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Reli L. German: For Whom The Bells Toll


By: Reli L. German

“Give us back the bells of Balangiga!” This was the impassioned, if rather startling demand, that President Duterte addressed to the United States towards the mid-portion of his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 25.

“I say today, give us back those Balangiga bells! They are ours; they belong to the Philippines; they are part of our heritage.” the President asserted, referring to the three bells taken as booty by elements of the US military in the course of the Philippine-American war from 1899-1902.

That demand reminded me of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” – a novel by American literary giant and journalist Ernest Hemingway. The novel draws on the author’s experiences as a reporter who covered the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.

Thanks to the internet, I discovered that some 50 mestizo and native Filipinos were said to have taken part in that civil war as fighters on both sides of the conflict. That was infinitely surprising and added spice to my subject.

Actually, there are other elements in the novel that are similar to our people’s experiences in our war against America. These include the setting, the role of guerrillas, accounts of torture, massacres and rapes, burning of villages, and the butchery of innocent civilians, including women and children.

There’s also the fact that the events in the novel took place in Spain, a country intimately related to a very long period of our past. And the very title of the novel itself somehow reignites memories of a very significant incident in the Philippine-American war that today remain ingrained in the minds of many Filipinos, particularly the Samareños. This event occurred on September 28, 1901 and involved the tolling of the church bells in the town of Balangiga.

The pealing of the bells in the early morning of that day signalled the attack launched by Filipino guerrillas, armed mostly with bolos, against members of the US 9th Infantry Regiment encamped in the town. The attackers killed 48 of the 74 US soldiers, including all the officers, and wounded 22 others. The few who survived were able to escape to Basey, Leyte by using a boat. On their side, the Americans were said to have killed 28 of the guerillas and wounded 22 more.

A Samar pacification campaign was subsequently undertaken by fresh troops under the command of General Jacob Smith, who reportedly ordered his soldiers to burn the villages and kill all male capable of bearing arms, even 10-year old boys. He told his men to take no prisoners and to turn the place into “a howling wilderness.” That, apparently, was Smith’s understanding of “pacification”.

Thereafter, the American troops went into a killing spree, shooting anyone in sight, including sick and old men, women and children, and even draft animals. The atrocity later became known as “The Balangiga Massacre.”

There is no accurate and reliable record of exactly how many Filipinos lost their lives during those days of horror. Some British and American writers and historians place the figure at 2,000 to 2,500. But Filipino historians say that up to 50,000 may have been killed. And as this happened in 1901, this may probably have been the first war crime of the 20th century, an ignominy that, to this day, stains the escutcheon of the US military.

Only 33-34 years or just about a generation separate the Philippine-American war and the Spanish civil war. One is led to wonder … if Hemingway had known about the bells and the pathos of Balangiga, or the involvement of Filipinos in the Spanish civil war, he might have come up with a literary opus more poignant and heart-rending than “For Whom The Bell Tolls”

Two of the Balangiga bells are now displayed at the Trophy Park of the Frances E. Warren Air Force in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the former base of the US 11th Infantry Regiment which garrisoned Balangiga up to October 2001. The third is with the 9th Infantry Regiment in Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu, South Korea.

Members of these two regiments should be told that the bells are not symbols of the heroism of US soldiers but represent the abominable war crimes committed against the people of Balangiga, for which Smith and two other officers, a Major Littleton Waller and a Capt. Edwin Glenn, were court-martialled

For as long as they are not returned to where they belong, the Bells of Balangiga will be tolling incessantly, no matter if only in the metaphysical sense of Hemingway’s novel. Hopefully, this will hound the consciousness of those whose responsibility it is to effect their eventual return.