CHEYENNE — For more than a century, the Bells of Balangiga have sat on the grounds of F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne as a divisive wedge in relations between the United States and the Philippines.
For one nation, the bells were a trophy of war, kept in commemoration of the memory of the 48 soldiers who died in an assault by Filipino insurgents in their 19th-century uprising against foreign occupants. To the Philippines, the bells were a black mark on their relationship with the United States and its colonial past, while others have speculated the merit behind the bells’ history is based on a distorted version of history.
Since a 1993 visit by then-president Bill Clinton, the bells have been a touchy diplomatic subject for the Philippines, with increasing calls from both diplomats and casual observers to return the bells to their home while the congressional delegation from Wyoming has largely resisted.
In August, the United States finally ceded their claim to the bells and, on Wednesday, the bells were given a formal send-off by the Secretary of Defense himself, Gen. James Mattis.
Joined at the podium by Gov. Matt Mead, Mattis’ comments were brief but to the point, using his time to acknowledge the cooperative spirit between the two nations. Mattis focused primarily on the legacy of the two nations’ shared alliances, rather than the more unsavory parts of the two nations’ relationship. He offered specific examples of their shared alliance in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the Korean War and Filipino cooperation in the Vietnam War, even pointing to the two nations’ current efforts combating the presence of the terrorist group ISIS in southeast Asia.
He also mentioned the shared sacrifice made by the people of the two countries, paying a nod to both the Filipino and American soldiers interred in the Manila American Cemetery located in Fort Bonifacio, where more than 17,000 markers and a memorial to the thousands of soldiers missing in action stand.
“To those who think we’re losing something by returning the bells,” said Mattis, “please hear me when I say that the bells mark time, but courage is timeless. It does not fade in history in dimly lit corridors, nor is it forgotten in the history of conflict.”
The bells are another aspect of ongoing diplomatic relationships between the two countries that have been seen in the Trump Administration. Mattis has made several visits during his tenure as Secretary of Defense to the Philippines, which, complex histories aside, is one of the United States’ oldest allies in eastern Asia. This year alone, Mattis has met with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on two separate occasions to discuss a broad range of military concerns, including a reaffirmation by the United States to assist the Philippine government in fighting back against the terrorist group ISIS and its presence there.
An October 2017 visit was made interesting, however: Mattis was met with a statement that gave more credit to China and Russia — rivals of the United States in the region — than to the U.S. in their efforts to fight domestic terrorism. Mattis, in Singapore the following June, also took the length to clarify the current administration was not asking any country to choose between the United States and China over control of the South China Sea, another issue the Philippine government has approached carefully.
The diplomatic significance of the bells’ return was seemingly not lost on Mead, who has opposed the return of the bells in the past, even going as far as penning a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
“While I may have had a view and so many of our veterans have had a view on this, we understand where the judgment lies on this, Mr. Secretary,” Mead said. “We know you and the president have looked at this as the highest priority of the military and for national security. You spoke of the friendships we have, we want to have and will build upon, and I respect that because I think this world, post-9/11 where we lost so much, we know that this country is not immune from terrorist attacks and that we need to build those friendships.
“So secretary, you do find yourself in the Cowboy State,” he continued. “We are the Cowboy State because we are patriotic, and we love what the military stands for. We love what our veterans stand for. And while the bells may be moved, … what will never be removed is that 48 servicemen died and their memory will always be with us.”