to recommend returning the bells. Sestak, a member of the commission, voted in favor of the move.

Citing continued opposition from other veterans, though, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal rejected the advice.

Why did the state’s staunchest opponent of returning the bells change his mind? Sestak said as he learned more about what actually happened in Balangiga, it became clear this wasn’t just about the Wyoming memorial.

When the 11th Infantry returned from the Philippines, its first post was Fort D.A. Russell, which later became F.E. Warren AFB. The bells, along with a cannon also taken from Balangiga, were put on display at Fort Russell in 1904.

When the regiment left the fort, though, they left their war booty behind. The 9th Infantry, which had captured a third bell at Balangiga, has taken it to every new post since. This bell, which is believed to be the one that actually signaled Filipinos to attack, is now in a military museum in South Korea.

At some point, the Fort Russell bells and cannon were relegated to a basement, where they stayed for the next 50 years until a local gunsmith expressed interest in restoring the cannon. When military historians rediscovered the forgotten relics, there was a push to again display them as a memorial to the fallen Americans.

But Sestak said no one from Wyoming was involved in the Battle of Balangiga.

“Wyoming has no connection at all with the bells,” he recalled. “The 11th Infantry just brought them here and left.”

With renewed interest from the Philippines in seeking the bells again, the issue is back in the news.

The Catholic church has long maintained that it is the rightful owner of the bells, which it believes should never have become war trophies.

Sestak said the people of Balangiga were poor, but the church managed to raise enough money to have the bells cast.

Another person who changed her mind about the fate of the bells is E. Jean Wall, daughter of the sentry, Gamlin, who was overpowered by the Balangiga police chief. She long believed the bells should stay in U.S. hands, but a trip to Balangiga helped convince her they belonged there.

Wall, who made an impassioned plea to the veterans commission in 2005 to return the bells, was instrumental in converting Sestak to her cause. He said he still keeps in touch with the Phoenix woman, and shares her dream.

“Do I think the bells should go back to the Philippines, just so they can be put in a museum in Manila? No,” Sestak said emphatically. “They belong in Balangiga, in the church belfry.”

Would there be dissent now from Wyoming veterans about dismantling the memorial at Warren? Sestak doesn’t think so.

“There are 55,000 veterans in Wyoming,” he noted. “I don’t think there’s 100 of them who know enough about the bells to carry on a conversation about them.”

Kerry Drake is the Star-Tribune opinion editor. Write to him at kerry.drake@trib.com.

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