Former U.S. Navy Capt. Dennis Wright with retired Rear Admiral Dan McKinnon pose in front of the Bells of Balangiga at the F.E. Warren Air Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photos courtesy of Dennis Wright
The Bells of Balangiga (aka the Bells of San Lorenzo de Martir) on display at the F.E. Warren Air Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photos courtesy of Dennis Wright
The San Pedro Bell on display at the United States Military Academy at West Point before it was returned to the Philippines in 2016. Photos courtesy of Dennis Wright
The San Pedro Bell finally home at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union. Photos courtesy of Dennis Wright
ANGELES CITY - US war veterans are working quietly to return church bells taken by American soldiers from a Philippine town over a century ago, believing it is the "right thing to do."
President Rodrigo Duterte, in his annual address to Congress last week, demanded the return of the Balangiga bells, which American soldiers took as war spoils after killing thousands in a Samar town of the same name in 1901.
Among those working to return the church bells, retired Air Force pilot Spike Nasmyth, sought the help of Republican Sen. John McCain, on July 25, the day after Duterte's State of the Nation Address.
"I ask for your personal support, as one POW (prisoner of war) to another, to help make it right. It is time for the bells to go home," Nasmyth said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by ABS-CBN News.
Returning the bells would be the "honorable and right thing to do" and would "go a long way in helping re-balance the recent Philippine rhetorical attacks on the US," Nasmyth said.
Like McCain, a decorated soldier and one of the most respected members of the US Senate, Nasmyth was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, spending 2,360 days in captivity.
With Ambassador Sung Kim in attendance for his SONA, Duterte demanded the bells back, recalling US atrocities during the Filipino-American War in the early 20th century.
Two of the bells are on display at an Air Force base in Cheyenne, Wyoming while the third one is with the US Army stationed in South Korea.
Duterte's outburst "did help raise awareness" on the Bells of San Lorenzo de Martir, said Dennis Wright, a retired US Navy captain who has been working with fellow veterans to recover the bells for 4 years.
Jose Cuisia Jr., Manila's former envoy to Washington, warned Duterte's attacks might not "result in a more favorable treatment of that request."
Wright said efforts would continue "notwithstanding what the President wants or doesn't want."
"I know this administration has been very highly critical of the US and that's regrettable," he told ABS-CBN News in his Angeles City villa.
"During times of war, bad things happen... but to go back and denigrate the entire contributions of the United States, I think, is wrong," he said, noting that a "very strong friendship has evolved" out of the Filipino-American War.
Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to the Philippines, said returning the bells would be "widely and positively received by the Philippine government and Philippine public opinion."
He cited the need to address "our currently difficult ties to the new Duterte administration" in a June 16, 2017 letter to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
"It is especially important that we address this mark on US-Philippine relations as our two countries work to defeat ISIS in Mindanao," he wrote.
Veterans, led in the Phillippines by the Angeles City-based Wright, are gathering support from US congressmen to remove what can be construed as a legislative barrier to returning the bells to the church in Balangiga.
Nasmyth said a "small but influential minority of veterans" in Cheyenne had successfully lobbied to insert a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that prevents the return of "war memorial objects" to "a foreign government or entity controlled by a foreign government."
But the bells should not fall under this category because they are in fact "church property," said Wright, who was wary that Wyoming veterans would again insist on the "language" in the defense act even after it expires in September this year.
In this case, he said his group would push for a portion in the law stating that the bells were "private property belonging to the Catholic Church and must be returned to the Philippines."
Wisner said American troops made "a profound error" when they brought the bells with them.
He said the bells were not used to signal a surprise attack on the Americans in Balangiga, and were shipped to the US from a "scrap yard."
In a letter, Wright urged fellow veterans to lobby for the return of the bells, saying Cheyenne "has no connection to the encounter in Balangiga nor were there any Wyoming veterans in the two units involved" in the encounter.
"Unfortunately, the rationale they use is based misinformation and misunderstanding of the facts surrounding the taking of the bells and the encounter that preceded it--in much the same way fake news distracts people from making informed decisions today," said Wright, who has done extensive research on the issue.
Wright earlier tapped fellow veterans to recover a similar bell from the US Military Academy at West Point.
Taken from the Philippines in 1901, the San Pedro Bell was returned to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union last year.
Nasmyth cited cases when the US had also returned bells to Japan and Russia.
"If we can return bells to enemies we fought in World War II, we surely can forgive and reconcile with Filipinos who we fought with over 115 years ago," he said, rejecting the idea that church bells "memorialize the sacrifices of our troops."
"It is important that we veterans, especially those of us who witnessed the evils of war up close and personal, stand up and be counted to do the right thing."