I’ve been writing since the 1980s about a pair of bells taken as war trophies in 1901 from the Philippine island of Samar and now on display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne.
And I’d waited for more than 30 years to read last week’s headline in the Casper Star-Tribune: “Bells of Balangiga, a divisive symbol of war, to leave Wyoming and return to Philippines.”
Every few years the Filipino government asks the U.S. to return the bells. Each time the U.S. government refuses after hearing complaints from Wyoming veterans groups and the state’s congressional delegation.
This time, however, the Defense Department seems mostly resigned to the idea that the Bells of Balangiga should go back to where American troops seized them so long ago. That’s not stopped Sens. Barrasso and Enzi and Rep. Cheney, in typical knee-jerk fashion, from screaming bloody murder again at the thought of a Wyoming war monument honoring the state’s fallen soldiers being shipped overseas.
The three Republicans who represent us in Washington, D.C. would have a point if the war booty they’re so anxious to protect had any connection to Wyoming. But it doesn’t, and they should know that. It’s not exactly a secret.
One hundred and seventeen years after the far-away battle, it’s time for some reality in Wyoming. The truth is that not one of the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Balangiga was from the Cowboy State. The bells’ only connection to Wyoming is that they were unceremoniously left here when the regiment that captured them moved on from Warren AFB’s predecessor, Fort D.A. Russell.
What Filipinos call the “Balangiga Massacre” is one of the most fascinating battles of the Philippine-American War, which began in 1898 after the U.S. won control of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain. The events could be turned into a screenplay for a classic war drama.
American troops were welcomed in the Philippines as liberators in 1898. But when it became clear that they had no intention of granting the islands independence, rebels fought the unwelcome invaders.
Americans assigned with keeping the peace in the town of Balangiga on the island of Samar had a tense relationship with the locals, who on Sept. 28, 1901, ambushed them.
Capt. Thomas Connell, the officer in charge of Company C, made two fatal mistakes. First, he allowed his men to eat their meals outside and leave their weapons in the barracks. Second, he accepted the offer of the local chief of police to have natives work on a sanitation crew to help prevent the spread of cholera.
The sanitation crew were actually insurgents recruited to attack Company C. They carted coffins to the town supposedly carrying children who died of cholera. Inside, though, was a stash of weapons including bolo knives, which are similar to machetes.
The village sent all of its women and children away, and some men donned dresses to prevent soldiers from getting suspicious about the sudden lack of women.
The police chief began the attack by grabbing the rifle of a private and hitting him over the head. According to at least 10 American survivors, bells from the Catholic Church rang out to signal that the attack was on.
The locals serving the men breakfast started slashing the diners with their bolo knives, decapitating some of them. Forty-eight U.S. servicemen were killed and dozens more were wounded. It was the largest massacre of American soldiers since the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Survivors managed to retreat by boat and reach another American post, where they relayed their tale. General Jacob Smith, a veteran of the Massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota more than a decade before, sought swift and immediate revenge. He ordered his men to kill any male over the age of 10 and turn the area into “a howling wilderness.”
“I want no prisoners,” he said. “I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.”
His troops killed civilians, burned down much of the town and destroyed food supplies. An accurate death toll in the wake of “Howling Jack’s” order has never been confirmed, but various reports put the casualties between several hundred and several thousand. A year later it was estimated that the area’s population had decreased by 15,000, with the loss attributed to Smith’s fatal retribution, starvation and people fleeing for their safety.
Smith was later court-martialed for his savage orders at Balangiga but leniently sentenced to “admonishment” by his superiors. An outraged President Theodore Roosevelt, however, forced him to retire.
The 11th Infantry, which laid waste to much of Balangiga under Smith’s orders, seized three bells from the local church. The one allegedly used to signal the ambush was given to the 9th Infantry.
The 11th Infantry returned to the U.S. and was assigned for a time at Wyoming’s Fort D.A. Russell in 1904. Upon its next assignment it simply left the bells there. Meanwhile, the 9th Infantry kept its lone bell and now has it on display at its current post in South Korea.
The two bells in Wyoming are part of a memorial on the parade ground at Warren. Members of the public must receive permission to enter the base to see them. It’s not a well-visited site, but veterans organizations have for decades steadfastly supported keeping them there.
A proposal to make copies of the bells and give one authentic and one copy each to Warren and the Balangiga Catholic Church had some support in 1997 but never got off the ground. “In 100 years are we going to dismantle the Vietnam Wall and send half of it to Vietnam?” asked Joe Sestak, district commander of the Wyoming American Legion and one of the strongest advocates of keeping the bells.
But Sestak had a drastic change of heart in 2005, when he was one of seven of the 11-member Wyoming Veterans Commission who voted to send the bells back.
“Do I think the bells should go back to the Philippines just so they can be put in a museum? No,” Sestak told his fellow commissioners. “They belong in Balangiga, in the church belfry.”
That’s what the church wants to see, too. It could finally happen unless Wyoming’s congressional delegation throws a monkey wrench into the plan. It issued a joint statement: “We believe that moving the bells establishes a dangerous precedent for future veteran memorials. We have a strong tradition of honoring the sacrifices of our brave men and women in uniform.”
Even though the proposal to return them has the support of the Pentagon and was announced by Defense Secretary and retired General Jim Mattis, I can imagine our trio going to President Trump and getting him riled up enough to declare there’s no way we’re going to dismantle a war memorial and return it to the Philippines.
I can picture his tweet now: “The Filipinos in 1901 ambushed our brave fighting men while they ate breakfast and killed 48, and now they have the nerve to tell us give back the bells that signaled the attack. Over my dead body! SAD.”
It’d make for good red-meat for the base — and surely that’s why our senators and representative are taking their stance. But draft-dodging Trump and his congressional enablers don’t understand what military leadership does — after 117 years, it’s time to bury the hatchet. Holding the trophies from that bloody chapter of our history only serves as a sore spot and a sticking point in our relations with an important ally. It continues to hurt real people. How does that honor the fallen or what they made the ultimate sacrifice for?
Instead, when the bells are finally returned Wyoming should have a live simulcast of the bells being rung in their original location for the first time in 117 years. That would be a healing and unforgettable historical moment shared by both countries.