Nemesio Duran, great grandson of Vicente Candelosas, who tolled the bells during the Balangiga massacre of 1901, kisses one of the bells after the turnover ceremony. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN
Culture Spotlight

The Balangiga Incident: a rare Filipino victory during the Philippine-American War

Everything you need to know about the events that led to the return of the Balangiga bells.
Dr. Rolando O. Borrinaga | Dec 12 2018
Dr. Rolando O. Borrinaga
Professor, School of Health Sciences
University of the Philippines Manila
Palo, Leyte
and
Secretary
National Committee on Historical Research
National Commission for Culture and the Arts

 

On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 28, 1901, hundreds of native fighters mostly armed with bolos, some of them disguised as women church worshippers, staged a successful surprise attack on U.S. troops who were mostly eating or lining up for breakfast in Balangiga, a town on the southern coast of Samar Island.

Described as the “worst single defeat” of the U.S. military during the Philippine-American War, that event became known in history as the “Balangiga Massacre.”

Cross-purposes

The natives plotted to resist forced starvation on a famine season due to the destruction or confiscation of their rice and food stocks, to free about 80 male residents who had been rounded up for forced labor and detained for days in crowded conditions with little food and water, and to fight for honor after having been publicly shamed by these faulty military impositions.

Some soldiers of Company C, 9th U.S. Infantry ("Manchus") Regiment, in Balangiga in August 1901. Arnaldo Dumindin

The U.S. troops belonged to Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, which was stationed in Balangiga to keep its small port closed and prevent any trading. Their mission was to deprive the Filipino revolutionary forces of supplies during the Philippine-American War, which had spread to the Visayas.

A glamor unit, Company C guarded the captured Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo following their return to the Philippines in June 1901, after fighting rebels and helping capture Peking during the Boxer Rebellion in China. They also performed as honor guard during the historic July 4, 1901 inauguration of the American civil government in the Philippines and the installation as first civil governor of William Howard Taft, later president of the U.S.

Company C, commanded by Capt. Thomas W. Connell, a West Point graduate, arrived in Balangiga a few weeks later on Aug. 11.

The attackers

The attacking force, commanded by Valeriano Abanador, the local chief of police, was composed of around 500 men in seven different units. They represented virtually all families of Balangiga, whose outlying villages then included the present towns of Lawaan and Giporlos, and of Quinapundan, a town served by the priest in Balangiga.

Only two of the eight main plotters were identified as revolutionary officers under the command of Brig. Gen. Vicente Lukban, the politico-military governor of Samar appointed by Pres. Aguinaldo. They were Capt. Eugenio Daza, a former teacher who became Lukban's area officer for tax collection and food security in southeastern Samar, and Pedro Duran, Sr., a Balangigan sergeant under Daza.

Valeriano Abandador, the Filipino leader of Balangiga Incident. Photo courtesy of Rolando Borringa

Contrary to the century-old attribution that Daza masterminded the attack, the essentially all-Balangigan plot appeared to be the handiwork of Abanador, a Letran dropout who played chess opposite Company C's surgeon, Maj. Richard Sill Griswold, and a tournament caliber arnis (stick fighting) master.

 

The attack

Abanador’s deft move to neutralize the moving armed guard, Pvt. Adolph Gamlin, by grabbing his gun from behind and hitting him unconscious with its butt on the head, served as the cue for the communal laborers positioned in and around the town plaza to make the rush at the two other stationary armed guards and the unarmed men of Company C.

Abanador then picked up his rattan cane, waved it above his head, and yelled: “Atake, mga Balangigan-on! (Attack, men of Balangiga!)

A church bell was rung seconds later, to announce that the attack had begun.

rig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith's infamous order "KILL EVERYONE OVER TEN" was the caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. Arnaldo Dumindin

Fierce fighting ensued, resulting in one of the biggest number of American casualties in a single encounter.

Of the 74 men of Company C, 36 were killed during the attack (including all commissioned officers), eight of the wounded died later during the escape by bancas to Basey town, and four were missing and presumed dead, for a total of 48 American dead from that encounter.

Of the 26 survivors, only four were not wounded.

The natives suffered 28 deaths and 22 wounded.

 

“Howling wilderness”

U.S. military authorities retaliated with a "kill and burn" policy to take back Samar, deliberately equating a victorious small town with an entire island, from October 1901 to March 1902.

Implemented by the Sixth Separate Brigade under Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Smith of the US Army, which included a battalion of US Marines under Maj. Littleton T. W. Waller, the campaign was blamed for the deaths of at least 2,500 people in Samar.

Arnaldo Dumindin

The general reportedly gave orders to kill anybody capable of bearing arms (specifically, 10 years old and above) during the combat operations to reduce Samar into a “howling wilderness.”

