As The Bamboos Sway: For whom the Balangiga Bells toll


In their silence, the Balangiga bells still toll for justice and freedom.

“They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage… Please return the bells. That (seizure) was painful for us,” President Rodrigo Duterte said during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 24, 2017.

He was referring to the three Balangiga church bells that were looted by the 9th Infantry Regiment of American troopers as war booties after massacring inhabitants, ranging from age 10 and up, of the village of Balangiga, Samar on September 11, 1901. This was during the pacification campaign of the Philippines by American troops two years into the Philippine-American war. The massacre was in retaliation to an earlier surprise attack by the revolutionaries of Balangiga on the American troops stationed at their village.

As the story goes, the Filipino revolutionaries, wielding but bolos, attacked the American troops of Company C of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment while they were having breakfast. The Filipinos killed 48 and wounded 22 of the 78 men in the unit. The rest were unhurt. On the rebels’ side, around 25 died and 25 were wounded. The rebels ran off with 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition. The tolling of one of the bells signaled the successful attack.

In reprisal to what happened to one of his companies, General Jacob H. Smith ordered that Samar be turned into a “howling wilderness.” With his order ““I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you burn and kill, the better it will please me.” His men then shot all arm capable bearing villagers from 10-year old kids and razed the village into ashes. And the carnage extended throughout the province of Samar for the next six months.

After the massacre in Balangiga, the avenging troops brought down the bells from the fried church tower. One of the bells is now with the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea while the other two are in F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Only Mark Twain, an anti-imperialist American writer, touched on the annihilation of the Samarians in his coverage and critique against imperial America on the Philippine American war which commenced in 1898. The American people, nonetheless, were more horrified with the killing of the Company C troops by ‘barbarians’. They considered the episode in historical pages of US Army military campaigns as “the worst defeat since the epic Battle of the Little Bighorn, commonly known as the Last Stand of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1876.”

In the end, Smith and his subordinate, Major Littleton Waller were court-martialed for the atrocity of revenge against the civilian populace of Samar. Waller was deemed only following orders and was acquitted. Though found guilty, Smith was only admonished and retired from service. Nonetheless, charges against him were later dropped and he was hailed a hero.

Many facts may now be obscure but according to Lutgardo B. Barbo, “The real Balangiga Massacre, as Samar folks know it, and as recorded in world history, was motivated by the ‘kill and burn’ scorched-earth policy of the US Army. More than a thousand natives, mostly non-combatants, civilians, men, women and children older than 10 were killed, whole villages were systematically burned, crops and foodstuff destroyed, farm work animals shot and slaughtered to avenge the American soldiers who perished in the Balangiga attack. It was gruesome and ghastly.”

Gruesome and ghastly was how the American troops massacred Filipinos, not only in Balangiga and the whole of Samar but in the entire Philippines during the pacification campaign of the Archipelago. The Bells are silent witnesses to these gruesomeness and ghastliness when they were once upon a time atop the church tower where they use to hang. They had to be brought down as if to silence them forever.

With Duterte bringing the bells to the limelight again, whether or not he will succeed, the bells would once again bring to the consciousness of the Filipinos, that once, over a century ago, shrouded by chicanery and deceitful education, American troops did not really come to liberate the Filipinos from Spanish exploitation but shove the Spaniards out so they could take their place as exploiters.

In the process, American troops had to pacify the Filipino revolutionaries through gruesome and ghastly means. The atrocities had been covered by miseducation through the American fashioned curriculum that the Filipinos now have a collective amnesia on the fact that an estimated 600,000 Filipinos were butchered in the name of America’s Manifest Destiny and Benevolent Assimilation.

Nonetheless, the bells would now again toll to the gravity of the atrocious massacres as expressed by a US congressman when he said that “they never rebel in Luzon anymore because there isn’t anybody left to rebel.”

The monstrosity of it all was also expressed by a conscience bothered US sergeant, Arthur H. Vickers of the First Nebraska Regiment, saying: “I am not afraid, and am always ready to do my duty, but I would like someone to tell me what we are fighting for.”

To particularize the sergeant’s concern, Captain Elliot of the Kansas Regiment had this to say: “Talk about war being ‘hell,’ this war beats the hottest estimate ever made of that locality. Caloocan was supposed to contain seventeen thousand inhabitants. The Twentieth Kansas swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native. Of the buildings, the battered walls of the great church and dismal prison alone remain. You can only faintly imagine this terrible scene of desolation. War is worse than hell.”

Yes, the bells may not be given back but they can never be silenced anymore. In their silence, they will keep on tolling till the Filipinos realize why they had been looted, the circumstances of why they were taken, and why there is war in the Philippines raging on with the tolling for freedom. #


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