BELOW THE LINE
By JOSE ABETO ZAIDE
My generation of WW2 babies was raised on MGM Technicolor movies, Converse sneakers, Coke, Elvis Presley, and the American way of life. From grade school at Padre Faura to baccalaureate at
Loyola Heights, we were disciplined with post duty if we spoke the vernacular, the better to practice Arrneow English. Before me, my father was also a fine product of Thomasite teachers.
These days, our country is abuzz over the possible return of the Balangiga Bells, that bitter episode in Philippine-American relations on their mission (according to Raul S. Manglapus) “to Christianize the Catholics.”
On August 11, 1901, US Company C arrived in Balangiga, a town on the south side of Samar Island. On September 28, Valeriano Abenador and Eugenio Daza led an armed uprising resulting in 36 Americans killed, 22 wounded, four missing in action; eight would die later of wounds. In retaliation, Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith led a six-month campaign which turned Balangiga into a “howling wilderness.” General Smith’s infamous order to his troops: “No prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the more you will please me.” Soldiers were ordered to “kill everyone over the age of ten” in a scorched-earth policy burning villages and crops. Smith was court-martialed and forced into retirement, but never formally punished.
The Amercian troops took the bells of the Church of Saint Lawrence the Martyr as war booty. One is now parked at the 9th Infantry Regiment in Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, South Korea; the two other bells are at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Catholic leaders in the US and the Philippines have worked for the return of the bells to Balangiga. The original petition for their return was signed by the bishop of the Diocese of Borongan and the parish priest of Balangiga and addressed to then-President George W. Bush, the US Congress, and the Helsinki Commission. In 1994, President Fidel Ramos met with President Bill Clinton. After the meeting, Clinton announced that he was prepared to return the bells (but impeachment proceedings against him distracted). A pending prayer is signed by Leonardo Y. Medroso, DD, bishop of the Diocese of Borongan, and Rev. Fr Saturnino L. Obzunar,Balangiga parish priest.
NOT SO FAST. In 2005, Wyoming veterans voted to return the bells. But they were blocked by the Governor Dave Frauenthal, who said that the bells represented “a significant part of Wyoming’s military heritage” (although, as Robin Hemley pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article, no one from Wyoming served at Balangiga.) Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, Sen. John Barrasso, and Rep. Liz Cheney rallied as spoilers: “These bells are memorials to American war dead and should not be transferred to the Philippines. We oppose any efforts by the administration to move the bells to the Philippines without the support of Wyoming’s veterans’ community…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.”
The Balangiga bells are a bone stuck in the throat of bilateral relations. In 2017, the US Congress passed legislation lifting a decade-long ban on returning the bells. The Pentagon, after consultation with various veterans’ associations, notified Congress of the intention to return the bells. The US military intends to return the war booty taken by occupying US troops more than 100 years ago, a US defense official told CNN. No definite date has been identified for their return, but the Pentagon is committed to its resolution after receiving assurances from the Philippine Secretary of National Defense for the Philippines and the Philippine Ambassador that the bells would be returned to the same Catholic Church in Balangiga. A voice in support of the initiative to return the bells is E. Jean Wall, the daughter of Adolph Gamlin, a survivor of the massacre of the US Company C. Ms. Wall initially opposed returning the bells, but changed her mind after a visit to Balangiga. She is actively promoting the healing and reconciliation between the descendants of Balangiga and Company C.
The bells peal Balangiga’s history. The people of Balangiga are poor, but had raised the money to have the bells cast. For Filipinos, the Bells of Balangiga are a symbol of their struggle for independence. For the US military, they are the spoils of war. For Catholics, the bells call to prayer and must be returned to the church. for peace activists, it is reconciliation.
In 2013, the super typhoon Yolanda devastation did not spare the town of Balangiga. One of the few structures left standing was a belfry built in 1998 in expectation of the return of the bells. The Philippines and the US can join hands to fill that emptiness by returning the Balangiga bells.
IN ANOTHER TIME, IN ANOTHER PLACE. One of the darkest moments of the US in the Vietnam War was the carnage at Mỹ Lai, which is embedded in American and Vietnamese collective memory. A 2.4-hectare Sơn Mỹ Memorial in Quảng Ngãi Province, of Vietnam is dedicated to victims of the My Lai massacre. The graves with headstones, signs on the places of killing, are in The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
On 16 May 1998, American veterans made a pilgrimage to the site of the massacre, to heal and reconcile, at groundbreaking ceremony for the Mỹ Lai Peace Park. US Vietnam veterans, including Hugh Thompson Jr. and Lawrence Colburn from the helicopter rescue crew, attended the ceremony. Mike Boehm, [a veteran who was instrumental in the peace park effort, said, “We cannot forget the past, but we cannot live with anger and hatred either. With this park of peace, we have created a green, rolling, living monument to peace.”
On 16 March 2001, the Mỹ Lai Peace Park was dedicated, a joint venture of the Quảng Ngãi Province Women’s Union, the Madison Quakers’ charitable organization, and the Vietnamese government.