An important and divisive symbol of the Philippine-American War will be leaving Wyoming, the United States Department of Defense announced this weekend, drawing the ire of the state’s delegation in Washington.
United States Secretary of Defense Mattis notified Congress that the government was expected to return the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines, where they would be treated with the “respect and honor they deserve” by the Catholic Church there, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Manila cited in published reports.
Symbolic and complex trophies of war dating back to the U.S. military’s occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, two of the three bells taken from a burnt-down church currently reside at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, where they have been kept since the return of Wyoming’s 11th Infantry from the conflict in 1905.
The bells serve as spoils of the Balangiga Massacre, a mission of retaliation by the U.S. military following a morning assault on American fighters by machete-wielding Filipino militants, killing 48 of the 78 Americans in the unit. The bells were taken by the Americans following a directive by General Jacob H. Smith to shoot all Filipino males over the age of 10 and able to bear arms: an illegal act of revenge against the civilians of the small town of Samar. Both Smith and Major Littleton Waller were court-martialed for the massacre, however, only Smith was found guilty. The conviction was later dropped.
The return of the bells has long been a concern of officials in the Phillipines: most recently, President Rodrigo Duterte asked the U.S. to return the bells during his second State of the Nation Address last year, noting their symbolism as a sign of resistance against American colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process,” a translation of his speech reads.
“That is why I say today; give us back those Balangiga bells,” he said to applause. “They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage.”
No specific date has been identified for the return of the bells, one of which currently resides at an air force base in South Korea.
“We are aware that the Bells of Balangiga have deep significance for a number of people, both in the United States and in the Philippines,” Mattis said in a statement.
The return of the bells has been pushed for by some Americans, including retired Air Force pilot Spike Naysmith and former U.S. Ambassador to the Phillipines Frank Wisner, who wrote a letter to U.S. Rep Liz Cheney describing the taking of the bells as a “profound error,” and that the arguments in favor of taking and keeping the bells were based on historical inaccuracies. In a letter dated June 16, 2017, Wisner claims the bells kept in Cheyenne were neither brought to Wyoming by Wyoming’s own Company C, nor did they serve as signals of the surprise attack at Balangiga: they were instead “shipped to the U.S. from a scrap yard.”
“While I understand the issue has long been a cause for members of the Wyoming veteran community, and there are many who feel connected to the Bells, they do not belong on a U.S. Air Force base,” he wrote. “Their true home is in the belfry of the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir in Balangiga, Eastern Samar.”
Delegation denounces decision
In a joint statement Monday, U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso were joined by Cheney in speaking out against the announcement, saying the decision to return the bells set a “dangerous precedent” for veterans’ memorials here in the United States. Similar arguments were made in the past by Gov. Matt Mead who, in 2012, penned a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stating he “strongly opposes any efforts to deconstruct our war memorials that honor our fallen soldiers,” according to a report in the Filipino Reporter.
“For over 100 years, the Bells of Balangiga have been in Wyoming as a memorial to the American soldiers who lost their lives overseas,” the Wyoming congressional delegation said in its statement. “A majority of Wyoming veterans continue to oppose any efforts to deconstruct or disturb this veterans memorial. While we have respect for the relationship between the United States and the Government of the Philippines, we believe that moving the Bells establishes a dangerous precedent for future veterans memorials. We have a strong tradition of honoring the sacrifices of our brave men and women in uniform. These bells are memorials to American war dead and should not be transferred to the Philippines. Based on this tradition, we oppose any efforts by the Administration to move the Bells to the Philippines without the support of Wyoming’s veterans community.”
The three Republicans all declined further comment.
While all three politicians have lobbied extensively for the bells to remain in Wyoming, Barrasso has arguably been their most vocal advocate, long arguing that any decisions made around the bells would require either local or congressional oversight.
In September, he said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had assured him that he would support an “inclusive process with the U.S. Department of Defense to ensure that Congress is fully informed and the views of local communities and veterans are fully respected when evaluating the management of war memorials.”
This year, Barrasso has successfully lobbied for some specific limitations regarding the bells: the most recent defense spending bill passed by both the House and Senate includes an amendment stating that the bells can be transferred to the Philippines if the Secretary of Defense certifies to Congress that the transfer of the object is in the national security interests of the United States and that “appropriate steps” have been taken to preserve the history of the veterans associated with the bells.
This process, according to the bill text, includes consultation with associated veterans organizations and government officials in the state of Wyoming.
President Donald Trump cannot authorize any transfer until at least 90 days after Congress has been informed of the transfer and all conditions outlined in the spending bill have been satisfied.
The efforts of Wyoming’s delegation stand in contrast to those put forward by Rep. Bob Filner D-California, who has introduced bills lobbying for the bells’ return each year since 2003.