Friday, September 23, 2016

The Bells of Balangiga

One of the bloodiest battles in the Philippines involving US forces and the Filipinos during the Philippine-American war happened in the small municipality of Balangiga in Samar. Early in the 20th century, General Vicente Lukban was sent to Samar by President Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President of the Philippine Republic. To deal with the insurgents, the Americans sent troops to the municipalities of Balangiga, Basey and Guiwan to control its ports with the aim of preventing foods and other supplies to reach the hinterlands of Samar where Filipino guerillas were hiding. In addition, the occupation of those places could give the Americans the control of the Manila hemp trade which at that time was a commodity needed in the navy and the US cotton industry.   
Charlie Company of the US 9th Infantry Regiment arrived in Balangiga on August 11, 1901. At first the local residents and the soldiers developed friendly relationship. Together, they enjoyed engaging in pastime activities such as drinking tuba, a local palm wine, playing baseball and watching arnis demonstration.                 
When an Army Inspector General was scheduled to visit the company, the commander, Captain Thomas W. Connell required the locals to clean up the surroundings of the town for the planned inspection. However, the communal workers inadvertently cut off vegetation with food value. Reacting to what was happening in the town, General Lukban sent Captain Eugenio Daza, with 400 guerillas to secretly communicate with some of the townspeople to remind and warn them on food security policy violations and on fraternizing with the American troops.  
The amicable relationship between the townspeople and the soldiers made a sudden turn around when Captain Connell confiscated the bolos of 80 local men and the rice that was intended for their families. In addition he detained them in two Sibley tents and left unfed overnight. This incident sparked anger to the townspeople so that they need no agitation from the guerillas to fan their resentment even more.
Amid the brewing situation, Captain Eugenio Daza, a staff of General Lukban, met with Valeriano Abanador, the chief of police of the town, so that they could hatch a plan to attack the Americans with the use of the guerillas that had infiltrated the labor force that cleaned up the town plaza. That force was to be augmented by prisoners who would disguise as members of the work force. The planned visit by a ranking US military officer which coincided with the holding of the town fiesta made a good opportune time to stage an attack. Hours before the attack women and children would stay away from the town, and to mask the absence of women in the church service some of the guerillas would be dressed as women.

In the early morning of September 28, 1901, a group of people bearing coffins was at the town plaza. Private Scharer, a sentry, opened the first coffin with his bayonet, and saw in it a dead child. The bearers said that he died in the cholera epidemic. He then let the procession through, but unknown to him and the other sentries the other coffins contain bolos. The group proceeded to the church as some of the townspeople continued with their cleaning up activity.   
At breakfast time Valeriano Abanador who was supervising the prisoners at the plaza gave a blow to the head of the unwary Pvt Adolph Gamlin and grabbed his rifle. Abanador then gave a shout and fired towards the Sibley tents where the American soldiers were having their breakfast. Then there were peals of church bell followed by sounds of conch shells which were signals for the execution of a simultaneous attack.

As some of Abanador’s men overpowered the sentries posted at the plaza, the others who were armed with bolos made a simultaneous lightning quick attack to the tents of the unwary soldiers where they were eating their breakfast. The guerillas who were hidden in the church also rushed out to join the fight. The men who were detained in the tent broke out and also helped the guerillas. The soldiers who were totally taken by surprise had to use all means and objects to fend off the attack, they had to use kitchen utensils such as fork, steak knives, table and chairs and baseball bat to defend themselves as the guerillas were hacking many of them to death. Although some of them managed to get their rifles and shot some of the attackers, it was too late since the guerillas had almost completely overrun them with the use of bladed weapons.

The result of the battle was a massacre to the American soldiers. Of the 74 men of the Charlie Company 44 were killed, 22 were wounded and 4 were missing and only 4 escaped unscathed. In addition 100 rifles and 25,000 rounds of ammunition were taken from them. Those killed included all of the officers who were Captain Thomas W. Connell, the company commander, First Lt Edward A. Bumpus and a Major Edward A. Griswold. On the side of the guerillas 28 were killed and 22 were wounded. After the battle the guerillas and their conspirators buried their dead and told the townspeople to abandon the town. On the following day, Captain Edwin Victor Bookmiller of “G” company 9th Infantry Regiment stationed in Basey sailed to Balangiga. Shortly after his arrival he buried the dead soldiers and burned the town.

Survivors of the Balangiga Massacre                
When report of the incident reached US President Theodore Roosevelt, he then ordered Major General Adna R. Chaffee, the American military governor of the Philippines to pacify Samar. The latter ordered Brigadier General Jacob Smith to make retaliatory measures against the perpetrators of the attack. In Samar General Smith organized the different military units to carry out the punitive campaign. He primarily tasked Major Littleton Waller, the battalion commander of 315 US marine to go after the attackers. “I want no prisoners. I wish you kill and burn. The more you kill and burn, the more it will please me. The interior of Samar must be made into a howling wilderness”, he said. He also told him to kill males with age 10 years old and above.

The American soldiers went on a rampage in carrying out General Jacob Smith’s orders. They indiscriminately killed people to include their animals such as carabaos and burned their houses. Only the good sense and restraint of some officers in the execution of the general’s order had reduced the possible very high number of casualties on the local populace. Some observers put the range of casualties on the guerillas and the civilians from 2,000 to 2,500. Others put it as high as 50,000 which is obviously an exaggeration.

There was an outrage by the American anti-imperialist groups in the US when they heard the news of the battle and the killings and the destruction of properties that were done by the US troops that followed. In connection with the Samar incidents, US President Theodore Roosevelt through the Secretary of War ordered for an investigation. General Jacob Smith, Major Littleton Waller and Captain Edwin Glenn were subjected to a trial by a court martial for the heavy-handed treatment of Filipinos. Waller was acquitted while Captain Glenn and General Jacob Smith were found guilty by the court. General Smith was reprimanded and forced to retire from the service.

When troops of “G” Company, 9th Infantry Regiment left Balangiga they were replaced by the “K” Company of the 11th Infantry Regiment. And when troops of that unit were relieved there on October 18, 1901, they took with them three of the church’s bells and one 1557 cannon as war booties. These objects were brought by the troops with them when they returned to the United States. Two of the bells are now in museum of 2nd Infantry Division at Francis Warren Air Force Base. The third and the smallest bell is in the possession of the 9th Infantry Regiment at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.

The bells of Balangiga
Filipinos have moved on with that sad and bitter episode of that distant past when the Philippines was held by the United States as one of its unincorporated territories. Both countries now are staunch allies. But the happenings or events that shaped their storied relationship must forever be embedded in their history. The bells of Balangiga are some of the historical relics that symbolize the bravery and aspiration of the Filipinos for freedom and independence.

Philippine government officials since the time of President Fidel Ramos have long asked for the return of the bells to the Philippines. However, US officials said that they are US property and that it requires an act of congress to transfer them to other country. Follow up official letters by the Philippine government and the Catholic Church as well as personal representations have been sent and made to the US Presidents and the US congress to convince them to grant the Philippines’ request. But until now the Philippines is still waiting for the return of the bells that rightfully belong to it.