Aside from the population loss, the Samar Campaign resulted in massive devastation of the rural economic base in terms of hundreds of burned houses, destroyed native boats, and slaughtered draft carabaos. U.S. troops likewise burned confiscated rice and food stocks and market-ready abaca (hemp) fibers, the principal source of local cash income.

General Smith was eventually made the scapegoat for the shameful policy on Samar. He was forced to retire from the US Army following a court martial.

 

The Bells of Balangiga

The three church bells of Balangiga were taken days after the attack by members of the 11th U.S. Infantry, another Army unit that occupied the abandoned town. These “war trophies” were shipped out of the Leyte-Samar region from the headquarters of the 11th Infantry at the former Camp Bumpus, now the Leyte Park Resort in Tacloban City.

The camp was named after Lt. Edward A. Bumpus, Harvard graduate and second in command of Company C, who was also killed in Balangiga.

Arnaldo Dumindin

The smallest bell was turned over to the 9th US Infantry in Calbayog, Samar. This bell became part of the traveling museum of the 9th US Infantry, now stationed in Korea.

The two bigger bells were brought to the US by returning 11th Infantry soldiers to their home station at the former Fort D.A. Russell, now the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Both were displayed at its Trophy Park.

The return of the bells to the Philippines became a last issue of contention between the U.S. and Philippine governments related to the Philippine-American War.

 

Unique incident

The Balangiga Incident in 1901 was unique in that it involved a rare Filipino victory during the Philippine-American War, the ringing of a church bell or bells during the attack, and the taking of these bells as documented war booty from that war.

Used as we are to commemorating war-time defeats like the Fall of Bataan and the Fall of Corregidor in 1942 and the Fall of Tirad Pass in 1899, the Filipino victory in Balangiga in 1901 sticks out like a sore thumb. Indeed, its annual commemoration since the Balangiga Encounter Day every September 28 was legislated in 1989 carries an apologetic tone.

The heroism of attack leader Valeriano Abanador is highlighted during the ceremonies, but the deaths and sacrifices displayed by both the American and Filipino protagonists during that conflict are equally acknowledged and mourned.

Of course, there was always the call for the return of the bells of Balangiga.

 

The quest for the bells

The call for the return of the Balangiga bells became sensational and political in 1997 and 1998. Despite the offer of then U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton, then Pres. Fidel Ramos tried and failed to have the two bells in Wyoming returned in time for the Centennial of the Declaration of Philippine Independence in 1998.

A critical mass of Wyoming veterans refused to part with the bells, alleging that the Filipinos might use these bells to denigrate or disrespect the memory and sacrifices of the U.S. soldiers who died or were injured during the massacre at Balangiga in 1901.

The Wyoming delegation in the U.S. Congress (two senators and one congressperson) filed a bill prohibiting the transfer of veterans memorial objects without specific authorization in law. This provision in the United States Code was the major obstacle to returning the bells over the past 20 years, despite three other (failed) campaign cycles since the turn of the millennium.

 

Successful campaign

Building up on the lessons and insights from the previous failed attempts, the latest campaign involved intensive veterans-to-veterans efforts to educate and disseminate new information and research findings in the context of soliciting support for the return of the bells of Balangiga.

Veterans across the U.S. were invited and encouraged to write to their senators and congressional representatives to support a legislation for the return of these bells.

Click on the image below for slideshow

The Balangiga Bells are lowered onto a red-carpeted platform at Villamor Air Base. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Members of the Philippine Armed Forces and the clergy take pictures beside the Balangiga Bells. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Members of the Philippine Air Force pry open the crate carrying the Balangiga Bells. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Members of the Air Force use a crane to position the Balangiga Bells at Villamore Air Base. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Members of the Air Force use a crane to lower the Balangiga Bells. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

All three Balangiga Bells are positioned on a red-carpeted platform at the tarmac. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Members of the Air Force use a crane to position the Balangiga Bells. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

One of the three Balangiga Bells stands on the tarmac of Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, on Tuesday, upon their return to the country after more than a century in American possession. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

One of the three Balangiga Bells stands on the tarmac of Villamor Air Base in Pasay City, on Tuesday, upon their return to the country after more than a century in American possession. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Apart from U.S. veterans groups and organizations, the U.S.-Philippines Society was also involved during the lobbying process. A law firm, Squire Patton Boggs, also provided pro bono support for the campaign, a first new addition to this quest.

Another first were the letters from the Balangiga parish priest to the commanders of the U.S. military bases in Wyoming and Korea, seeking the return of the Balangiga bells in those places.

This time, the support of the U.S. Senate was also solicited for the bells campaign.

The result was a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2018, since last December 2017, which allowed the transfer of the Bells of Balangiga to the Philippines and to the church where they belong, subject to some conditions.

On August 10, 2018 (Philippine date), the town fiesta of Balangiga, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis notified Congress about his intention to return the Bells of Balangiga as provided for in the FY2018 NDAA. The rest is history.