By Abner Galino
Senator Francis Escudero has rekindled a dormant call for the return of the three historic church bells of the town of Balangiga, Samar which were taken as war booty by the United States Army during its suppression of Filipino revolutionaries in the early 1900.
As guest speaker at the 117th Philippine Independence Day celebration at Universal Hilton in Universal City, California, the senator not only renewed the Philippine claim to the historic church bells but also brought back the tragic memory associated with them by passionately retelling the details of that episode in Philippine history.
Escudero said that it is time for the United States government to return the bells as they don’t qualify as war booty and that their return would symbolically magnify the picture of a long friendship and alliance between the two countries in the international arena.
The senator also floated the idea of a shrine to be built to house the bells when they are returned.
“Ilalagay natin doon yung mga pangalan ng mga sundalong Amerikano at pati na rin yung mga Pilipino na namatay sa mga sagupaan sa Balangiga,” Escudero said.
The crowd at the ballroom hall of the hotel was not very enthusiastic about the issue, apparently expecting a current political announcement from the senator who is a popular vice presidential pick in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections.
But some keen observers positively viewed the renewed call for the return of the Balangiga bells.
Art Garcia, a prominent community organizer in Los Angeles, echoed the call for the return of the bells.
“Mahigit 100 taon na ang isyung yan. Panahon na ibalik na nila yan (Balangiga bells) sa sambayanang Pilipino,” Garcia said.
Another Filipino present at the affair, Nikki Arriola, an officer of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), explained that the crowd was not enthusiastic about the issue mainly because of the lack of information.
“But the well-informed members of the crowd were warm about the issue. They think it is important,” Arriola said.
According to him, the return of the Balangiga bells would somehow placate the sorrow felt by the Filipino people that were embedded in those relics.
One of the three bells is with the US 9th Infantry Regiment in Camp Red Cloud in Seoul, South Korea and the two others are with US 11th Infantry Regiment at F.E Warren Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The tragic episode that led to the taking away of the bells was known in Philippine history as the Balangiga massacre. On September 28, 1901, the people of the town, angered by a prolonged embargo on food and trade imposed by the occupying Americans, revolted and attacked the local garrison. It resulted in the death of 48 American soldiers and was described as US Army’s worst defeat since the Battle of Bighorn in 1876 wherein the legendary army officer George Custer perished.
General Jacob Smith ordered his troops to turn the island of Samar into a “howling wilderness” and it is believed that around 50,000 Filipinos were killed in the indiscriminate retaliatory attacks.
The administration of President Fidel Ramos asked US President Bill Clinton to help in the recovery of bells.
In 2002, Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. authored Resolution 393 which asked the current administration to work for the return of the bells. Almost simultaneously, the Catholic Bishops Council of the Philippines has declared that the relics were “inappropriate war booty.”
The same plea was conveyed to the administration of US President George W. Bush.
In the US Congress, Cong. Bob Filner, twice authored resolutions, one in the 109th Congress and 110th Congress urging the US government to transfer ownership of the bells to the Filipino people. Both resolutions died with the adjournment of both congress.
The latest official attempt to recover the bells was made in October 2007 by Senator Manny Villar through Resolution 177.
The 117th Philippine Independence Day celebration attended by Escudero was organized by the Philippine Independence Coordinating Council of Southern California (PICCSC). Darna Umayam, PICCSC secretary general, said the occasion was also graced by Consul General Leo Herrera Lim, Tourism director Emmanuel Ilagan and officials of various non-government Filipino-American organizations in California.